Radio is seemingly at its best when we’re “real” and drop any pretense of trying to be cool and funny. The great stations, the truly legendary stations are the ones that will drop everything when some big, important and impactful occurs in their community.
So, when the whole world is watching your market because of an unfolding news story, what will you do? Newcap in Moncton had that dilemma when a mad man on a shooting rampage held the city hostage for a day. This week’s blog is guest post written by Adam McLaren from Newcap.
We knew we had a great team of people working for our radio stations, and everyone proved it as our city went through a tough & scary crisis. It was a beautiful late summer evening in Moncton, and the station was empty. Reports on Facebook started to surface about an RCMP officer being shot in the North end, quickly followed by reports of two additional shootings. This was serious. Just as I learned about the stories, I received a call from news director Mike who confirmed this was true. Mike was heading into the station to do live updates, and I was following in to op the reports. By the time we arrived at the station, the RCMP had officially stated that a manhunt was under way, and Mike had sent Cathy from the news room to the scene to do reports from the center of the action.
Information at that point was coming in rapidly. Between official press releases and updates on the RCMP social media channels, we had plenty of content to go to air with. Every time we received a new piece of information, we went to air IMMEDIATELY. And yes, that meant fading out song. When your city is having a manhunt because 3 local officers were shot in the line of duty, you get the info to air ASAP because that’s all your listeners want at that time, yes, even MORE than hearing a Green Day tune again. Syndicated programming was pulled; any songs that could be deemed inappropriate were GONE.
We had 2 additional staff show up who weren’t even asked to show up, but they were a huge help. At this point, we didn’t realize exactly how big this would be. But now we had a reporter on the scene, a newsman here, one guy watching TV coverage, another with a giant map of the city following the chase, and myself on social media / oping. Every 10 minutes on both stations, we were trying to go to air with updates. It was slick teamwork at its finest!
Soon, we had a suspect name, as well as potential areas that the suspect may have fled to. People were literally on lockdown at their places of work in those areas, with only a radio to keep them connected to the outside world, and they chose our stations.
After a couple of hours, RCMP focused their search on a particular area, allowing those in the previous lockdown zone to leave their workplaces and go home. I thought we were close to catching the suspect, and sent out an email to the morning talent to instruct them on how to handle the next day: talk to people, hear their stories, pull contests, talk all you want, pull sponsorship live reads & promos, etc. I adjusted each website to be stripped versions of their usual selves. Instead of contest links, we had RCMP Twitter feed embedded, with support info from Red Cross, for people who couldn’t go home, etc. We had all assumed this would be over by morning. At 2am, I left to grab a few hours of sleep. It’s the only night I’ve ever fallen asleep to the sound of helicopters filling the sky. I took a moment to reflect how lucky I am to have that sound as the exception to the rule, rather than living in an area of the world where this is a common occurrence.
Thursday morning at 6am, I woke up to find out I lived in a “Lockdown Zone”. The RCMP had designated a large triangle shape of the city as the area where they would be concentrating their efforts. This was NOT over like we all had expected it to be by this point. The morning shows stayed on air until 1pm, our GM did a food run, then afternoon drive announcers went live until 7pm, and midday hosts pulled evenings til 1am, with part timers covering overnights. This was an extremely tough day, because of the lack of new information. The RCMP believed that the suspect was following them on social media, and had stopped giving public updates. That was bad for us.
This was a TOUGH day to get through. We tried working the phones, reaching out to ask how people are explaining this to their children, etc. Very little response. All anyone wanted was INFO. They wanted to know when this nightmare was over, and they could return home, to work, and all the aspects of Moncton life that nobody ever assumed would be taken from us for a few days. We kept news updates going every half hour from our news department. I spent the day going through music looking for songs that would be inappropriate, stripping character imaging, pulling promos, and creating new imaging for once this event was done. I reached out to our Charlottetown crew who were extremely helpful in assisting with writing our new “Moncton Strong” imaging, since that’s the route social media had taken. The community was bonding together in a way like never before. We didn’t know WHEN the RCMP would capture the suspect, but we knew this city would feel like new once it happened, and therefore, so should the sound of the station.
Thursday was the longest day ever. I did the evening shift on the Country station after being at the stations for 12 hours already, and the midday guy from the rock station covered the evening shift there. That shift truly showed me the power of radio, and the “community” that your listeners create for your station. I talked with a lady named Charlene for 17 minutes on the phone because she needed someone to talk to. Police were searching around her backyard, and she was home alone with her 3 children who were sleeping in the basement. I assured her that she wasn’t in danger since it was the RCMP around her house, and that I would stay on the phone with her as long as she needed me to. Typical radio phone use involves contests, prize giveaways, but not this night. It was about getting people through the scariest moments in their lives. It’s impossible to forget the fear & panic in Charlene’s voice, but also impossible to forget how powerful it is that she called our station for reassurance. She felt close & connected with this station, and when she was in need of emotional support, our “contest line” was the first way she thought to get that. Where we hadn’t received much new info during that Thursday, it would have been easy to record a few updates, and play the recorded messages throughout the night. Had we taken that cheap approach, we wouldn’t have been there for the people who needed us most. I later met Charlene, and she introduced herself with a big hug thanking me for being there in her time of need.
Friday at 1am, I headed home leaving things in the capable hands of our overnight host. After an exhausting 19 hours, I laid my head on my pillow, and seconds later heard my phone vibrate. My energy level suggested pretending I didn’t hear that, but knowing what the city was going through, I had to check my phone. It was Tony, the country morning guy telling me we had rumors of a capture. These were all second hand rumors from people who heard the info on the online scanner. So, out of bed, called the news team, and back to work.
To my surprise, I was greeted in the parking lot by Tony who I had been talking with minutes earlier. Even though his shift was going to be 5a-11a during our adjusted schedule, he “didn’t want to miss a moment of the action” and started his shift at 1:45am. We found another source that credibly reported the capture, and went to air with the great news. You typically think of your overnights as having a low listener base, but this was an overnight show like no other. It was EXCITING. We completely shifted vibes. On the country station, we played songs like “DONE” from The Band Perry, and then the calls flooded in. We celebrated on the rock station too, and both stations went to air with “Moncton Spirit” imaging that had been prepared for this moment. It’s safe to say that everyone in the building had a few tears hearing that imaging go to air, being so thankful that our city could begin to return to whatever our new normal would be.
At 3:30am, I needed some sleep. I figured the country morning guy would have left slightly earlier, but nope, he was still just as energetic at 8am as he was at 1:45am when he first arrived. It was amazing to see the team work of the station, the passion of the news team, and the understanding of our listeners during this whole thing. It was truly a team effort.
The suspect had been caught, but the feeling wasn’t “normal” although it was positive. Roads were open, businesses were operating as normal, but our stations still remained stripped. Cold IDs, and Moncton spirit IDs only. It stayed that way throughout the weekend, with weekend specialty programming pulled too.
Sunday morning, I visited 3 charity walks to better understand the “vibe” of the city, and it didn’t take long to be overwhelmed by the incredible spirit of Moncton residents. Everyone had a story. Without telling people where I worked, I tried to join in as many conversations as possible about the events. I was blown away by how many stories included our radio stations, and specifically the feeling of getting up to date information immediately when we faded songs. I couldn’t believe what listeners had picked up on, but out of every 5 stories, 4 involved hearing the news break on our stations SPECIFICALLY. I couldn’t believe it!
Tuesday was the RCMP funeral, which both stations aired in its entirety. 3 hours, commercial free obviously, dedicated to remembering the lives of our fallen officers. We were the only stations in the market to provide this resource, with the added ability to stream it HD from our website. We needed to pay the CBC a hefty fee for those rights and acquire a stream from Montreal even though the event was less than a kilometer away, but price didn’t matter when it came to completing the story so many residents were affected by. One oversight was the time the time we announced the funeral would start. Our info said 1pm, so we planned to air it at 1pm, but the first 45 minutes were entrance ceremonies with no audio portion, so we were filling time with appropriate songs and updating listeners on the status of our upcoming live broadcast.
At the end of the funeral, I put a message on both station Facebook pages thanking the listeners for sticking with the radio stations through this tough time, and explained that like them, we weren’t prepared to deal with this situation, but thanks to their kind outreaching of support through messages, we were able to get through it together. The response to that message was incredible. The comments really proved what we meant to the market. It wasn’t about “beating the competition” but knowing you did a great job serving your market & listening audience.
After the funeral, aspects started to return to normal slowly. All imaging & promos were carefully looked at to make sure nothing inappropriate went to air – actually, not even inappropriate, but anything that didn’t fit the new vibe of our city. Our websites remained stripped containing only donation information. After another week, websites returned to normal.
It was a horrible experience for the city, something I wish we didn’t have to experience. But seeing how the news team jumped into action, the staff handled the situation, the support from our listeners, made me see radio in a new way. This isn’t a medium for entertainment news & contest giveaways exclusively. Our stations are a responsibility to the market we serve. The radio stations that DIDN’T jump into action looked stupid. There wasn’t really a market to approach this situation as the “anti-coverage” station. It was just too big, and the only thing on the mind of a Moncton resident.
The other important lesson I learned is RESPECT YOUR NEWS TEAM. These days, a news team of 3 people is a huge team, but they did the work of 6-7 people. From covering the story, running to the scene of any action for soundbites & pictures, taking off to press conferences at all hours of the night, to even answering the calls of the hundreds of other worldwide media outlets including the BBC who wanted a local perspective, these people were the core of our coverage. To be honest, I didn’t know the full extent of how the news department worked, but one thing was clear very early in the crisis: give these people anything they want, and make sure they’re OK, because they are kicking ass.
Three weeks later, the city has settled into our new normal. Moncton is a tighter city, a closer community. Police still don’t pay for coffee. In fact, Starbucks has customers still purchasing $50 gift cards and leaving them at the cash to cover any first responder’s beverage. You can’t look at radio the same way after covering an event like that. We now have “phone lines” instead of “contest lines”. As a radio station, we have a new level of appreciation for both what we do, and our listening audience.
Solid Gentleman / Program Director Newcap Radio – XL Country 96.9 & C103 Moncton’s Rock Station