Following the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Friday (Dec. 14), radio is doing what it traditionally does best in the wake of such tragedy: providing listeners a forum to express their emotions and tempering its sound and playlists accordingly.
"Sandy Hook is 11 miles down the road from us," adult pop WDAQ Danbury, Conn., program director/morning host Rich Minor says. The school's proximity, he says, has made it a natural partner when the station has conducted community-based promotions.
Minor says, however, that the events of Friday hit especially hard, considering that WDAQ was amid a fundraising partnership for the holidays. "I was actually supposed to go to the school tomorrow at 11:30. It's on my calendar," he says.
"We've been doing a promotion called 'Bags and Bears' with the Danbury Dept. of Children and Families and other contributing organizations. The idea is to collect not only teddy bears, but also nice bags to put them in, as many foster children carry their toys in, sadly, garbage bags.
"So, for a second year, the school has been soliciting donations as part of our promotion, especially Sandy Hook teacher Carol Wexler, who volunteers with the DCF," Minor says. "The school's participation this year has resulted in 3,500 donations, just an unreal outpouring. I was going to collect them tomorrow ..."
That collection is now on-hold, with the school closed, but Minor says that one image from Friday has resonated with him especially strongly. "I saw one girl on the news, who looked like she was being escorted out of the school by her mom. She was holding a teddy bear. And, I thought, 'How many kids take stuffed animals to school anymore?' Then it hit me: maybe this was a bear that a young boy or girl had brought to donate to a less privileged child to offer them comfort.
"Now, it was offering this girl comfort."
On-air, WDAQ has radically changed its presentation since Friday, airing calls from listeners and adjusting its music as needed.
"We're letting people grieve," Minor says. "It's just me in mornings and Nate Mumford in afternoons during the week, so, on Friday, we were just trying to get information out. Since then, we're airing more calls. We've suspended all uptempo music beds under our talk breaks, as well as giveaways and gossip for now."
The station has also aired songs since Friday that are normally far beyond the scope of an adult pop station that lives by a code of hipness. What's hip, says Minor, is what hits home at a given time. "We're playing a song called 'Aftermath' by Lifehouse with clips from President Obama's speech In Connecticut Sunday night. We're also airing a special cover of White Lion's [1989 Billboard Hot 100 No. 3 ballad] 'When the Children Cry,' also with sound bites."
Appropriate soft AC songs are even in the mix on WDAQ now. "We've played Eric Clapton's 'Tears in Heaven,' Bette Midler's 'Wind Beneath My Wings' and Whitney Houston's 'Greatest Love of All'," Minor says. "I even played a request for USA for Africa's 'We Are the World.' A listener - male by the way - called during it to give me props for playing it, saying how poignant it seems right now."
Beyond specialty songs that WDAQ is playing, Minor adds that he's being careful about what not to play in the wake of the tragedy.
Along with many other stations, WDAQ sees how Ke$ha's "Die Young" could be construed as insensitive at the moment. "We've been playing it before Friday but not since and I think we're now done with it. Even though it's a fun pop/dance record about seizing the moment, all people are going to hear right now is those two words in the title," he says.
Adhering to an old PD axiom, "You're never hurt by what you don't play, " he says.
It's a bit hard to gauge how the song is trending nationally due specifically to the events of Friday because it was already beginning its airplay descent. "Young" Is down from No. 1 to 2 on the Pop Songs chart this week (which measures airplay during the Dec. 10-16 Nielsen BDS tracking week), down 11% in plays. But, the drop seems in line with its natural chart arc. And it is still No. 2, after all, with approximately 13,000 plays at pop radio in that span.
In the Northeast, though, where airplay for 'Young' is now noticeably lower than in other regions (just one station in the Northeast is among the 25 that played it the most yesterday, according to BDS), it seems that stations are being careful about such lyrics. Minor is just one PD contacted by Billboard who said that Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks," a No. 3 Hot 100 last year, is now taboo. No surprise, given its lyric, "All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / You better run, better run, outrun my gun … better run faster than my bullet."
In a brief lighter turn, Minor says that PDs may not want to overthink every lyric. "One of our staffers asked about Taylor Swift's new single, 'I Knew You Were Trouble.' As in, is the line, 'I knew you were trouble when you walked in,' potentially insensitive? I said I don't think so. I don't want to get too literal.
"It's like when you break up with someone. It can seem like every lyric you hear is about you."
Throughout the New England region, other stations are likewise paying closer attention to lyrics and remembering the victims of Friday's horrific massacre.
"We backed off 'Die Young' initially, as well as David Guetta's 'Titanium,' with its 'bulletproof' line," says Pop Songs reporter WODS (103.3 Amp Radio) Boston PD Dan Mason. "They are back in their regular rotations as of today. So far, no negative calls or texts from listeners about it."
"Acknowledging the tragedy was tough with only one live jock on the air [since the station's June flip from oldies], but we ran recorded elements yesterday into every stopset," Mason adds. "They acknowledged that the media is guilty of talking more about the killer than the victims in these situations and that we would periodically stop the music throughout the day to remember each of the 26 victims of the shooting. [New afternoon host and music director Joe] Breezy would read two to three names per break, sometimes with an anecdote or touching fact about the victim that we found online.
"Last night at 6:45, he said a few words from the heart, we aired a moment of silence and then played a tribute version of Frank Ocean's 'Thinkin Bout You.' At the same time, we released 26 white balloons attached to mini-lights over the Boston skies."
In all, radio is doing what it's seemingly meant to in such tragic times: providing information, and perhaps most key, comfort to listeners. "Our first concern is to serve listeners with responsible programming that is reflective of their needs," Steve Salhany, Adult Pop Songs panelist WTIC Hartford, Conn., PD says. "Day-by-day, hour-by-hour, we're doing what seems appropriate."
In a time of such sadness, Minor says, one of radio's greatest strengths - localism - shines through in its importance.
"I had a weekend air talent come in on Saturday. I reached out to give him a fist-pump and he gave me a big hug and we got choked up.
"I think we're giving the listeners what they want."