Sadly, it's in times of tragedy that live and local radio most often reinforces its value as a provider of information and comfort.
Following yesterday's (April 15) tragic explosions during the 117th running of the Boston Marathon, which has resulted in three deaths and more than 150 injured, many severely, local stations focused their coverage on serving listeners with the most up-to-date details, as well as a virtual place of gathering to share the overwhelming sadness prevalent throughout the region.
While CBS Radio-owned news/talk WBZ-AM (1030) unsurprisingly provided continuous updates, as did Entercom's talk signal WRKO (680 AM), multiple stations in their respective clusters aired simulcasts of them. Entercom sports station WEEI (93.7 FM) yesterday mixed a stream of callers with feeds from sister WRKO's longtime afternoon personality Howie Carr.
By yesterday evening, when the immediate impact of the news had given way to deeper reflection, one caller simply thanked WBZ for being there to discuss how Patriots' Day, an annual Massachusetts-only holiday known for the Marathon, 11 a.m. Red Sox games at Fenway Park and a day off from work and school, had turned so solemn.
Music stations, however, faced providing a greater break from their normal flow of songs and generally fun, upbeat presentations.
For the worst possible reasons, radio once again stepped up its public service responsibilities.
'Open Up the Phone Lines and Let People Grieve'
CBS Radio adult top 40 WBMX (Mix 104.1) was one of the first FM music stations to report the explosions, according to APD/MD Mike Mullaney. "Within 15 minutes we had switched to a simulcast of WBZ-AM, which we carried through midnight."
"The Mix morning team of Karson, Kennedy & Salt brought a variety of perspectives when they took to the air at 5:45 this morning," Mullaney says. "Kennedy was actually running the race when it was stopped and she related that experience. Salt was celebrating his first-ever Marathon Day in Boston and went from jubilation to a stunned sense of sorrow. Karson was at the finish line 15 minutes prior to the explosions.
"This morning, they spoke to runners and WBZ-TV reporters who were at the site of the explosions for firsthand insight. They also talked to a child psychologist about how to talk to our kids about this type of tragedy," Mullaney recounts. "At 9 a.m., Karen Blake remained talking to people in between the music. We're also airing musical tributes to the many heroes involved. And, each hour, we're carrying a 60-second update from the WBZ news team."
A native Bostonian, Mullaney senses the depth of sadness that listeners are feeling. As it's essentially a New Englander's rite of passage to line the Marathon route and cheer on runners of all talent levels, proud to say that they're running the Boston Marathon, a normally joyous day has suddenly, shockingly taken on new meaning. "We've been treating this huge story with passion, understanding and by offering stories of survivors and heroes," Mullaney says.
"We're getting the reaction and feelings of listeners and reflecting our city with their voices and perspectives."
Sister CBS mainstream top 40 WODS (103.3 Amp Radio) likewise simulcast WBZ-AM until midnight (as did all stations in the cluster).
WODS morning duo TJ and Loren "were great today," says PD Dan Mason. "Although they're new to Boston, you wouldn't have been able to tell. Their prior experience on the Elvis Duran Morning Show [which originates from Clear Channel-owned WHTZ (Z100) in New York] during events like Superstorm Sandy and the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn., really shined through as they opened up the phone lines and let people grieve. They really handled it beautifully.
"There still is more information that we don't know than there is information we do know," Mason says. "So, we're running hourly news updates today and playing things by ear as the situation warrants."
One of the issues that music stations face following tragic communal events is being cautious that no songs air that could be considered insensitive.
"We're carefully monitoring the songs we play, so as not to play sad songs, songs about death or those with inappropriate lyrics, like Carrie Underwood's 'Blown Away'," says Ginny Rogers, MD of Greater Media's WKLB (Country 102.5).
Like other stations in the market, WKLB combined music with the information most important to listeners in Boston and in surrounding suburbs, many of whom were worried about friends or relatives who were at the Marathon. "Yesterday, we were breaking into the music every 10 minutes or so, repeating whatever information we had: street closures, hospital issues, injuries, college lockdowns, cancellations, etc.," Rogers says. "We asked our morning co-host Lori Grande to come in and provide news in the afternoon to bring more credibility to our information.
"We ceased all contesting and watched what songs we played. The main issue was giving information and trying to calm people. "
Today, Rogers says, WKLB has continued its in-depth news coverage while transitioning to "on-air personalities talking more about heroic stories and any new information. In the 'On-Demand Lunch Hour' with Carolyn Kruse, we let listeners set the tone as they expressed their feelings with on-air requests.
"Many were feeling patriotic emotions and asked for Toby Keith's 'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.' Others turned to Big & Rich's 'That’s Why I Pray' and, of course, Lee Greenwood's 'God Bless the USA,' Rogers says. "Kruse and the station received Tweets back from Greenwood, while Rich offered healing thoughts and patriotic messages.
"In fact, we've heard from many country artists via Twitter, texts and calls. We're grateful for their compassion."
Social Media Expands Radio's Reach
Even Entercom's active rock WAAF has toned down its trademark macho edge in the aftermath of yesterday. "We've altered the format in three ways," PD Ron Valeri says. "Along with more talk breaks and resting questionable songs, we're taking requests and airing listener dedications."
As with WBMX's morning show, "a number of WAAF staff was at the finish line area yesterday. Thankfully, nobody was harmed," Valeri says. "Some were eyewitnesses and provided reports not only on WAAF, but also on many other stations across the country yesterday and today."
Valeri says that WAAF has been continuing its news coverage today, while veteran morning man Greg Hill provided extensive updates and interviews with local politicians and reporters, among others. "We offered a forum to listeners to share their thoughts and their sadness for victims and convey praise and thanks to the many heroes among us. That listener-driven approach will continue until further notice. Our main goal for the time being is to disseminate correct facts and helpful information. We're airing all press conferences from the FBI, police, Governor Patrick, President Obama, etc."
In addition to content from on-air personalities and listeners, WAAF is also incorporating what Valeri bills "in the moment" imaging elements. "Various sweepers and 'audio cards' are rotating, saluting heroes. Other imaging provides key phone numbers, messages from the authorities and other public service information."
WAAF also began using its social media channels immediately after the explosions as another platform for public service. "Our Twitter feed and Facebook fan page have been invaluable for updates and two-way dialog with our audience," Valeri says. "Our website is also highlighting helpful information and is being updated regularly."
Ultimately, radio is helping all affected deal with yesterday's horrific events. In moments when Valeri, and so many others, have a moment to pause, however, reality sets in that it can only do so much. "We've gotten calls about the Richard family from Dorchester. The dad was running the race while his wife, son and daughter waited at the finish line. Their eight-year-old boy was killed. His sister lost her leg. The mom is still in the hospital.
"It's so heartbreaking. How do they heal?"