BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last Saturday morning, the shuttle Columbia was destroyed, but if you were listening to one of a thousand automated stations programmed with a variety of formats, you might never have known.
ROGER WIGGS: "I called both my brother-in-law and sister and told them about the shuttle, they hadn't heard about it yet."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: "Were they listening to the radio?"
ROGER WIGGS: "Yeah, they were listening to a country station."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For Roger Wiggs, a former radio anchor and program director turned ad consultant who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, that call capped a morning of frustration. He woke up last Saturday to his usual station, WRAL-FM, owned by Capital Broadcasting, playing what's called a hot adult contemporary format.
ROGER WIGGS: "I get out of the shower and the young lady comes on after one of their three in a row and says stay tuned and we'll be telling you more about the shuttle disaster shortly, well that piqued my interest, I turned the radio up after two or three more songs stay with us, we'll have more on that terrible shuttle disaster shortly. This is ridiculous…so then I started punching around the dial."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As he punched through Raleigh/Durham's top ten radio stations, he found soft rock, hip-hop, 'best of' shows, almost none of it live or local. The market's only news talk station, WPTF-AM, had the story. But Wiggs ended up tethered to his cable TV for the news. He emailed his disappointment to a chat room for radio professionals called Nettalk. At radio stations everywhere, he lamented, "the computers were 'playing hits all the time' as the nation mourned the loss of the Columbia. It would have worked out better for millions of Americans if we could have followed this important story live on radio."
ROGER WIGGS: "They are all run by computers now, and the shows are all voice tracked or off the bird the satellite… nobody is in the building."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Increasingly stations are programmed with syndicated shows taken straight off the satellite. Others are voice-tracked - that is, an announcer either in the station or far away, announces the times as slated for airplay, plugs in the local weather, sets up the songs, and it sounds live. The illusion works wonders on an ordinary day. Of course, some days are not ordinary.
BOBBY RIVERS: "War does not necessarily happen Monday thru Friday 9-5."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bobby Rivers writes a news letter called the "Rivers Radio Report" for some 15-hundred clients in the radio business. I asked him what the general feeling was in commercial Radioland after the shuttle disaster.
BOBBY RIVERS: "The oldsters as I call some of us were ashamed, I heard that quote several times, "I am ashamed to be in radio. You have to serve the community that is one of the dictates of the federal communications, however today, there are lobbyists who are lobbying for mega-ownership and this mega ownership results in sometimes the inability to serve the community as it should be."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But automation was part of the radio biz long before the media giants roamed the earth, especially for the small mom-and-pop operations who couldn't afford a full-time staff.
JACK TADDEO: "Automation goes back to the 60s when radio station owners would lock the door and walk away and leave the great big reel-to-reel tapes playing…"
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Taddeo has been a programming executive for two radio conglomerates, Capstar and Clear Channel. Now he owns a mom-and-pop country station in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. In his market there are a dozen stations, generally not owned by the giants. Only two of them covered the shuttle story in the first half hour after it broke, the news-talk AM station, and his. He wasn't shocked.
JACK TADDEO: A few months ago you may recall there was an huge pile up on I-43 in Sheboygan, you know we made the news, Sheboygan was on CNN and NPR and everywhere because there was there was a huge pile-up in the fog and several people died……and on that morning there was a full service press operation set up and the only two stations there were the full-service news station and ours.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Although Taddeo insists the problem is old, he concedes that it's been growing along with the media companies. Case in point: Minot, North Dakota, where all six commercial stations are owned by Clear Channel. On January 18th, 2002, at around 1:30 am, a train derailed, spilling 300-thousand gallons of deadly anhydrous ammonia. Fred Debowey, director of dispatch for the Minot Police, says they had a new emergency alert system. It failed at both ends.
FRED DEBOWEY: We at the police department here didn't know that the EAS equipment wasn't currently programmed, and part two of the failing was that the clear channel system, receiver was programmed for another frequency other than the one that we are scheduled to broadcast on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When the EAS system failed, the police called the stations, housed in two buildings. No one picked up the phone.
ALICIA MUNDY: "This went on for an hour and a half before they could get hold of anyone at the radio station to send out the word."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alicia Mundy is senior editor of Cable World.
ALICIA MUNDY: "People got in their cars, the cars would work because the oxygen had been sucked out of the air there were emergency vehicles fire trucks and ambulances by the side of the road, one man who panicked got into his car and tried to drive away died, they had about 300 people hospitalized there are still people suffering sever burns to their lungs and haven't recovered some people who were made partially blind by the ammonia in the air livestock and pets died, it was a disaster."
BYRON DORGAN: "I think these issues including the anhydrous ammonia accident ought to persuade us to be very concerned about absentee ownership, concentration of ownership.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Byron Dorgan is the Democratic Senator from North Dakota. A couple of weeks ago he raised the issue in a hearing on Capitol Hill…and received a lot of support.
BYRON DORGAN: much more than I expected. The public airwaves are extraordinary valuable and we have licensed them to be used by companies and over time the usage has changed very substantially and I think the public is not getting the kind of benefit from it that they used to get.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lisa Dollinger, senior vice president of marketing and communication for Clear Channel radio, read us this statement.
LISA DOLLINGER: Clear channel radio stations are manned 24-7 regardless of market size. There is always someone in each building to cover any emergency or technical problems that may arise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If that person does not answer the phone, she suggests, the problem is not Clear Channel's. As for news coverage, she says any station playing a voice-tracked program in time of breaking news, is automatically switched to the network's news feed.
LISA DOLLINGER: We go to extraordinary lengths to provide preparatory materials and training on our emergency response procedures for situations such as the Columbia tragedy. All clear channel radio stations were offered long form news coverage until midnight Saturday with updates twice hourly, long after the other news networks had ceased their coverage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Though Clear Channel's voice-tracked programs are automatically switched, they are used only about nine percent of the average broadcast day, according to Dollinger. The rest of the time, programmers have to switch manually from the station, or from laptops at home. A lot of them did. A lot of them didn't. The same was true of other stations automated and owned by other companies across the country. Former anchor and programmer Roger Wiggs wonders if there's any story that's big enough to penetrate, with the speed that news demands, the automated armor of understaffed stations in hundreds of small markets. Even a story as big, say, as the assassination of a president.
ROGER WIGGS: …if the program director is at the beach that weekend and the general manager is at his house on the Grand Cayman Islands, nobody is going to be forced to come in and turn off the voice track and say, there's a bulletin from the Associated Press, President Bush was shot this afternoon. They're gonna say, stay tuned, coming up three in a row with Barry Manilow, Faith Hill and the Dixie chicks."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Commercial radio listenership is dropping, but revenues are on the rise, buoyed by higher ad rates, cheaper programming and smaller staffs. It may be simply more profitable, if companies can evade the ire of Congress, to keep things as they are, and leave the news to the all news stations, or to public radio. And of course, there's always television.