Are You Obit Ready?

(Picture: All Saints Church, Highweek, Devon, England. Pic: SmallJim)

Two things are guaranteed – death and taxes. Every 3 months, when I pay my company’s VAT bill, I’m glad that I’ve reached another tax date and not the alternative!

Radio is an immediate medium, meaning that when news breaks, we can react quickly. For many years there was an official “Obit (obituary) List” and a procedure that would be rehearsed here in the UK, in case of the death of a royalty or head of state. A blue light in the news room and studio would flash, and at the top of the hour we’d all opt in to IRN, the national commercial radio news provider, who would share the solemn news with the nation.

Link: Death Of A Princess

But that was in the days of live presenters, round-the-clock presenters and no social media.

Nowadays everything is very different. The station that I run is entirely automated, and live overnights are a rarity outside from some of the national networks, meaning our approach needs to be updated. Plus, we’re not just talking about the death of royals… the world we’re living in is an unpredictable place with terrorism in our minds more than ever.

On the basis that at some point we’ll need to go into “obit”, here’s a checklist of things to think about for your station…

What will you do when the news breaks?

Prepare now – don’t wait until it happens. I have an “obit log” that’s basically all the ballads from our playlist, minus any that talk about death. I can dial in and reprogram the music using this log, and then look through it to make sure that there aren’t any songs that aren’t right. If the cause of death is old age it’s easy to prepare, but death of other causes requires more sensitivity. Fast Car wouldn’t have been at all appropriate after Princess Diana passed away.

I also have a few generic announcements voiced that I can play between songs, saying that out of respect, we’ve adjusted our music. Some are Royal-specific, some aren’t. They can pad things until you have a presenter or relevant content.

Does everyone in your team know what to do? Who’s the least experienced person?

When was the last time you shared your obit procedure with your team? Social media means that the release of news is much less controlled in the past (hello TMZ!) and can happen at anti-social times. What happens if you have a specialist presenter on air, or you’re on an outside broadcast?

Plan with the least experienced person in mind, and ensure that everyone knows what to say… and what not to say. If you have a news team, they’ll already be trained in all of this.

Who will manage the situation if you’re not around?

I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to programming Chris Country – I know the system inside out, and it’s rare for anyone else to work with the scheduling system. However, there are two times when my phone is always off – when I’m in the cinema and when I’m on a flight.

As a result, the technical team at our parent group have all of the TeamViewer details for our machines, and one of my colleagues is within driving distance of our building in case the machines need some physical assistance. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to sort things yourself.

I once had a playout system meltdown as I was boarding a ten hour flight. Knowing that trusted people had access to the system meant that I could get on with watching movies and eating dodgy plane food!

What support will you receive from your news & information suppliers?

Whether you use IRN, Radio NewsHub, your own team, or an alternative supplier, get to know their major story incident procedure. What will they supply? When can you air it? How will they communicate it with you?

What about other serious news events?

This is less about “Obit”, and more about “Major Story Response”. Here’s an example… In October 2017, there was a mass shooting at the Route 91 country music festival in Las Vegas. 58 people died and over 800 were injured.

While this led bulletins on many UK stations, at Chris Country this was an obit-level situation. We changed our music dramatically that day, lowering the pace and the tone, and running news bulletins twice hourly all day. We also removed all songs connected with guns (and there’s a lot of them in country music!), and removed all promotions. Our social media reflected the tone. We wanted to reflect the shock and sadness of the situation that our listeners were feeling.

Commercials, Competitions, Content

I was assisting at a Heart station during the week of the terrible Manchester Arena bomb. As soon as the news broke, Global pulled all features, competitions, sponsor tags and content from the station and updated the music log, allowing the presenters to reflect the shock of the nation. There was no discussion about lost revenue, it just happened, and for the record, I was extremely impressed by the systems the group had in place. Friends at Bauer tell me the same happened there too.

When a major story breaks, there won’t be time to speak with all clients before altering your output, so ensure that all commercial contracts include a clause that in exceptional circumstances, you can pull features, ad campaigns, and so on. It’s for their sake too – a wacky “our survey says” feature with their brand on will sound crass at a time like this.

Now we’ve sorted all that, I’m off to do a tax return…

Chris Stevens is the founder of Devaweb and Ignite Jingles in the UK. He also consults stations on their imaging and on-air branding. He’s on twitter at @chrisukstevens