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School and Weather Stories

other topics under NEWSROOM: Improving On-Air Delivery, R.I.P. "Rip 'N' Read", Technical Difficulties

Education and the weather may be the most important issues to your audience. This is especially true of AM stations with news-heavy formats, which regularly gain listeners in the fall and winter with the beginning of the school year and the arrival of unsettled weather. Reporters and news directors need to be prepared to cover school stories and weather emergencies that inevitably appear every year.

Be prepared for the start of school

Keep a timetable in the newsroom of when school districts in your area come back into session. As schools open, you should have at least brief readers in your morning casts informing listeners that "It's the first day of classes in Middleville," or "Kids are heading back to school in Smalltown." If you have a separate traffic reporter, that person should also have a copy of the list of school openings and should remind drivers to watch out for children going to and from school. If you don't have a traffic reporter, make the reminder yourself in the final sentence of your readers on the start of school. Kids and traffic safety is an obvious story idea, and usually a state Triple-A official (who has probably sent you a press release) is available for interview.

Keep stories interesting and current

Other obvious story ideas may need careful attention to make sure they remain interesting. Back-to-school shopping is an example. Doing MOS of mothers buying notebook paper is dull, dull, dull. Examine store ads and look for the unusual. If you have school-age kids, you may already have been badgered to buy all sorts of nonsense -- and if one of those requests strikes you as particularly wacky, it may strike your listeners as interesting, too! (If you don't have school-age kids, there's bound to be someone at the station who does.)

While there is a certain timelessness about the annual return of children to school, your stories should be firmly rooted in the present. For example, instead of a generic story about buying clothes for the kids, look at the more current topic of school uniforms (would uniforms end up being less expensive for parents? what do children think about having to wear the same clothes to school every day?). Another recent controversy involves "low-riding" pants, which some school districts have banned.

Prep for school closings

Your station probably already has a procedure for receiving and announcing school closings. All reporters should be familiar with this procedure, regardless of whether or not the newsroom actually takes the phone calls from nervous superintendents cancelling school. Knowing how the lists of school closings are prepared and then make their way into the studio allows everyone to assist in ensuring that school closings are announced in a timely fashion. In addition, when listeners call the newsroom asking whether a particular school is closed, the reporter on the other end of the line will be able either to find the answer for the caller or to tell the caller when the school-closing list will next be aired.

The list of closed schools should be organized in logical fashion so that listeners may easily discover when their school should be announced. In small markets, alphabetical listings may be adequate. In medium-sized and larger markets, a combination of alphabetical and geographic organization (such as alphabetical listings within a list of counties) might be preferable.

On the road

Bad weather is often the cause of school closings, but when the schools are closed many worksites remain open. Listeners who have to make their way to work want to know about road conditions. Even if your station relies upon a commercial traffic-reporting service, there may well be several occasions during the year (such as the sudden arrival of storms) when you want to have a reporter on the roads. Reporters need little more than a celular telephone, a tape recorder and a good timepiece. The reporter might drive along the major roads in the listening area, pulling onto exit ramps or into parking lots at set intervals to provide live reports. Reporters can also interview stranded motorists, or try to interview busy automobile towing and repair shop employees. It goes without saying that reporters should not become stories themselves by being stranded or involved in accidents, so use common sense when reporting from the road.

Don't shovel tired features

Weather-related stories can enlighten listeners, though care must be given to avoid the tired and trite. A few years ago we heard far too many stories about "El Niño" -- the unusually strong warming of the waters of the Pacific off the coast of South America -- that were sensational rather than informational. (I fear we are in for a similar barrage of bad journalism with the newly emerging El Niño.) Stories typically overdone during the winter include sales reports on shovels and snowblowers, features on the workday of a road-salting crew, and travel agents discussing where locals are heading to escape the weather.

A better approach for generating stories takes issues already of community concern and adds a seasonal aspect. For example, many communities have school buildings that are in poor condition. How are those buildings affected by winter weather? As another example, use of road salt is declining in some areas out of concern for the environment. What has been the effect on driver safety, and if safety has diminished, is the trade-off for a cleaner environment worth it?

Coordinate your efforts

In the news-talk format, cooperation with your talker can generate deeper discussion of the issues and help both of you in your separate tasks. For example, let's say your station has some midmorning or midday local talk, and the talker has scheduled a psychologist to discuss a child's first day at school. You can assume that the psychologist will talk about separation anxiety, so don't do that story in the morning. Instead, pick a different topic, such as school violence. Your talker now has a different subject to bounce off her guest, who will discuss separation anxiety and the psychological trauma violence inflicts on a young child.

Take a few cuts from the talk-show interview, and you now have a different story for afternoon drive. You will, of course, credit your talker (" psychologist Elizabeth Linden-Rahway told News-Talk 990 midday host Sarah Barnes..."), giving the sort of cross-promotion that warms the heart of any program director or general manager.

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