Dealing With Tragedy On The Air
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Tracy Johnson
Dealing With Tragedy On The Air
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It seems that a week rarely goes by without a tragedy in the world. Each affects your audience emotionally and personally. And almost every time, radio stations are taken by surprise because it’s impossible to plan exactly what to do in every situation But we can prepare for how to deal with tragedy and emergencies when they happen. This guide will help you sort the steps to relate to your audience when they need you most.

Of course, there are many types of tragedy and emergencies. Some are personal (a sick child, a father who’s been laid off). Others are personal to a cast member. Many times, they’re local (natural disasters, for instance). And then there’s the increasingly common events of terrorism and mass killings.

When something extraordinary happens, will you be there to reflect it, be a part of it? Are you prepared to change direction as the situation calls for it? Jeff & Jer called it the ability to change course to “know how to be really good when things are really bad.”

Radio can shine and air personalities can stand out in times of tragedy. And I’m not talking about covering the news event.

As Deborah Parenti of Radio Ink puts it:

Cable news outlets run 24/7 updates from news sources and press conferences. They hash over the events with talking heads, “experts,” and “analysts”, interspersed with a few eye witness interviews repeated over and over throughout the day. Depending on the channel, some of it is also presented through a political lens. Indeed, it’s a role they have carved out as part of their 24/7 cycle, one which has also shunted broadcast TV coverage to more of a “bulletin” status…But where radio distinguishes itself and what truly spotlights its niche among all media is/was and will continue to be, its distinct ability to reach out, dig in and be part of the community. That’s a far different role than reporting on the community.

One of the most important things you can do as an air talent is find a way to become the show to tune in when something major happens. Weather emergencies, local tragedies and city-wide celebrations are moments that matter for your show. Your link to the audience is magnified. It’s the time when you have to be at your best.

Capture The Moment Emotionally

The ability to capture the moment can be the difference between success and failure. If you are able to identify those moments when they occur, react quickly and tap into your audience’s reaction with an emotional sincerity, you can make giant strides in your goal of attaining local celebrity status. this happens when you’re able to stay within your character profile, yet speak passionately in times when listeners are highly emotional.

Great personalities are able to speak with passion. Showing that you truly care about a subject can go a long way toward winning listeners. But you can overdo it when you pour too much emotion into the presentation.

Fast Company says:

Passion in speaking is like spice in cooking. If you’ve ever added cayenne pepper to a dish, you know you need to be careful to use just the right amount. Too much emotion in your speaking is like dumping in a whole tablespoon of hot pepper—it’ll be the only thing anyone will notice, and they won’t want to finish.

Passion vs. Emotion

Passion is important in delivery, only in small doses. To connect emotionally, you’ll need to use your personality skills.

The only thing the audience will recall is your emotional display. Speak with passion to allow your message to take on vivid color but stay calm. When listeners are surprised by the intensity of emotion, they miss your message. Emotions should be the spice to your recipe, not the main ingredient.

When you’re too emotional, your show become fatiguing. A little goes a long way. Your voice can become sharp, and you come off as if you’re shouting. Or, you are overcome with grief, and your voice sounds light, lacking the power of motivation. The audience might hear you, but they won’t be listening. At least, not for long.

While staying under control, build toward a high point, and use the rhythm of your delivery to add power to segments. If you stay in the same vocal tone too long, listeners become immune to the message.

Vary your pace, tone and inflection to keep attention and cause response.

Dealing With Tragedy: How To Respond

Each tragedy requires a different response. And while there’s no formula, you can work through this process to get a handle on your reaction.

Is It Local?

The first consideration is whether the tragedy is a local event. If it is, many of the recommendations and guidelines that follow don’t apply.

When an event  disrupts life in your community, your response should be bigger and deeper. It will also have an affect on how you should react over time. If the tragedy impacts your audience where they live, plan to be talking about it more often and for a longer period of time.

But don’t avoid it because the “event” is somewhere else. Many stations get sucked into “it’s not local”. That’s just an excuse. If the audience is affected by it and is talking about it, it’s local.

Be Who You Are

Unless you’re a news station, don’t try to cover it as a news story. The temptation is to distribute information and provide updates. You may even be tempted to broadcast a sister station’s news coverage. Don’t.

If you run news on your show, isolate the facts to your newscasts. It may make sense to add more frequent news updates, depending on the impact and timing of the tragedy. But your personality content should always be emotionally connecting with the audience. And you should tease the next news update frequently.

For most shows, it’s not about providing the facts or being on top of a breaking news story. Listeners are coming to your station for your reaction. This is a time to reflect your character through the filter of the audience’s mood.

The closer the event hits your target audience, the greater your response. But don’t try to be someone else.

Adjust, Don’t Change

In other words, know who you are and what you are for. What is the primary reason your audience comes to you? Be that. Your content will adjust, of course, but don’t change the nature of your personality brand.

Sometimes personalities try to explore the reasons for a tragedy. Unless you’re a news or talk station, that’s not your role. You can’t solve the problem and your audience doesn’t expect you to come up with any solutions. The goal should be to have a strong emotional reaction, but don’t let it become a rant on all the problems that led to the event.

When tragedy strikes, you will be taken out of your routine. Your comfort zone is challenged. That’s okay. It’s good to stretch your boundaries. Just stay within yourself and don’t try to do more than you are capable of

If you’re not sure what to do, it’s more important to talk about it frequently than to talk about it in depth.  One show I work makes it a point to reference a tragic event every quarter hour in some way, but doesn’t turn the whole show into constant coverage.

Respond Quickly

Most of the time, being quick is more important than being polished. Responding quickly is key. Timing is critical. Information moves at light-speed. While you’re not going to compete for covering the story, your response must consider recent developments. And you have to be on it while the story is top-of-mind.

When San Diego was on fire (a Sunday) and tens of thousands of listeners were driven from their homes, my stations took action. By Monday afternoon, we had over $1 million in cash to give directly to the victims. We didn’t wait. We took action.

Your response will vary depending on the timing of the event. Key questions to consider:

  • How long ago did it happen? If it happens at night, and you’re on the next morning, how is your audience feeling right now? Don’t re-hash the facts and details just because you didn’t happen to be on the air at the time of the event.
  • How much does the audience know? If the story just broke, or is happening while you’re on the air, it’s still fresh, and listeners are probably not fully informed. This would require a slightly different approach. But remember, information moves quickly. They’re probably just as informed (or more) than you are.

The most important thing is to make a decision and take action. Don’t wait. You’ll miss the moment. Get on the air and get moving. Figure out the details later.

Brand Values

How closely does this tragedy hit your audience’s lifestyle? When a gunman shot up an Orlando nightclub, it affected everyone in the world, not just the local Orlando community. The same happened in the Arianna Grande concert bombings, especially for hit music stations and parents of her fans, mostly young girls.

The more it impacts the lifestyle of your audience, the more it touches your brand values. And as a result, the attention it should receive.

When you think about it, every major tragedy affects your audience’s world. Find an entry point that can be an emotional connection for your brand. That might be collecting stuffed animals for children. Or taking care of pets and animals. Or a diaper drive for moms. If you’re a Christian station, maybe there’s a church that has been impacted that you can help.

Find a need in the disaster area and focus on that.

Psychological Impact

Some tragedies are physical. Others are psychological. If the event took place in another geographic location, chances are your audience is more impacted emotionally. The more you can speak emotionally and tap into those feelings, the more effective you’ll be.

Every event has a psychological impact on at least some of your audience. Judge the extent of that damage and respond to how your audience is feeling. Then craft a response that connects with the emotions of that psychological impact.

At one station I work with, the station targets adult women, many of whom have school-aged children. The host of the show is married to a school Superintendent. Following a school shooting, the show brought him on to talk about how he’s dealing with it in the school district. How will their teachers be talking to the kids the next day?

That’s an example of injected the show’s unique personality brand into the topic. At another station, the host has four year old daughter. Following a dramatic event that involved children, the show brought a guest expert on to explain how he could talk to a four-year old about the tragedy. This is quite different than just having an expert on to talk about the event and give general advice. It puts the show’s brand into the story.

Personal Response

If you are personally affected by the news, use that emotion. Bring your perspective to the audience, especially if it’s consistent with how they’re feeling. If you can be the personality that puts into words how they are feeling, you can become a source of comfort.

However, if you’re really upset about it personally, work that out before you go on the air. Talk to someone. You need to be calm, collected and in control of the show. When you’re too emotional, your voice can become sharp, and you come off as if you’re shouting. Or, you are overcome with grief, and your voice sounds light, lacking the power of motivation. The audience might hear you, but they won’t be listening.

What You Need to Gather

While hearing you on the air brings comfort to your fans, it’s also important that you have some elements in place. Here’s what should be on your checklist to gather as soon as possible:


Assign one person the task of searching local and national websites for information that fit your brand’s needs. This can have value for on-air and your online/social presence. Make sure they follow up and stay up to date. If you don’t have a producer, recruit someone to help. It could be a friend, relative or someone from another department on the station. Your attention should be focused on how you’ll perform and craft your on-air content.

Get Contact Information:

Who can you reach as s spokesperson that has authority or can add an interesting angle? Television reporters? Newspaper people? News anchors? Depending on the situation, you might also track down community leaders from schools or businesses, head of charities, Pastors of churches, etc. Use social media to track them down. You may not use them to report on the news, but those close to the tragedy can often give you a unique angle to explore.

Interesting Personalities:

If there’s a character or two in your city that’s doing something unusual, it’s a great way to talk about the event without sounding like everyone else. Look into social media to see how ordinary people are taking action. Find the ones that are most interesting, reach out and form a relationship.

Possible Angles:

Figure out what kind of stories you will be relating. Find something unique, such as: What happens to pets? How will you protect your family to get them all in the same place? Do you need help or can you help (get folks together)? Are there scams to watch out for?

Be Real, But Positive

As the audience gets past the initial shock, they won’t want to wallow in the negativity of the story for long. Pay attention to find the right time to turn the corner and represent hope and positivity.

Most every tragedy has good news inside the horrors. Mr. Rogers called it, “Look for the helpers” and tell those stories.

Again, use social media to find sources of content. It’s even better if you can develop a relationship with one of the heroes and spotlight their story. This brings it home in a whole new way.

Public Response (Promotion)

If you’re planning a public reaction (promotion), your station should have a process in place.

Once you have a handle on the tragedy, plan your reaction. Here’s a step-by-step process for finding how to deal with tragedy on the air.

  1. If organizing a promotion or public response, make sure everything you do is user-friendly and easy to participate. Pick a high-profile public location, like a mall or major retail area. Stage it there.
  2. Then, invite partners to get involved. See if other media, such as television stations, want to participate. Chances are, they’re looking for an angle to cover without having to create their own thing. Let them promote you!
  3. Find your niche and tell that story in a powerful, sensitive and emotional way. What matches your personality and brand? Find that and make it famous

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, my station (Star 100.7) bought a giant bell, similar to the famous Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

We installed it in a public location, then invited listeners to come and honor the victims. Each name of the 2,996 victims as written on a piece of paper. Listeners came, chose a name, said the name on the air and rang the bell.

We carried it all on the air live. It took over 8 hours. No commercials. Was this great PPM programming? Of course not. It was hard to listen to. And it was a tune out. But what an impact. It was powerful, dramatic and it stood out from everything else.

It was hard and took time and resources. But it paid off.

The easy thing to do is join in the thousands of others that promote a donation code or tap into existing relief campaigns.

Don’t do that.

It’s lazy and you won’t get any credit. Not that it’s all about credit, but come on! We know why you’re doing it!

Forget about those agencies that are working on their campaigns. Why promote them? Do something on your own. Be unique and make a difference.


At the end of the day, you can’t plan these things, but you can be prepared. This is part of being a well-rounded personality with layers of audience appeal.

For more on how to speak emotionally when tragedy strikes and examples of great shows doing it well, check out How to Be Really Good When Things Are Really Bad.

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