He’s been with CMG for 11 years now, almost four with Susan Larkin’s cluster of stations in Orlando. Joe Kelley is the News Director and morning show host at WDBO, Orlando’s news and talk station. When a terrorist killed 49 innocent people in an Orlando nightclub, there were no doubt thousands and thousands of people who immediately tuned their radio to WDBO. And on cue, WDBO was quick to go and stay live with reports from the scene, breaking news, and to provide a steady voice for a community not yet sure what was happening.
The WDBO team would tell you working 15-hour days and doing whatever it took to get the story to the public was just instinct kicking in…all well-oiled professional radio news teams would say that. Some may go through an entire career and never have to report on a local tragedy, a severe weather event, or a horrific terrorist attack. But for those that do, when it happens, they are ready and willing to deliver to a listener base that has been with them for many years, a listener base that trusts them and relies on them, a listener base that feels like part of their family.
Joe Kelley is one of those voices in Orlando. As we write this story, the community is reeling from a third tragic event, a two-year-old boy being snatched away from his family by an alligator at Disney. When we tuned into WDBO after hearing about the young Nebraska boy, the WDBO news team was at it again, this time covering two unbelievable and tragic events only miles apart. We spoke to Kelley about the past week, his team at the CMG Radio cluster, and what it means to be there for the community you live in.
RI: Tell us about how busy and crazy the past few days have been for you?
Kelley: Today marks the beginning of Day 3 of our coverage of the terror attack. Truth be told, I was pretty energized Sunday and Monday. By this morning, the grief, fatigue, and anxiety are kicking in. Yet, sitting behind a mic is kinda’ my “zone” so I expect I’ll rise up and be ready when I go on the air in 15 minutes. I was to take my kids to Epcot on Sunday, but I was out of the house by the time they came in to wake me. I’ve promised them we’ll have another day to go to Epcot, while I’ve taught them the impermanency of life. My routine has consisted of 1 a.m. wake-up call, work until 3 p.m., go home, eat, go to bed. Repeat.
RI: What were your first thoughts and what did you do when you heard what happened?
Kelley: As routine, I turn my ringer on my phone to DND. Of course, as the News Director and morning show host, I have my favorites set to all the radio station contacts. It’s very rare that the station calls me on an early Sunday outside of a weather event. So when I woke to my phone ringing early Sunday, I knew something bad must have been happening. Like is often the case on breaking news events, there was an incrementalism to this story. Early word was “a club shooting.” So I sat up in bed and thought I’d wait a moment. Quickly it became apparent as I watched tweets and Facebook updates from the scene that this was much more. I quickly brushed my teeth and, fireman-style, jumped into my pants and shoes and jumped into my car. While I was driving “quickly” into the station, I was passed much more quickly by several fleets of police cars. As you might imagine, my blood was really rushing as the convoys of cops zoomed past me without a care in the world for how fast I was driving.
RI: Talk about all the emotions you’ve been going through and you’ve heard all the callers expressing?
Kelley: I’ve had the opportunity to live around the US thanks to our industry. In my travels, I’ve never lived in a more diverse market than Orlando. As such, we’ve had a remarkable diversity of callers and listeners. We held a bit of a caller-driven roundtable with our music stations and the very first call we took was from a woman who essentially said that the club-goers got what they deserved for living a “perverse” life. I took great pride in personally shutting her down. Nearly every caller after that similarly shut her down. Our callers have been entirely compassionate, loving, liberal, conservative, hateful, xenophobic, racist, Godly, ungodly.
RI: What’s it been like being in the center of all this coverage and working with all your colleagues like you did on the roundtable?
Kelley: It seems so cliché and I often make fun of other people who do/say this, but it’s really a team effort. I really feel blessed to be a part of this organization. I feel honored to work for a company that understands the value in breaking down our formatics, tossing aside our routine and sharing the feelings of our community.
RI: How do you feel about how WDBO has covered the shooting?
Kelley: There’s been some considerable compartmentalizing for me in this process. My role as News Director has been minimized as my role of radio host has been emphasized. At a time in which I should be leading my news team as their director, I’m instead too busy on the air to provide leadership or structure. And, it appears that they don’t need me. In all my years in this industry, I’ve never been more impressed and more in awe of my team of reporters, anchors, writers, and producers. No one has had to ask me where to go or what to do –- they instinctively KNOW what to do and where to go.
RI: How important is radio in the lives of listeners when something like this happens?
Kelley: It’s most important when a radio company understands the importance of blowing out the formats and adapting to the need of the community, as Cox Media Group has done. WDBO is really good at being Orlando’s #1 source of news, weather, and traffic. But we are storytellers at our core. And this is the biggest story to hit Orlando since the Challenger explosion.