When a major national news story breaks in the middle of the night, in a city hundreds of miles away, how do you cover it? Do you stop airing commercials? How many traffic reports do you carry? We turned to one of the best in the country for those answers, CBS-owned WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105.9 in Chicago. Ron Gleason is the Director of News and Programming at the station. On Tuesday, we interviewed Gleason to see exactly how one of the top News radio stations in the country transitioned from their local news coverage to wall-to-wall coverage of the tragedy in Las Vegas.
Radio Ink: How does this compare with other major events WBBM has covered?
Ron Gleason: Unfortunately, it seems the disasters are piling up, whether it be a trio of recent debilitating hurricanes, a deadly earthquake, or mass shootings. We have a tremendous staff of veteran journalists who know how to jump into action. Every event is different, and some clearly are more challenging to cover than others. Over the years we’ve had disastrous out-of-our-area shootings or bombings to follow closely, whether the Boston Marathon, San Bernardino, or Virginia Tech.
Radio Ink: Take us into the newsroom as to what was happening when you and your people first heard.
Ron Gleason: I wish I could do that, but this was unique because of the hour it happened. In Chicago, word first came in the middle of the night, when the newsroom is lightly staffed. That’s what made decision-making so unique versus other events, which typically have occurred during daytime hours.
Radio Ink: What is the decision-making process like and who’s involved.
Ron Gleason: This was a case of being awakened to the news, and learning as much as possible as quickly as possible to decide what direction is best. Our managing editor, Julie Mann, our Morning Editor Zac Weber and I all texted, e-mailed and spoke. We had been taking special one-minute reports several times an hour from CBS Radio News, but once the extent of the carnage was clear, I also spoke with our Market Manager Tim Pohlman, who was supportive of taking whatever steps we deemed necessary.
Radio Ink: Did you go wall-to-wall Las Vegas coverage or was it a mix with local news? What about commercials?
Ron Gleason: Morning drive is special in an all-news format, with people waking up and counting on us for what they expect: the latest news, traffic, weather, sports, and business reports. From time to time we’ll break from the “news wheel” formula mid-day, afternoons or evenings for major breaking stories, press conferences, and speeches. To do so in morning drive is irregular and unique. But the call Monday morning was pretty easy. Nobody waking up would have heard about this previously. And the sheer number of casualties made any other story almost irrelevant. The most important thing was to keep people informed. The numbers were changing, eyewitnesses were just coming forward, and we were learning new information every few minutes. So we decided to go wall-to-wall even in the height of morning drive, from 6-8 a.m. We used the resources of CBS News, both radio and TV. Our managing editor sent one reporter to O’Hare Airport in search of incoming flights from Las Vegas, and another reporter went to the streets, talking to Chicagoans early to get their thoughts on what was happening. During those two hours, I think we did only one or two traffic reports—unheard of for us—and dropped our other elements and commercials. After 8 a.m., we keyed on this as the overriding story, but started working back in the usual elements, commercials, etc.
Radio Ink: How hard a decision is it to make to do extensive coverage on an incident not in your city?
Ron Gleason: The importance and magnitude of the story helps make that decision for you.
Radio Ink: How long was it before you really knew this was a major, major story?
Ron Gleason: The early word of the shooting came during the 1 a.m. hour, but we probably did not fully understand the magnitude until the 5 a.m. hour.
Radio Ink: How are you able to cover the story without WBBM people on the ground? Were you able to make contact with other people you knew were there?
Ron Gleason: CBS News and CBS News Radio in particular do a great job. The anchors are solid, and somehow reporter Steve Futterman finds his way to big stories faster than anyone else. We rely a great deal on the network in these breaking news situations, and then work our own people into coverage with local angles. Social media plays a big role in finding locals impacted by events elsewhere, but our team is amazing at finding angles that make sense.
Radio Ink: Were you getting listener calls?
Ron Gleason: The phone in the newsroom rings quite a bit, but over the years we’ve received many more calls about low-level earthquakes in our area rather than reaction to events happening in other areas. We did get some calls from folks who were looking for traffic reports.
Radio Ink: What stuck out in your mind about your coverage?
Ron Gleason: The level of professionalism in the newsroom. From Felicia Middlebrooks and Pat Cassidy in the studio, to our reporters and behind-the-scene-folks, everyone was level headed and just did whatever needed to be done. We have great reporters, great anchors, great editors and writers, assistant producers, and our managing editor Julie Mann is second to none.
Radio Ink: Any advice to other News Directors/stations when an event like this happens?
Ron Gleason: Go with your gut—use your instincts. Stories like this matter to absolutely everyone, so treat it that way. Don’t be sensational, just be accurate. The goal is not to cause panic. The goal is always to inform and treat listeners with the respect they deserve.
Ron Gleason can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]