Grief surrounds an event like the one taking place in Aurora. And an event like this, or something equally tragic, could occur in any big or small town. At a radio station, you have to make a rapid decision about how to respond. If you’re a News/Talker, like KOA/Denver, the natural response is to report the news and reflect the response of the community. But what if you’re a normally upbeat music station? Do you keep playing the hits and pretend nothing is happening?

Very few of us will ever have a situation exactly like this in our markets, but we should always anticipate what we would do — even if an automated, voicetracked, or satellite-fed station may not have the staff or resources to do anything in the short term other than continue to play the hits. Acting like nothing happened should never be an option. 

As one who operated hit music stations for most of my radio career, I would opt to make a rapid short-term format change, having my known air personalities allow listeners to phone in to express their feelings and grief. Your youthful audience may not even know a News/Talk station exists, and an outlet will be needed for them. I think continuing to play music without some form of acknowledgement of the community’s mood is simply not reflecting your proper role. Perhaps you’ll lose some listeners who want music for the couple of days you change your programming, but I believe you’ll be serving the larger community.

Another option is to play the music but to offer a deep, heartfelt acknowledgement of what’s happening. Breaks might be longer than normal and involve listeners, or you may set a somber mood with messaging like, “We honor the men and women who died by continuing the music without interruption or commercials.” Though you certainly must not be promotional.

The other major issue is with your advertising. Is it right to carry glib commercials right after an event like this? Will advertisers even want to be on the air? Some will, because they know listening levels may be increased, but can it be done without being distasteful? During the days after 9/11, most broadcasters dropped commercials because it did not feel appropriate to break from programming.

Our hearts and prayers go out to the community of Aurora and to the broadcasters there who face these and other decisions. Sometimes we don’t know the right thing to do until the time comes, yet it’s always best for each of us to think it through just in case. I’ll be curious to see the comments and feedback about what you think is the right on-air response for music stations.

This content was provided with permission by Eric Rhoads, from Radio Ink. Eric Rhoads is an entrepreneur, publisher, author, columnist, radio historian and consultant specializing in fine art, radio broadcasting, and marketing.