How to use listeners to cover breaking news on the radio

When local breaking news happens, do not underestimate the power of radio going to the phones to get information from listeners on the fire, explosion, accident, plane crash, black out, major crime story, natural  disasters including flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes and snow storms.

At radio stations, phones can be used for more than just contests. During major disasters  the phones become a lifeline between the radio station and the community it serves. It doesn’t matter the radio format – music, talk or news – by going to the phones, the radio station can turn listeners into citizen journalists to provide eye witness accounts from the scene of the major news event.

At Newstalk 1010 CFRB in Toronto we were taking calls from listeners during a severe weather warning. Man calls to say it was difficult driving in the heavy rain when all of a sudden he sees a funnel cloud touch down in a nearby park. He describes live on the radio how the tornadio headed towards a row of houses .. destroying a number of the homes.

If we hadn’t asked listeners to call in about their experience during the severe thunderstorms we would not have had that dramatic eye witness account.

Care must be taken to ensure information provided by citizen journalists  is accurate, not hear say or blown out of proportion

Almost everyone carries a mobile phone these days in their cars. By tapping into these listeners who may just happen to be in the area of the breaking news event, you can get information from listeners before your radio reporter even gets to the scene.

But there are rules that need to be followed to control the accuracy of information  citizen journalists provide when they  go live on air.  Here are some tips for radio hosts when putting eye witnesses on the air from the scene of a breaking news story.

  • When they call in, focus them on the event. Limit their comments to what they saw or experienced – not what someone else told them they saw or experienced. This limits accounts from being blown out of proportion or the spreading of rumours.
  • Ask those calling in how they are being impacted by this news event. If they are being asked to evacuate or are in the process of evacuating, ask them what they are allowed to bring and must leave behind. Ask about their pets, treasured items, whereabouts of other family members and what their concerns are. Ask about traffic conditions and how people around them are coping. This sharing of information is what radio does best and will help other listeners living in the area.
  • Be careful when it comes to listeners providing numbers of victims either dead or injured. It is best to leave this to the authorities. If they see dead people – how many do THEY see. If they see injured people, how many do THEY see and what kind of injuries. Steer the caller away from repeating casualty figures they heard from other people – it might be misleading or inflated.
  • Make sure the newsroom is advised of these calls. They will want to include clips in their newscasts. It is also a good idea, if possible, to have someone from the newsroom join the host on air. News anchors or reporters have experience interviewing eye witnesses and can help control the accuracy of the information provided by the citizen journalists.

Now is the time to draw up breaking news coverage plans for your radio station. kowchmedia can help with those plans and coach your staff. Call Steve for a free consultation at 647 521-6397 or email