How Toronto radio covered Air France crash landing

kowchmedia Case Study of Toronto radio coverage of Air France crash landing at Pearson Airport

air_france_crash_atpearson.jpeg.size.xxlarge.letterboxMinute to minute play-by-play of Toronto radio’s coverage of the 2005 Air France crash landing at Toronto’s Pearson Airport

On August 2, 2005,  an Air France Airbus A340-300 with 309 people on board crash landed at Toronto’s Pearson Airport during a severe thunder storm. 

A quick evacuation of passengers  resulted in no casualties as fire broke out in the rear of the airplane. Here is a minute by minute, play by play of breaking news coverage by CFRB, 680NEWS, CBC Radio One and AM640 between 4pm and 5pm on the day of the crash.

The tapes of the first hour demonstrate how listeners can play an important role in breaking news coverage. You snooze, you lose if you don’t open up the phone lines to solicit calls from eye witnesses. Waiting for a reporter to reach the scene or officials to call back is not the best way to cover breaking news. Talk to your listeners who witnessed the event. The radio station that got the best eye witnesses on air is the one that told a better story about the plane crash.

Tapes of each station’s broadcast provided by Bowdens Media Monitoring Limited, reveals the first report on Toronto radio about the plane crash was 12 minutes after it happened.

To help you follow which station is being discussed, we’ve colour coded the four Toronto radio stations. CFRB is blue.  AM640 is red. 680News is green. CBC Radio One is black. kowchmedia comments are in gray.

4:15 CFRB breaks into programming with a report an aircraft has crashed and an eyewitness says there is a lot of smoke and heavy rain at the scene.

4:16 640 reports that an Air France jet has skidded off the runway … no further details available

4:19 680News breaking news about a plane skidding off the runway. They believe it’s an Air France plane. Eyewitness says plane landed too far down the runway … another eyewitness says the rear of the plane is on fire.

CFRB may have been first by a minute before AM 640. 680News came on three minutes later but was the first to report it was an Air France plane that skidded off the runway and that it landed too far down the runway.

4:21 640 has another eyewitness talking about black smoke coming from the rear of the plane

4:23 CFRB confirms that an airplane is on fire. Reports the crash appeared to have happened during take off. Traffic cameras along Highway 401 shows the plane has slipped into a ravine. Host tells listeners not to panic … don’t know how bad it is … asks people in the area to call him (gives phone numbers) to provide an update on what they see. Says reporters heading to the scene and to stay tuned to CFRB.

4:23 640 has a caller saying heard braking sound of the Air France plane … nose dropped and instantly bursts into flames.

4:24 680News update about an Air France plane skidded off the runaway and describes what can be seen by the traffic cameras on Highway 401 that runs parallel to the runway where the crash occurred.

4:25 680News sales rep who is driving by the crash site describes the scene, the fire and emergency crews arriving on the scene.

As you can imagine, there is a lot of information coming into the radio stations and it is hard to determine if the callers are accurate or not. CFRB was the first to ask listeners in the area to call with info. But their first caller thought the plane was taking off when it in fact was landing (a minute later they had another eye witness who said it crashed while landing). At 4:25 680News was lucky enough to have a sales rep driving by Pearson when the crash occurred. Her eye witness account of the fire and the fire trucks spraying the plane (at 4:25pm) helped the station win an RTNDA award for breaking news coverage. It didn’t matter they were third to report the crash, they led the city with more accurate information.

4:26 CFRB has an eye witness on the air talking about an Air France plane that was landing when the crash happened and there is a lot of smoke.

4:26 CBC Radio One goes to CBC Newsworld for a first report about an incident at Pearson … that it might be a Lufthansa Airplane from Germany … don’t know if it was landing or taking off … will have an update at 4:30

4:27 CBC Radio One traffic report makes no mention of crash or traffic problems at the airport

CBC finally gets in on the action 10 minutes after the first report on CFRB. But they aren’t having a good afternoon. While the other stations are reporting it is an Air France plane, CBC says it might be a Lufthansa airplane from Germany. But their biggest mistake occurs when the traffic reporter makes no mention of  the traffic chaos by the crash site.

4:28 CFRB has a caller who thinks the plane was hit by lightening during the severe thunderstorm when plane was trying to land.

4:30 CFRB news reports fire crews on scene and recaps what they know about the crash

4:30 680NEWS reports hundreds of emergency vehicles on scene of a crash by an Air France airplane that slid off the runway while trying to land and that’s it’s on fire

4:30 CBC Radio One says unconfirmed report it is a Lufthansa plane on fire after landing

Rule No. 1 during breaking news coverage: Have someone monitor the competition to find out what they’re saying. Of all the four stations monitored, CBC probably had the most resources to do that. Yet they continued to have the wrong name of the airline.

4:30 640 reporting Air France jet slid off the runway while landing … witnesses report hearing the sound of the jet braking before it slid off the runway. Reporter is on the way to the scene

640 says their reporter is on the way. But you’ll see by this monitor, we never hear from the reporter.

4:33 CFRB recaps an Air France jet – possibly a 737 with more than 200 people aboard crashes off Runway 24 South.

4:34 680NEWS goes to their sales rep again on the scene who describes how the entire plane is now engulfed in flames and area is covered in black smoke

4:34 CFRB host says the traffic camera shows thick black smoke as more of the plane is engulfed in flames. Can see firemen spraying foam on the plane.

4:35 680NEWS quoting CNN as saying more than 200 passengers on the plane.

CFRB which had a good source at Air France to tell them what kind of plane and how many passengers. This was reported a minute before CNN had the same information. And two minutes before CTV had the same info quoted by 680NEWS. I suspect CFRB was the source of the information for both TV networks.

4:36 680News says CTV reporting it is a 737 jet, all flights cancelled at the airport

4:36 CBC Radio One mentions plane crash but has no details. Says one report is it’s a Lufthansa airplane with 200 people on board

Oh my … told you CBC was having a bad day. 17 minutes after Toronto radio stations were reporting it was an Air France plane, CBC at 4:36 is still saying it’s a Lufthansa airplane.

4:37 640 interviews OPP PR officer about what is happening on the highway by the airport and how motorists are stopping to look at the crash site

Here is a good example of 640 working the phones and getting the OPP on the line to describe what is happening on Highway 401 that runs parallel to the airport runway and the ravine where the place crashed.

4:37 CFRB caller describes how he helped passengers from the plane standing along the 401 … says he talked to the passengers. Host doesn’t believe the caller … cuts him off and lectures listeners about calling and making up stories … host doesn’t believe passengers could make it to the side of the 401 from the crash site.

CFRB makes a major blunder when the host chastises a caller for making up stories. Host doesn’t believe the caller when he says he talked to passengers huddled under an overpass. Rule No. 1 … if the producer tells the host to take the call … you have to trust your team and believe what is being said. It took 18 minutes for CFRB to get a call from another listener who confirmed that passengers had made their way to the underpass by Highway 401 to seek shelter from the rain and wait for help. A missed opportunity for CFRB to take the lead on this angle to the story.

4:38 680NEWS goes live to CNN in the States for coverage of the Toronto plane crash. CNN reporting the pictures from the scene are quite disturbing … 200 passengers on the 737 … perhaps it was an aborted take off

At 4:38 … 680NEWS makes its biggest mistake during the coverage of the plane crash. It throws the switch to CNN in Atlanta to cover a Toronto story. Only problem, CNN has wrong information that contradicts what 680NEWS has been saying. They should have stayed with their local coverage. It is a mistake they repeat and each time they go to CNN it provides 680NEWS with wrong information. Rule No. 1 … stay local unless you are told they have NEW information. This was a local story and should have been covered from Toronto, not Atlanta.

4:40 CBC Radio One reports an Air France plane has crashed at Pearson … host asks listeners who are in the area to call the radio station to tell them what they see. Host promotes they will go to a reporter shortly who is on another plane on the tarmac for a report.

Well … the good news is that CBC is now saying it is an Air France jet. They are asking listeners to call in. But their afternoon is about to get worse by putting someone on the air who can’t see what he’s  being asked to describe.

4:41 CFRB reports the plane that crashed was Air France Flight 358 from Paris

CFRB’s source makes them first with the flight number and where the flight originated from. Important elements to the story.

4:41 680NEWS cuts away from CNN for a local traffic report

4:42 CBC Radio One goes to a reporter on another plane who can smell the smoke from the burning Air France jet but can’t see anything because his view is blocked by another plane.

Why would a producer put someone on the radio who says he can’t see the crash site because another plane is blocking his view. Okay, he can smell the smoke but he can’t see anything and his conversation with the host is totally a waste of time. Rule No 1 … make sure the caller (even if its your own reporter) has something new to report or can actually see what is happening before putting him on the air.

4:42 680NEWS returns to CNN’s live coverage from the US of the plane crash in Toronto

Why … is 680NEWS letting an American network cover a story in their own backyard? Especially when they have less information than 680 has already reported.

4:43 CFRB host joins the broadcast to talk about how he was on that very plane a few weeks ago flying back from Paris. Describes it as an Airbus 340, Flight 358 with about 250 passengers on board.

This is a great example of a radio station taking advantage of staff who have a connection to the story. This is team work. This is staff who even though they aren’t on shift contribute what they can to help the station do a good job.

4:43 640 host says it looks like it’s an Airbus … asks listeners to call in with more information from the crash site

4:45 CBC Radio One has it’s first eye witness on the air describing how she drove by the crash and describes the smoke and emergency vehicles on the scene

This is a good example of why to open the lines and ask for eye witnesses to call your radio station. CBC  took awhile to do it, but at least they finally did what the other three radio stations had been doing for about 30 minutes.

4:46 680NEWS continues using CNN coverage from the States. CBC Radio One now airing Newsworld feed.

Still think it was a mistake for 680NEWS to rely on an American network to cover a story in your own front yard. However, when it comes to the CBC … their TV news channel was doing a better job so it made sense to flip the switch and carry NewsWorld’s feed.

4:47 CFRB recaps what they know: Air France Flight 358 from Paris. Reports all passengers got off. Caller says he saw it happen … landing too fast … saw explosion and fire … emergency crews on scene within a minute or two … a lot of smoke and flames started in the rear of the plane.

One of the things radio doesn’t do well (unlike television) is to recap on a regular basis what they know to inform people who may just be tuning in to the station. Recap! Recap! Recap! CFRB did the right thing to recap when they did. A lot of people getting into their cars to drive home may not have known about the plane crash. And their recap had all the right information and the most up to date information at 4:47pm than the other three stations.

4:48 CBC Radio One switches away from Newsworld feed to take a call from a listener who says the plane was coming in to fast and she was standing next to someone with a police radio and heard that everyone was evacuated before the fire broke out. Host ignores what caller is saying to ask about the weather and whether or not other planes are landing at Pearson.

I don’t want to appear to be picking on CBC. But really, what was the host thinking. If you are going to take a call from an eye witnesses – especially one who is articulate and is providing you the best information  about the crash you’ve had  so far – why not listen and ask questions related to what she saw.  This is a good example  of a host not paying attention because they think their question is more important than the information being provided by the caller.

4:49 CFRB promotes authorities will be holding a press conference shortly and that CFRB will carry it live.

PROMOTE! PROMOTE! PROMOTE! Hook people in to stay with your radio station during breaking news coverage by telling them what is coming up. In this case, CFRB was the first to say a press conference will be held shortly and that they will carry it live. Who is going to leave that radio station if they’re interested in the breaking news story.

4:50 CBC Radio One host says there is no confirmation of what the listener told him two minutes ago about all passengers getting off the plane. Host returns to reporter on another airplane on the tarmac who can’t see what is happening and whose cellular phone keeps cutting out.

Things are just going from bad to worse at the people network. Remember that host who was more interested in the weather than what the caller was saying two minutes ago. Well now he destroys the credibility of their coverage by putting in question that her information may be wrong. Everyone else is reporting that all passengers got off the plane. Why would a host put doubt into what they’re reporting. Why wouldn’t the host have probed the caller more to find out where she got that information. And to make matters worse, they go back to the guy on another plane who can’t see anything and whose cell phone keeps cutting out. We expect more from the people’s network. But these are all good things because we’re learning a lot from the CBC on how NOT to cover breaking news stories live on air.

4:50 680NEWS confirms the plane is an Airbus but don’t know how many on the plane. It does report that emergency personnel have told them passengers have been able to walk up to Highway 401 that runs parallel to the runway.

4:52 CBC Radio One says they don’t know the fate of people on the airplane and go to a traffic report

4:53 CFRB caller says his sister was on the plane and she called from her cell to say she is safe waiting under some kind of overpass by Highway 401 to get out of the rain. Caller says his sister told him the plane was shuddering on landing

How sad that the CFRB host who had this information from a caller much earlier choose to lecture the caller about making things up. Now everyone is reporting how passengers made their way to the overpass to get out of the rain and wait for help. A missed opportunity on the part of CFRB to be first and accurate with this information.

4:54 680NEWS reporting 300 passengers on the plane

4:55 CFRB caller says 50 passengers huddled under an overpass by Highway 401 … tells host that the person who called earlier (4:37pm) was telling the truth about passengers making their way to the highway and being helped by motorists

CFRB lost 18 minutes to tell this story because the host didn’t believe the earlier caller. Now, every other radio station in Toronto has the story that CFRB dismissed on air 18 minutes earlier. Again, what we learn here is that if the producer says to take the call, you go with the story. Trust your team. In this case the host didn’t trust his producer.

4:55 680NEWS says no reports of casualties … but survivors making their way to the 401

4:55 CBC Radio One has a CBC cameraman on air who was at the airport shooting video of planes trying to land at Pearson during the severe thunder storm. Says he was a kilometre from where the plane crash. Ran to the crash scene to shoot the burning plane.

Now that was an interview that no one else had on Toronto radio. Good for the CBC.

4:57 CFRB reporter listening to the police radios says there are reports of injured people being placed on a bus to go to a triage centre at the airport. Injuries are reported to be minor including back injuries.

First reference by any of the stations about injuries. Good work by the CFRB reporter to listen to the police radios. You get a lot of good leads from the police  radios. Whenever possible, someone should be listening to police radios during breaking news coverage.

4:57 640 announces there will be a press conference shortly  … caller who identifies himself as a worker at the airport says the Air France plane was a daily flight

By the way, we still haven’t heard from 640’s reporter who was supposed to be heading to the airport to cover the plane crash. He appears to be MIA. Where is he?

4:58 CBC Radio One cuts away from CBC News World to recap an incident at the airport. That Air France, believed to be flight 358 landed around 3:30 pm … no details about condition of passengers on board … more information about the incident at the airport on the news at five.

4:59 CFRB says most of the injuries appear to be from the hard landing and jumping off the plane. There is no indication of fire injuries at this point.

So there you have it. My assessment:

  • CBC did the poorest job of the four stations covering the breaking news story of the plane crash. They just weren’t in the game. Mainly because they didn’t go to the phones to talk to listeners. And when they did, in one case they didn’t pay attention to what the caller was saying. And then, a few minutes later, the host cast doubt on the accuracy of what that caller had said. They also went to a reporter stuck on another airplane several times who kept saying he couldn’t see anything. Don’t put people – even if its one of your reporters – on air who offer no new information.  A lot of mistakes you can all learn from  – especially about their delay going to the phones. You snooze, you lose.
  • AM640, did a good job with their limited resources. But for whatever reason, their reporter was just nowhere to be heard from. They scored some good on air hits with police and eyewitnesses on  the phones. They were also almost tied for being first with CFRB for breaking the story on Toronto radio.
  • 680News won the RTNDA award for breaking news. Their sales rep reporting live from the crash while the plane was burning was key to the win. But at times the sales rep blew things out of proportion by claiming “hundreds of fire trucks were on the scene”. Their biggest mistake was that they abandoned their responsibilities to their listeners several times by throwing the switch to CNN to cover the Toronto crash from Atlanta.CNN has cache for that radio station. But letting them cover the biggest story of the day in their market from Atlanta, just to have CNN on the story, was a mistake – especially when that network’s information was at times wrong and lagging behind what 680 had been telling its listeners.
  • CFRB had one stumble when the host said on air he didn’t believe the caller that he spoke to passengers waiting for help in an underpass by the 401. It took the station 18 minutes to recover and confirm that the caller was right. But by that time, everyone else had the story CFRB dropped the ball on. It is important to trust your team members. If the producer, whose job is to screen the calls, says take the call, than do it and not destroy that caller’s credibility. Otherwise they did a lot of things right. They were first with the breaking news of the crash, first with going to the phones, first to promote the news conference to hook listeners to continue listening to their coverage and first to talk about the injuries of passengers.

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