“If this is it, are we ready?”

Last Thursday morning rumours about the death of a senior Royal began circulating on social media, only to be quashed a few hours later by the announcement of the Duke Of Edinburgh’s retirement. But in the hours between the rumour and the announcement, it made us question “if this is it, are we ready?”

If you’re working at one of the larger media groups around the world, you can be forgiven for not losing sleep over this one. Big organisations are well prepared with extensive plans, pre-packaged programming, and people accountable for making it happen. If you work at a regional radio station, part of big network, you can safely assume that somebody higher up will co-ordinate the whole thing in a few emails. But what if you are accountable; working at a smaller station or part of the team making things happen? If we considered Thursday morning as a rehearsal – and the blue light had really flashed – how prepared are we to deal with this?

Earlier this year The Guardian published this excellent article about the protocol surrounding the inevitable event of the monarch passing. Taken from it;

Britain’s commercial radio stations have a network of blue “obit lights”, which is tested once a week and supposed to light up in the event of a national catastrophe. When the news breaks, these lights will start flashing, to alert DJs to switch to the news in the next few minutes and to play inoffensive music in the meantime.

Most people working in radio programming will be familiar with the “Major Incident Plan” (or “Obit Plan”); a document that lives on a shared drive in every radio station detailing the immediate chain of events when the blue light flashes. They’re pretty standard; mobile phone numbers for senior staff, an edict to drop the adverts, stick to a chosen list of calm songs, and await further instruction. Perfectly adequate for anybody in an on air environment. I was on air when the Queen Mother died in 2002 (the blue light, on this occasion, did not flash) and did exactly that. Dropped the adbreak, faded up IRN, and awaited the National Anthem. But as technology has advanced and radio has adapted to do more with fewer resources, there’s no longer that guarantee of somebody in the studio to see the light, pick up the phone, and push up the fader. If the blue light flashed at 4am or late on Sunday night, a lot of radio networks have empty buildings, the people who get the texts might be asleep, there might be a pre-recorded presenter link coming up that – given the circumstances – could suddenly become quite insensitive.

(I remember driving in to work the morning after Michael Jackson died, listening to a competitor station playing “Billie Jean”, followed by a pre-recorded presenter telling me how much he’s looking forward to seeing MJ live at the O2 this summer.)

So what we did this week was conjure up every possible scenario; the blue light flashes, a major story is breaking. Let’s plan how we handle this if – for example – every station in the group is in local programming, some are live and some are automated. Do we network together or stay local? How do we bring every station together at a different time from the regular switching points? And then what about out-of-hours scenarios, where a limited number of people with remote access will need to make the decisions; are there pre-recorded announcements for every conceivable major story that can be inserted into automated programming? Is the Obit playlist still on a CD in a box in the studio (yes, old school) or on the playout system? Do the right people know how to change the music logs for multiple brands across multiple sites before the world is wise to the story and judging your reaction? When was the Obit playlist last updated? How many switching commands and automated actions are scheduled in the next few hours, potentially putting a station back on air with regular programming? When the light flashes, you’ve got to change everything, straight away.

The Major Story Plan might have the phone numbers you need, and the direction for one person sat in a live studio, but that’s not how radio is programmed anymore. Having spent this week dreaming up every scenario (live, automated, local, networked, empty building, programme director’s phone turned off etc), our brief major story plan now has a sister document of eight pages (and still going). That’s before we include a strategy for social media, digital, etc.

Despite what the latest motivational quote on Instagram says, don’t assume instinct will save your bacon and everything will be alright. The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.

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