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Price Point | Was The ‘Code Red’ Meteorologist Right?

Hank Price: “The commitment of local broadcasters and their owners to the communities they serve is legendary. No corporation is perfect, nor is every policy. Employees have the right to disagree and should do so when they believe something is wrong, though hopefully not on a public forum.”

Hank Price

The public disagreement between a local meteorologist in Illinois and his corporate owners over “code red” days has now made it to the mainstream media, complete with consumer boycotts, a station announcement that “Code Red” will now be called “Weather Warn,” and the meteorologist consigned to whatever purgatory for whatever length of time the company has deemed appropriate.

The whole thing seems odd because the dispute appears to not be about actual weather coverage, tornado warnings or other emergency services, but rather the semantics used to describe upcoming conditions.

No corporation is perfect, nor is every policy. Employees have the right to disagree and should do so when they believe something is wrong, though hopefully not on a public forum.

The meteorologist claims he exhausted internal channels first, so perhaps he was justified going public. However, using the station’s own airways to register a complaint is out of bounds. No company can ignore that kind of in-your-face challenge.

Without more information, it’s impossible for those of us on the outside to accurately judge the merits, but I do take umbrage with the meteorologist’s contention that corporate owners are somehow not responsive to the viewers they serve: “Keep in mind, despite the fact that this facility is owned by a corporation, it’s still licensed under the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity.”

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Despite the fact?” On that point he is dead wrong.

Over a 30-year management career, I ran stations for three major companies. Each was intensely aware of their responsibility to serve the public “interest, convenience and necessity.” None hesitated to interrupt regular programming — including the associated loss of revenue — for severe weather, major news events or public emergencies.

After 9/11, the station I was running in North Carolina did not air a single local commercial for more than two weeks. This was done with the full support of our corporate owner without regard to the devastating effect on the bottom line.

More recently, stations in New Orleans and Mississippi did the same thing leading up to and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as did Houston stations during and after Harvey. Something similar happened after the Boston Marathon bombing. These are extreme examples, but not isolated.

The commitment of local broadcasters and their owners to the communities they serve is legendary. According to the NAB website, last year television and radio broadcasters generated more than $10 billion dollars in community service. The vast majority of those stations are owned by corporations, most of them public. None of this effort was legislated, coerced or demanded by any government body. All was completely voluntary.

Why such a strong effort to serve local communities?  One thing every television station owner understands is that without community support, stations are out of business. Operating a television station in the public interest, convenience and necessity is an essential foundation for success. It is simply good business. To not do so would destroy the fundamental value of a station.

One thing the meteorologist and I do agree on is his statemen that “I will let you [the viewers] be the judge on whether or not Code Red serves the public interest.” At the end of the day, that will certainly happen.

This is one in a series of occasional columns from Hank Price, a media consultant, author and speaker. He spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis. He also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a handbook for general managers.

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