In an effort to get the scoop on what’s happening inside radio newsrooms during this recession, both operationally and editorially, we surveyed 100 news, news-talk and talk stations in the top-50 markets at the end of the summer.  We looked at staff size, commitment to news coverage, who and what drives news content, the latest practice of sharing news stories and pooling resources, and explored the future of radio news.

What we found was encouraging.  Despite the economy and initial pressure to thin the ranks, radio news and news-talk newsrooms appear to be well staffed.  Our survey shows that the average newsroom is made up of a ten-person team.  We spoke to news directors and decision-makers inside the newsroom who believe this healthy staffing size shows a rebirth in commitment to local news.

News stations tend to be people-intensive and therefore expensive. Yet, more than half of the newsroom personnel surveyed (68%) believe those at the top, either corporate bosses or station managers, are still willing to invest in news staffs that can effectively cover the market they serve.

Staff size combined with news value plays an essential role in determining the stories that get on the air.  The majority of news and news-talk stations (65%) use one or both of these factors to plan their news day.

Talk show stations, on the other hand, don’t put as much emphasis on newscasts.  Their hosts address topical issues and are more editorially driven.  They rely on their sister stations for two-to-three minute, top-of-the-hour, headline news.  Thirty percent of the talk stations we surveyed do not have a newsroom staff at all, and 45% employ fewer than five reporters.
Overall, general assignment reporters are the work-horses of the news staff, gathering and writing most of what we hear on the air.  But, we are seeing a new trend with interns contributing to the news of the day.  So far, their reports average out to about 3% of the on-air product.  Highly structured internship programs are offered by 95% of the stations we surveyed, whereby interns get real-life, hands-on experience.  Another trend, citizen journalism at the local level, is also expanding.  While it is not playing a significant role at most stations yet, there are citizen journalists regularly disseminating information on some major market stations.

Interns and citizen journalists are not the only new, valuable resources for radio newsrooms.  Others include local experts referred to as “contributors” and now nearly two-thirds of radio newsrooms we surveyed are working out agreements with other news outlets to share stories and pool their resources.  Twenty three percent share stories with sister stations; 15% with television stations in the market; 8% with local newspapers; and 20% with a combination of media outlets – to bring the most complete news coverage to their listeners.

The broadcast audience is still the prime focus of radio stations’ newsgathering functions, although the news offered in podcasts and websites is growing in importance as more and more people go online to get their news.  Of the radio news operations we surveyed, 43% are focusing their energy on producing the best possible on-air news broadcast.  Twenty-seven percent are now splitting their efforts between their on-air and online products, getting as many stories into their podcasts as possible and filling their websites with as much up-to-date news as possible by using the technological tools available to meet their listeners’ preferences.

This brings us to the future of radio news.  Every decision-maker we spoke to believes today’s listeners like the control and variety that newer technology offers.  So it appears that listeners will be “tuning in” to smart phones and Internet-based car radios in the near future.  With new gadgets come new challenges.  While good for the consumers, online and on-demand radio is a concern for commercial radio news operations fueled by advertising dollars.  Stations will find it difficult to finance the gathering and reporting of radio news if new sources of revenue are not found.  One solution, “paid subscriptions” to online news, thus far is not catching on with the American public.  Therefore, the challenge for radio’s future is going to be to find a way to make popular technology profitable.