For Southern California radio listeners, so far from the rubble and chaos of Manhattan, the local airwaves have become not just a source of information but also a forum for grieving, venting and seeking a sense of community.
Up and down the dial, the hours typically devoted to music, sports coverage and talk shows have been commandeered by the only issue of the day: the terrorist attacks against the symbolic centers of the nation's financial and military powers. The crisis has brought out the best in some stations and left others scrambling to find the proper tone and programming.
Radio is a powerful medium in Southern California, where long car commutes create a massive captive audience. Against the backdrop of the attacks in New York and Washington--and listeners' reaction to the events--radio broadcasters more accustomed to talking about rock songs or baseball scores found themselves in the roles of quasi-news anchors and amateur counselors.
At KPWR-FM (105.9), known familiarly as Power 106, the morning show host Big Boy saw his show abruptly shift from airing hip-hop and humor to explaining to confused young listeners, some of them sobbing, who exactly Osama bin Laden is and the symbolic importance of the World Trade Center. The station would, by Wednesday, be giving away American flags and patriotic T-shirts and asking each of its 1.5 million listeners to donate $1 for victim relief.
Down the dial at the Beat, KKBT-FM (100.3), popular morning show personality Steve Harvey found himself conducting grim interviews with the mayor and police chief of Los Angeles, a far stretch from the show's usual banter. "It was a tough thing to learn to do on the fly," Harvey said Thursday. "We had to turn the music and the comedy off. I'm paid to be entertaining, and it was strange to take this turn. This wasn't acting. It was real life."
Nancy Leichter, the station's vice president and general manager, said the continuing news bulletins weren't the only change in the station's broadcast; the music playlist was combed to excise songs that might be offensive.
"Lyrics with violence or even something like the new Michael Jackson song, 'You Rock My World,' we took off to avoid anything that would appear in bad taste," Leichter said.
"It's been remarkable," says Sky Daniels, a former DJ and now general manager of the industry trade magazine Radio & Records. "You have programmers looking at the very conscience of their radio station, saying, 'What do we stand for and how do we relate to our community?' The news stations have really risen to the occasion. Some of the music stations, I think, are realizing how superficial their normal voice is and are trying to figure out how they can do and say the right thing at a time like this."
In many studios, radio producers spliced snippets of news broadcasts into songs of inspiration or patriotism to create "heartfelt postcards to listeners," as Daniels described it. "God Bless America" and country singer Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." became popular selections, even on stations that would otherwise be playing only contemporary pop songs.
Many stations cut back or eliminated commercials in the first hours after the Tuesday morning attacks, and sports channels quickly substituted news broadcasts for their usual fare. DJs of all kinds urged audiences to fly American flags, switch on their car headlights as a sign of mournful solidarity or donate money and blood.
Although altruism was everywhere, on talk radio, anger was the strongest signal bouncing to radio towers and satellites.
Some station executives said they were screening out callers whose comments seemed to veer toward racism or volatile threats.
But Ruth Seymour, general manager of KCRW-FM (89.9), a National Public Radio affiliate, said fury of some sort must be allowed to become part of the station-listener dialogue. The station will ask listeners to call in for a forum beginning at noon today that will have chaplains from the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Fire Department on hand to speak with callers. Seymour said that reflection is the focus, but that the station will not filter out fury.
"We don't do much screening," Seymour said. "The whole point of this is to let people speak. I don't see any reason why the vitriolic sentiments shouldn't be out there. People are full of hate and anger, and that's part of what's going on out there. It's important to acknowledge that and not be here just to hold hands."
Local radio hosts on talk stations such as KFI-AM (640) and KABC-AM (790) have been inviting listeners to call in and vent. Many of the programs have included reminders not to let the attacks feed prejudice toward Arab Americans.