Katelyn Fatzler is news director of WSOU(FM) at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. Campus View commentaries are a regular feature for Radio World.
The 2016 elections were challenging for nearly every news organization, especially with the unprecedented coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In the past, WSOU(FM) covered election night with live reporting, but I wanted to do something different.
WSOU’s election night news team was made up of 12 newscasters, whose reports started at 8 p.m. on Nov. 4, and ended at 3 a.m. on Nov. 5. The special coverage totaled seven hours, with nonstop talk programming from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. At midnight programming returned to music with news updates approximately every 20 minutes.
When I initially planned the coverage, I was skeptical it would work out. It took months of discussing ideas, but the planning itself really came down to the last two weeks before Election Day.
WSOU is a primarily a music station, with sports second and news third. I’ll admit that because I knew that what I was taking on was an unprecedented task for WSOU. As a college station reporting on the election, it could be argued that it was unwise to attempt when mainstream media outlets hold the advantage. It was intimidating.
In the past, the news department has covered election night with reports, but they would be brief updates between music. I was pitching something new because it was an experience WSOU’s staff deserved.
When planning an event that interrupts regular programming, it’s imperative to involve other managers in the discussion. For WSOU’s operation the program director and underwriting manager are the most important to consider to avoid scheduling conflicts.
It might seem obvious, but it’s also really important to inform staff that there’s an upcoming event they can take part in. Election coverage should not be an individual’s work, but a team effort.
Assembling the Team
Google Docs is a great tool for sign-up sheets because you can change the setting to allow an “editable link.” All I had to do was make the document, change the settings and email the link to staff. I explained there would be a rotation of shifts so it would be fair, offering everyone with air-clearance the chance to report.
The beauty in using Google Docs is that other students could see who else was signing up, which would encourage them to add their name to the list. It also helps that they don’t have to worry about directly reaching out to the news director on their own.
Once I had confirmed everyone, it was time to make it clear we were all responsible for being present on election night. I was counting on them, because I knew I couldn’t do it alone.
I divided the 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. coverage into three 90-minute shifts to make scheduling easier for myself. Then, everyone was designated a role for the shift: researcher, reporter or anchor.
Researchers monitored other news organizations for incoming data regarding the polls. They sat together looking for leads on interesting stories and local results. Many of the researchers also functioned as copywriters and sent material over to the anchors.
Reporters used our wire service, 24/7 News Source, to format newscasts the resembled our standard copy. Three reporters were assigned to every shift, each one going on air once during the 90-minute schedule. At :15 and :45 on the clock, they would go on for a live report which included 3-4 updates on the election.
Anchors were on air the longest and were the bulk of the personality for the talk programming. They introduced interviews and added commentary and added color to the flood of reports coming in. The anchors directed the evening and acted as the engineers and board operators as well.
Interviews and Guests
Scheduling interviews is a great addition to live reports. WSOU included a mix of experts, students and voters exiting the polls. Prerecorded interviews provided WSOU with an opportunity to give the news team time to breathe and catch up on the ever changing vote tallies and other breaking news.
A Real Learning Experience
The goal of WSOU’s election coverage was not to compete with professional stations, but to provide a hands-on learning opportunity for students and demonstrate that a music station can provide great news programming.
Also, I learned a few lessons that WSOU can incorporate when it covers New Jersey’s gubernatorial and state house elections next year. I plan on leaving a guide for future departments to reference, hoping they continue to improve the style of election coverage WSOU partakes in.
For the next election, I’d definitely recommend more prerecorded interviews as well as starting to bring experts on live. I think Montclair State University’s radio station, WMSC, did a great job with organizing live guests, which is something I would love to see WSOU more of do in the future. The interactions between WSOU and WMSC on election night also demonstrated the possibilities for college stations within New Jersey, or even nationwide, to cooperate on news coverage.
As a first-time news director, the experience of coverage the 2016 election was both challenging and exhilarating. Learning to lead a team of newscasters and make on-the-fly decisions with breaking news is precisely the point of college radio. It prepares the next generation of broadcasters for their careers and that’s exactly what WSOU aims to do.