Focus

Getting Your Message on the Air

COMMUNICATIONS by CINDY HORCHEM


Radio is an important media outlet overlooked by many school administrators who generally direct their attention to local newspapers. Involvement with broadcast media is too often limited to transmitting school closure messages in periods of inclement weather.

Nearly every district is served by a local or regional newspaper. Newspapers are good sources of reliable school news, and school administrators are naturally alert to the influence of print media concerning schools. Radio is even faster and an equally viable medium. Radio can be used to target a specific audience for a specific message at a specific time.

Nearly all of the country's 15,000 school districts, including those of sparse population and large land area, are served by at least one radio station.

Radio provides a rich opportunity to communicate verbally with the school constituency. For school leaders, radio has distinct advantages: It’s immediate, comfortable, quick, easy, focused and captive in the sense that radio is both a static and a mobile means of communication. It captures people in the workplace, in their homes and in their vehicles.

Become Acquainted
Radio station news managers need brief messages, and they usually welcome information about public schools because they command almost universal interest among local listeners. Public service announcements involving schools are one option. School administrators also can use the airwaves to communicate significant messages through interviews, talk shows, call-in programs and editorials.

School leaders need to become acquainted with their local radio station personnel to learn about these opportunities. This is best accomplished through personal contact at the station and by inviting the station manager or news director to visit the schools. Respect the station's need for news. Become aware of programming deadlines and especially the target audiences to whom managers direct their programs. Timing is important because radio stations program much of their work to the second.

Nearly every radio station has a principal target audience affecting the amount of school news that can be communicated. Become aware of the target audience and realize that most general-interest radio stations play to fairly wide audiences by delivering music, announcements, news, interviews and sometimes editorial commentary.

Radio Mechanics
Radio news directors need short sound bytes that can be aired live or put on tape for later use, usually in the form of actualities, the radio equivalent of direct quotations. School leaders need to learn to prepare concise, simple statements absent of "uhs," "ers" and such trite statements as "you know." Merry Shelburne, author of Walking the Highwire: Effective Public Relations, admonishes further that statements need to be polite, professional and truthful. Political correctness is paramount. There is nothing to be gained from poorly written spot announcements or poorly executed interview responses. Remember the importance of brevity and the absence of jargon.

News directors have limited time for editing. It is critical that copy be clear and contain visual images because the audience will be listeners rather than readers. Radio stations, like most news media, need all copy a week to 10 days in advance of an event. Ideally, check with station personnel to determine their preference regarding submission of information.

Prepare carefully and rehearse for a talk show or interview so that excessive notes can be avoided. Work on projecting your voice and relaxing your delivery. Look to the news director for instructions on using the microphone and how to be seated most comfortably to ensure clear articulation.

Remember that the average listener has a brief attention span. The average human attention span is 15 seconds, according to David Perry, in his Media How-To Guidebook. A lot can be said in 15 seconds, and if it is properly said, listeners will stay tuned for more. Your first 10 seconds (about 25 words) must cause the listener to want to stay tuned for another 10 seconds. A 60-second spot can be a long time if the message has not been carefully thought out and committed to paper.

Finally, once a spot, an interview, a question-and-answer or similar type of show has been aired, be sure to share any feedback you receive with the station. Radio stations, like newspapers, exist to serve the community. Financial support is derived from advertising, and advertising is sold according to the number of listeners who will hear the ad.

Making Radio Work
The Topeka, Kan., Unified School District has produced a 10-minute radio show, "Super Talk," every week for the past 10 years. The show is taped at the district's administrative offices with Brad Stauffer, director of communications, interviewing the superintendent. Copies of the tapes are dubbed and delivered to participating stations.

The time a program is aired can have a major impact on its success. Initially "Super Talk" was broadcast at 8:30 or 8:45 a.m. on a weekday. It has since been bumped to 5 a.m. Saturday and 12:15 p.m. Sunday slots. Stauffer said the district received many more comments on the program before it was moved to the weekends.

One mid-sized northeast Kansas town used a series of radio programs to help successfully pass a referendum. The superintendent was interviewed by the station manager, then listeners were able to call in their questions.

Cindy Horchem is assistant professor of mass media at Washburn University, 1700 College Ave., Topeka, KS 66621. E-mail: zzhorc@washburn.edu. Kent Stewart is professor of educational administration at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.