The Mysterious Off-Air Lives of Hosts (Or, The Host/Reporter Dilemma Revisited)

judithsmelser.com

Every now and then, I take a look at my Scribbles and Scruples stats page. As expected, the most popular posts are the most recent, but I’ve noticed this post from almost two and a half years ago getting a lot of attention of late: Host/Reporters: How to Make the Most of Your Reporting Time.

The headline touches on a common dilemma: how can a full-time staff member who spends half to three quarters of her day in a studio use the the rest of her time productively?

A lot of people are interested enough in the issue to dig that old post out of the archives on a fairly regular basis, so I thought I’d do a little update and reopen the discussion.  Here’s a brief sampling of the varied and mysterious off-air lives of hosts. You might find a surprise or two!

The Traditional: Host as Spot Reporter

Many hosts – especially morning hosts – are primarily spot reporters, since it’s difficult to do feature reporting in a timely or consistent way with only a few hours a day to spend. Spots are definitely useful to the newsroom, but spot reporting is hardly fulfilling for many of the hosts I’ve known. Also, it doesn’t do much to serve the public media mission to create content that’s rich with context and depth.

The Challenging: Host as News Director

Several talented journalists, whom I’m fortunate to call friends, are in this position. They get up before the crack of dawn to host Morning Edition and then run a newsroom in the afternoon. I tip my hat – and my coffee cup – to these incredibly hardworking folks … but I don’t recommend this structure as a newsroom design principle. I have played this role on a fill-in basis, and at least in my experience, it’s extraordinarily difficult to be an effective editor and manager while hosting several hours a day – especially when those hours are in the morning. I’m not saying it’s impossible – I’m just saying it’s not the ideal way to go.

The Useful: Host as Interviewer

My suggestion in the original 2012 post was for hosts to do two-ways (aka, short to mid-length interviews). I still believe that’s a very good use of time. When done well, two-ways provide depth, context, and color that go far beyond a spot; logistically, they’re more feasible than features, given the disjointed nature of hosts’ reporting time; and I like the fact that they give hosts more of a presence in their programs, allowing them to be true hosts, in addition to newscasters and continuity announcers.

The Innovative: Host as Digital Producer

At last year’s PRNDI conference, my colleague Mike Marcotte made another interesting suggestion: hosts can be great contributors to their stations’ digital news efforts. Daily news blogs and online news roundups mesh well with the host-as-newscaster role. They also work well with hosts’ disjointed schedules, as many digital posts can be created relatively quickly without too much reliance on source callbacks. Social media can fit that same description.

The Experimental: Host as Programming Aide

Radio program directors are increasingly morphing into content directors.  Their responsibilities now encompass digital and, in some cases, television content, as well as partnerships with content producers outside their own stations.  Some also have duties involving on-air fundraising, community outreach, and the like.  Naturally, it’s hard for them to spend as much time and attention on some of the traditional radio program director tasks as they used to.  In at least one pubmedia organization, the Morning Edition host is starting to fill that gap.  Houston Public Media’s David Pitman tells me he recently took on several new responsibilities, including programming a weekly documentary slot, spotting trends in ratings data, and tracking news stories by topic.

I wrote about David in my 2012 post – he was the morning host at WMFE in Orlando during part of my time as news director there, and we worked hard to hone the Host-as-Interviewer model. He has used those two-way skills in Houston, but he and his colleagues have identified the programming duties as a greater need right now. I think it’s an interesting and creative step, and I look forward to updates on how it’s working.

The All-Too-Common: Host as Jack of All Trades

I threw out a question on a Public Media Journalists’ online group, asking how hosts used their off-air time.  Here are some of the responses:

  • Editing, reporting, mixing, troubleshooting
  • Being the program director and general manager (!) *exclamation point added

What Works for You?

I’m sure this list doesn’t cover the waterfront. No doubt there are many other hats hosts wear when they aren’t keeping us company in the shower or on our commute. If you’re a host or a newsroom manager, share what’s worked well and what hasn’t worked so well, so we can all learn from each other.

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The Mysterious Off-Air Lives of Hosts (Or, The Host/Reporter Dilemma Revisited)

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