The first story in a radio newscast is the most important in a collection of stories read at the time you tune in. Usually that lead story is the most up-to-date, and appeals to the greatest number of listeners.

Think of the inverted pyramid which is wide at the top, emphasizing the big story. That pyramid narrows until it reaches the bottom where the newscast ends with a “kicker” story, usually a lighthearted good news item that is supposed to send listeners off with a smile. That’s what I was taught at school anyway.

A music radio station I worked for early in my career restructured that pyramid and instituted a “good news” policy whereby the top story needed to be a positive story.

The idea was presented to the newsroom by a representative from the sales department who said potential clients told them they didn’t listen to the news because it was always bad.

I admit that at the time I was new to radio and didn’t really understand the business side of it. In retrospect I can understand the fear of the financial implications the salesperson was experiencing. As well, I know that my boss was probably told by his boss to implement the idea. But was a “good news” policy really going to lead to more listeners and increased advertising revenue?

How could one bad story in a newscast, that took about 30 seconds at most to read, cause local advertisers to decide not to spend money on a station that played music 90 percent of the time?

Local news

The mantra of every small market station I worked with was “lead local”. That was a phrase that meant different things to different people.

For some it meant leading with stories from the police files the night before. That meant you could regularly hear a story about a robbery at a convenience store or gas station by a person wearing black who made off with an undisclosed amount of cash. Hearing stories like this on a regular basis could certainly give someone the impression the news is bad, and awfully close to home.

Rather than focus on “good news” the station might have elected to emphasize stories that were interesting and mattered to the greatest number of people listening.

Hind-sight is wonderful isn’t it?

If it bleeds, you must not lead

In the first “good news” newscast I heard, the lead story was about the positive health benefits of eating muffins! That was followed by a story about a scientific study on eyesight and how it could benefit people in the future! And then, the other stories of the day!

Behind the scenes, station news staff discussed how to lead with “good news” stories and put a positive spin on others, and concluded that it wouldn’t work.

There were questions about how, in a “good news” news environment, to cover stories about bad weather, tough government budgets, and municipal governments that made bad decisions for their voters, and how would it affect our local cop stories of gas or convenience store robberies which we seemed to air on a regular basis?

After one newscast I read, I was called out for reporting that the unemployment rate in Canada was 11 per cent. That’s how everyone else was reporting it.  Instead I was told I should have reported that 89 per cent of people in the country had a job.

Reporters are telling stories about what’s going on. Sometimes they have to cover bad news stories and other times the stories are positive, and sometimes reporters cover fun stories. It’s all part of the gig.

The philosophical discussions on the new policy only lasted two weeks because a war broke out in the Persian Gulf. Iraq invaded Kuwait and the allies launched Operation Desert Storm. Canada was involved, and we were able to find local angles to the international story.

The war ended all talk of a “good news” approach, for a time. But the policy came back when the war was over.