Sunday, May 24, 2009 | The number of radio journalists in San Diego is declining at a rapid clip, raising questions about the medium’s ability to cover disasters that could silence all other forms of media.

In total, fewer than 20 journalists now work at local radio stations, compared to dozens in the past. The biggest cutbacks have come at news-talk station KOGO/600 AM, which has cut its news staff by nearly half and no longer airs locally based news reports during much of the day and night.

The burning questions in a county susceptible to disasters like wildfires and earthquakes: How important are roving radio reporters on the scene instead of in a studio? Can other journalists pick up the slack? And what happens if KOGO is the only broadcaster left on the air after a disaster? Unlike its rivals, KOGO has the ability — and the obligation — to easily continue operating if an emergency knocks out power to the county.

The station is the designated emergency alert system broadcaster for the county, meaning it must be ready to stay on the air during a blackout and provide information to all radio and TV stations at a moment’s notice.

To that end, generators allow the station to stay on the air for at least 72 hours in a power outage and serve listeners with battery-powered radios.

Former KOGO reporters predict the station will be hampered with five fewer staff members than it had during its widely praised coverage of the 2007 wildfires, when it provided non-stop, commercial-free coverage for more than 72 hours. Seven sister stations picked up much of the broadcast.

“It’s going to take a long time to muster up coverage when something goes down,” warned Wade Douglas, a four-decade broadcast veteran who was laid off last year.

Indeed, KOGO now only has two reporters along with four anchors. But KOGO program director Cliff Albert said the station’s news coverage is actually stronger because of its partnerships with NBC 7/39, voiceofsandiego.org and L.A. radio station KFI/640 AM.

“The business climate and the tightening on spending have helped speed up a new and more effective way of doing things,” he said via e-mail. “It is not a bad thing to work together.”

KOGO, a high-rated station that provides news coverage to sister Clear Channel stations in San Diego, laid off two reporters last month on the heels of layoffs earlier this year and in 2008.

In contrast to its current six staffers, the station employed 11 newspeople during its award-winning coverage of the wildfires in 2003 and 2007, Albert said.

KOGO’s relationship with KFI, a sister station also owned by the Clear Channel company, is new. Anchors based in L.A. now read many of KOGO’s hourly local news reports as part of Clear Channel’s cost-cutting strategy to create news “hubs” around the country to provide coverage to stations in specific regions.

“The only difference with our news-sharing operation is that the anchors who do the midday and evening newscasts are doing them in front of a microphone 90 miles away,” Albert said. “But it is literally no different than someone doing a newscast down the hall.”

In the radio industry, however, critics have said such long-distance arrangements can embarrass stations when faraway anchors mispronounce local place names or fail to understand local geography.

But such complaints have done little to stop the rise of less-expensive non-local programming on music and talk stations.

Douglas, the former reporter, said limited staffing will prevent the kind of coverage the station provided during the wildfires. “We kept the city informed and probably even saved lives,” he said. “We’re not going to have that hands-on immediacy anymore. They don’t have the personnel to send out.”

Sally Hixson, another laid-off KOGO reporter, expects the station will be forced to rely more on residents to provide information in an emergency because it has fewer journalists to deploy.

“It’ll become more of a community thing,” said Hixson, who has worked in radio since the 1970s. “We may be so far removed from the epicenter of an emergency that we’ll have to rely on the community to let us know what’s going on.”

KOGO does have other options in an emergency besides turning to its small staff of journalists. It can pick up coverage provided by NBC 7/39, as it already does, and it can turn to staffers at the L.A. station.

Radio listeners, of course, can get their news elsewhere too. KFMB/760 AM is a sister station of KFMB-TV/Channel 8, and KPBS/89.5 FM has the largest radio newsroom in the county with 10 journalists.

Like its rival, KPBS-FM received praise for its coverage of the 2007 wildfires and is devoting more resources to breaking news in light of KOGO’s cutbacks.

“It creates an opportunity for us,” said KPBS-FM program director John Decker. “The perception to which the audience thinks of KOGO as a news station has diminished, and it can’t get any lower.”

And there many other sources of news in a disaster: television, the internet, and text and Twitter messages, among others.

With so many alternatives, even some fans of radio have stopped turning to it in a disaster. “It would never occur to me to tune in to a San Diego station during a major emergency. Breaking news requires a set of skills and resources that are in short supply in San Diego radio news,” wrote local radio veteran Bob Hudson last year in an online forum devoted to San Diego radio.

Skills are crucial, he wrote, because “otherwise decent news readers break down during the stress of being on air when there is no script, and information, often conflicting, is coming at you like water from a firehose and you have to sort it out on-the-fly and ad lib something coherent.”

But there’s one scenario in which TV and the internet are virtually useless: during a power outage.

That’s where KOGO’s emergency designation could be crucial.

KPBS-FM, the other main radio news provider, has generators too, but only a technician can turn on the one at the station’s San Diego State University studios, Decker said.

As a result, KPBS-FM can’t become the lead emergency alert station because it doesn’t have the ability to immediately switch to auxiliary power, Decker said. It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to change that, he said.

KOGO’s ability to stay on the air in a disaster could make its small staff the only source of local information to the county’s 3 million people when the power goes out.

Not to worry, said Albert, the program director. He said the staffing numbers are misleading because the station can call on reporters at L.A.’s KFI to come to San Diego and report on an emergency if necessary. Other staffers, such as talk-show hosts, have assisted in the past, he said.

In the big picture, he said, KOGO continues to be committed to news. “I am confident in what we do,” he said, “and what we will continue to be able to do.”

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at rdotinga@aol.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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