- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Local television news is nothing if not reliable. Viewers who flip on their set to get the latest headlines, weather and traffic are never disappointed.

Well, almost never.

Two weeks ago today, a bomb threat forced WTTG-TV (Channel 5) to cancel its noon newscast, probably the first time in the program's eight-year history that it didn't go on the air as planned. Viewers who tuned into the Fox affiliate that afternoon expecting to see news saw a "M*A*S*H" re-run instead.

Before September 11, this would have been no big deal. But at a time when Washingtonians live in fear of another terrorist attack, the incident raises an important question: How capable are the broadcasters of staying on the air during times of crisis?

Several local broadcast news executives say they have plans to deal with virtually any emergency, including those that happen at their stations.

All-news radio station WTOP (820 and 1500 AM, 107.7 FM), for example, says if disaster struck its 3400 Idaho Ave. NW home base, the station could move its operation to Wheaton or Frederick, where two of its radio towers are located.

The station has always considered Wheaton a backup site, but it didn't decide to make Frederick, Md., a backup, too, until after September 11, according to Jim Farley, vice president of news and programming. WTOP is outfitting the Frederick studio with new equipment, including computers with access to major wire services, he says.

WTOP has been tested before. About one year ago, a fire drill forced the station to evacuate its newsroom during the middle of the day. Many staffers voluntarily stayed in the building, including anchor Bruce Alan, who remained on the air throughout the drill.

If necessary, the local television stations say they could produce a newscast from the back of one of their news trucks. A technician doesn't necessarily need to be at the station to receive the truck's signal and put it on the air, the stations say.

Why didn't WTTG exercise this option during its June 12 bomb scare?

Katherine Green, the station's news director, referred all questions to General Manager Glenn "Duffy" Dyer, who didn't return telephone calls. Some newsroom staffers and police officers familiar with the situation helped fill in the blanks.

Bomb threats at WTTG's upper Northwest building, also home to offices for "America's Most Wanted," are nothing new. For reasons they did not wish to disclose, police believed the June 12 threat was credible. It called into the building about 10 a.m., and within an hour, police had ordered all occupants out.

The station considered doing the noon newscast from a news truck or from the Fox News Channel bureau in downtown Washington. WTTG staffers say police prevented them from entering the building to get the equipment needed to produce the show; a police spokesman could not confirm this.

Regardless, WTTG should soon be planning to prevent similar situations in the future, says Don Watson, an Indiana consultant who helps broadcasters prepare for emergencies.

Generally, broadcasters are reluctant to spend money to plan for disasters, whether it's a terrorist attack or a winter storm, Mr. Watson says. "Too many stations are penny-wise and pound-foolish. They don't deal with these issues until it's too late."

Got a tip for Channel Surfing? Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send an e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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