The Importance of Assessing the Safety and Security of Broadcast Stations and Their Personnel

David Oxenford - Color
David Oxenford

By: David Oxenford, Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP,

A topic not much discussed among broadcasters, but one that should be paramount in the future planning of all broadcast companies, is insuring the security of their stations and the safety of their employees. This is an issue on which all broadcasters should be focusing. Last month, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association for the second time featured a panel at one of its conventions dealing with this topic. While many might think that security issues won’t arise at their stations, in fact it can be an issue at any station in any market. Listening to the stories told by the participants on these panels, and in later discussions with audience members at the two WBA conferences where the panel has now been featured, and judging from news reports, the topic is clearly one that all broadcasters should be considering. Video of the panel held last month is available here.

While the panel was premised on protecting journalists who often are the highest profile “faces” of a TV station, from the discussion it was clear that the need for security planning is one that applies not just to TV stations with news operations, but even to radio stations and other media outlets that can, for one reason or another, be targeted by someone with a grudge against the outlet or one of its personalities. We have seen high profile incidents like the shooting of the Roanoke TV journalists or the employees of an Annapolis newspaper, and we have seen just in the last few weeks pipe bombs sent to news organizations and threats against cable TV hosts. But, as discussed at the WBA panel, there have been many less publicized incidents. Two of the panelists discussed their experiences, one a shooting at a small community-run radio station and the second an intruder making threats and smashing station property in broad daylight at a small market TV station. These incidents, beyond simply raising questions of employee safety, raise both practical and legal issues for all broadcasters.

As discussed in last month’s panel, the practical issues can be as simple as the question of how to conduct operations when your station has become a crime scene. The manager of the Wisconsin community radio station where a night-time intruder shot the on-air DJ discussed not only the security review that the incident prompted, but also the operational issues that resulted from the incident. While police investigated the incident, station employees could not get into their building to operate the station. This highlighted the need for disaster and emergency planning for all stations, not just because of incidents like this, but for any eventuality (e.g. flood or chemical spill) that could make a studio inaccessible. How does a station deal with the lack of access to their main studio? Can they keep operating if that happens? Have they made plans for such an event?

On these panels, law enforcement officials emphasized the need for planning and staff training sessions so that employees know what to do if a threat arises. Many businesses already undertake this kind of training, and local law enforcement authorities are often willing to help conduct the sessions. In the small market TV incident discussed on the panel, a stranger started banging on the front door of a TV station and then retreated to the front lawn of the station using a crucifix he had stolen from a local church to start attacking the sign identifying the station. In the video show during the discussion, a station employee can be seen running out to confront the attacker. Questions were raised as to whether the better and safer approach might have been to shelter in the studio building until law enforcement authorities trained in dealing with such situations arrived on the scene, especially without knowing what other weapons the individual might have had. Would your employees have known what to do in such a situation?

The discussion looked at other instances where stations should be assessing the safety of their employees. While technology has made it possible for station employees, by themselves, to broadcast from all sorts of remote locations, should they do so? Should the station be thinking about security before sending an employee to do a broadcast from a news scene or any other remote location – especially if the employee is going on their own?

Planning for these situations is important, and as I said in my remarks, there are already lawyers thinking about potential liability for stations that don’t do enough to keep their employees safe. Stations should be thinking about how to ensure a safe workplace, and taking active measures to reduce risks. Some companies have already started to review social media accounts of their stations and their on-air employees to try to identify threats early – as some online remarks may be indicative of real potential threats to station personnel. The FCC has eliminated the requirement that stations have a manned main studio accessible by the public during all business hours. While some stations feel that they need to maintain an accessible main studio to show their connection to their communities, others have decided that security is more important. Stations should make educated decisions about such matters, assessing the security implications of their choices.

These are not easy decisions, and there are no clear answers as to what stations need to do to keep their employees safe on the job, while still interacting with the community to provide the localism on which broadcasting thrives. In today’s world, journalists and broadcast companies are often vilified by public figures and even by private individuals who do not, for one reason or another, like what is being broadcast. Because of the attention they get, stations need to be thinking about these issues, and planning for the security issues that may come their way. We will be writing more about these questions in future articles, but start thinking about these issues now.

David Oxenford is MAB’s Washington Legal Counsel and provides members with answers to their legal questions with the MAB Legal Hotline. Access information here. (Members only access).

There are no additional costs for the call; the advice is free as part of your MAB membership.

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