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NEW YORK RADIO WIRES
- a historical perspective from 1978 -
November 9, 1978 - It's four AM, and on the fourth floor of
50 Rockefeller Center in mid-town Manhattan, Mike Collins, who runs the
Associated Press New York Broadcast Metro wire, is putting together the
news copy that many New York stations will use in this morning's newscasts.
The "wire" as it is called in journalism parlance, is actually a service
that delivers written stories to teletype machines sitting at dozens of subscribing
news outlets around the city. Radio and TV stations use the content
that is delivered to these machines to help form the basis of their newscasts.
The first big push of the day is the "dawn summary," a complete
wrap-up of all of the major stories from the previous day and previous night.
Content is written specifically to be read on radio or TV, rather than in
the much different traditional newspaper style of most wire copy. The dawn
summary arrives at most stations just as (or before) the morning news teams
arrive, and provides many of the stories that millions of listeners will
hear that morning over the radio and TV airwaves.
New York has two major wire services: The Associated Press (AP)
and United Press International (UPI). Content from these two services provides
the backbone of news information for the city.
New York is so big, has so much happening, and has so many news
outlets that both major wire services maintain special "city" wires to
carry metro news, and cater special city wires just for the broadcast market.
These metro broadcast wires provide copy written specifically for broadcast
and also move bulletins and many dozens of stories to New York area stations.
All the News and More
Beyond proving writing copy specifically for broadcast, the AP and
UPI provide a host of different services with their city wire operations,
What if these New York city wires didn't exist?
"The stations would have to do it all themselves," says Scott Latham
of UPI, "which means they'd have to hire the staff, the machines, the wires,
establish themselves with various and sundry state organizations, and essentially
put together their own mini wire service."
"Without a New York City wire," reflects AP's Collins, "stations
in New York and the Island would have to get stories that were going on
-- there would be no other way to get them -- which would be impossible to
do. They'd just miss a lot of big stories."
"If we know there's been a plane crash, and we don't have enough
details to give them a full story," relates Scott Latham, ""we'll put an
advisory on the wire saying we understand there's been a plane crash, we're
looking into it, and we'll give them the bare minimum details that we have,
and we go ahead on the phones and send the reporters in to get the facts
as soon as possible."
At AP, Mike Collins, night editor Dan Murphy, and a day assistant
all have broadcast backgrounds. We've tried to be aware of the needs or radio
vs the needs of newspapers alone, which is a problem with some bureaus," says
Collins. "We know the difference between getting a story out at five minutes
before eight and five minutes after eight in the morning.
We know what morning drive is, and afternoon drive is. We know that the stations
immediately want to know about a breaking story somewhere, even if there's
only minimal information, and we won't sit on it for three or four hours
until we have every piece of the puzzle. When we know something, we try to
let the members know about it. And then even if we're not super interested
in it, they might be, because they might be in that area [where the story
happened] and they can pursue it."
Traffic is a major component of the daily New York information diet, and both wire services provide essential commuter information to stations throughout the New York area.
"We cover traffic tie-ups, when there's something major going on,"
says Collins at the AP. "We run all train information on the Long Island
Railroad and Conrail. We receive a hotline that they operate -- and they
ring that telephone every time there's a late train -- and we file that information
on the wire. And this frees the stations themselves from having to call
the Long Island Railroad ... every fifteen minutes or every half-hour during
'We [also] carry the temp in Central Park, and all the forecasts
for the various zones in our area... We place a very heavy emphasis on
weather, figuring that if there's any kind of storm in the area, people
tuning into the radio want to hear that more than they do the routine thing.
If there's a big snow storm going on, they don't really want to hear what
the Mayor had to say at his news conference everyday, or what the state legislature
debated -- they want to find out if the roads are passable, or when power
might be restored, or whether the trains are still running."
A mainstay of wire information is police news, which starts with the New York City Police Department wire, supplemented by calls to the suburban departments.
"We have the New York City police wire, and we have reception desk
on Nassau and Suffolk counties," says Mike Collins. "And we also have
a desk we call up in Westchester.... We make regular rounds. Also, we have
radio stations which tip us. These local radio stations have contacts in
those areas and hear about things, and a lot of times will find out about
long before we would. We've also found that sometimes local police
agencies will be more willing to talk to the local people that they deal
with everyday than to, say, the Associated Press in New York."
"As far as accuracy, most of the time they're pretty accurate, but
sometimes you get individual policemen or fire chiefs [that aren't],"
relates Collins. "We had one fire chief up in Bridgeport who told me a couple
of weeks ago that there was a double fatal fire and he told me that two
people ahd been arrested for arson murder. And as it turned out, it wasn't
correct. And so we called back and confronted him with it and he said
'Oh, really? Well, that's what I heard some guys talking about in the
building here.' That's pretty scary. This wasn't just a fireman;
this was the Assistant City Fire Chief for the City of Bridgeport."
Do police departments ever sit on something? "Very often they will
sit on something," says Collins, "and maybe sometimes it's intentional;
other times I think it's just laziness... sometimes they'll have a report
written up and they just don't feel like reading it. Other times, it'll
just be incomplete. Like they'll leave out home towns or specific charges.
And then it's up to us to track this information down. We find that
sometimes we have a release about a simple holdup that can go on a couple
of pages... and yet still leave out essential points that we need."
Despite the breezy, sometimes punchy, delivery styles of many New
York stations, AP and UPI generally play things straight.
"We try to be very straightforward and not be cute or not play games
in any way in the way we write," says Mike Collins of AP, explaining
that the AP serves all different kinds of stations including classical
stations like WNCN and WQXR, rock stations and all news stations. "We pretty
much just try to be straightforward and emphasize clarity -- make the story
clear and understandable -- and then if the stations want to be cute with
it or rewrite it or whatever, they still have that option."
Perhaps one of the neatest things about working for a broadcast wire
is hearing the copy that you've written being read back to you on the radio
at work or even on your commute home.
"We will hear our stuff both on suburban stations and on New York
City stations -- both all news stations," says Collins of AP. "Especially
the first time a story breaks, they will want to get that story right
on the air. Occasionally, we've even heard our stories filed from here
on the CBS radio network, word for word. That's rare, but if it moves at,
say, three or four minutes before the hour, the station involved has a
choice of either not running it at all or going with what the wire has."
"Some of the stations that are not primarily news stations will use
our stuff. And some of the stations in the suburbs will use our stuff pretty
much word for word every time. They are spending their time developing other
stories or getting audio around the story, instead of just spending time
UPI's Scott Latham concurs: "On a breaking story no one's got the
time to rewrite. You must go with your latest information. If you have
a disaster such as we had at Kennedy Airport several years ago where a plane
went down, the radio station's job is to get the information out as fast
as possible, just as ours is. No one's got the time to rewrite in that kind
"A station like WINS or WCBS -- which are all-news stations and have
a bigger staff -- will rewrite more often.," concedes Latham. "But
again, often they don't. Quite often there's no need do; why rewrite something
that says it perfectly to begin with?"
Because of its special relationship with newspapers and broadcast
outlets, which are considered "members" rather than subscribers, the
Associated Press can pick up and share stories from any news outlet using
the AP service. This means important stories from newspapers and even radio
stations get widely dispersed via the AP service.
Though many stories are picked up from newspapers, AP does get news
from radio as well.
"We had, during the  blackout, various people giving out information
[on the air, that we used]," relates Collins. "The mayor was on the air
live, and talking slowly, and giving out phone numbers fordifferent
services... and we took that information directly off the air and put it
on the wire."
UPI also monitors the airwaves: "We have two all-news radio stations
in New York," says UPI's Scott Latham. "They're both clients, they also
are both clients of the Associated Press. So we monitor CBS generally because
it's got network news, for two reasons: (a) to find out what AP might be
running on the wire -- if they have a story that we don't we're concerned,
and (b) also to monitor worldwide news. If we hear about something out of
Africa, we'll run over to the foreign desk, and ask them if they're aware
of that, and nine times out of ten, it's their story that went to CBS
in the first place, but it provides a dual function.
On the receiving end, radio stations are awash in hundreds of feet
of wirecopy rolling from their machines every day.
All of the larger news operations in the city get both the AP and UPI city broadcast wires. Further, most get newspaper wires in addition to the broadcast wires. City news directors say there are advantages to having both: Though broadcast wire copy is written to be read on-air, breaking stories sometimes move faster on the newspaper wires and there is usually more information on them. Newspaper wires require additional expenditures, however, because a station needs people on staff to rewrite print style into additional broadcast parlance.
Several stations get out-of-state wires. And there are police wires,
and there is a PR line as well.
Only three operations subscribe to Reuters: WCBS and WBAI get a general
NOR ("North America") wire; WBLS subscribes to the Reuters Cana-carribbean
wire which follows events in the West Indies.
WQXR is the only station to get the New York Times service wire.
Some stations get so much inbound news that the number of wires has
actually become an information management problem: WOR has combined three
UPI feeds onto a high-speed printer so that it doesn't have to manage three
slower wire machines.
(You can see detail of the wires that each station subscribes to in 1978 by visiting the "datasheet" overview for each station in this documentary.)
The "daybook" is a daily calendar of upcoming news events such as
press conferences, mayoral staff meetings, and high-profile court cases.
New York City Daybooks are offered by both AP and UPI, and both services
also provide a smaller "nightbook" chronicling upcoming evening activities.
News directors use both daybooks and nightbooks, in combination with newspapers'
stories and calendars, to figure out where to send their reporters.
The AP's daybook runs first thing in the morning, and the nightbook
moves around 1 PM. You can see a complete example
of a daybook from the Fall, 1978 on this web site.
"[The daybook] includes events news conferences, and anything we
feel radio stations and the television stations might want to cover,"
explains AP's Mike Collins. "Whenever possible we include telephone contact
numbers so they can call and maybe get some information on the phone or
get audio on it if they can't afford to send a staffer over. Many organizations
call us. Government agencies have come to know that the wire services are
one place where they can immediate reach every station in town. Also,
we get news releases from various government agencies, and from private companies
and also from going through the newspapers.
While most stations have at least the rudiments of a futures file, news directors use the daybooks extensively. WXLO's Charlie Steiner calls them "wonderful!" WABC's Paul Erhlich says they're a station's "eyes and ears."
There are dissenting opinions, however: WPIX's John Parsons sees
the city's reporters following daybooks as a covey of partridges would follow
a trail of seed: "It tells you some of what's going on," Parsons concedes.
"but its clients are usually politicians and people involved in the news machine,
who know there is a daybook in existence and so alert the wire to so-called
'events.' If you use that as your Bible, then you're not inventive,
and you are not enterprising, and you are not talking to people."
Parsons believes the daybook can only be used effectively as a 'tip
sheet' -- a clue to some of the things 'going on in town.'
Still, Parsons is in the minority; most station news directors rely
on the daybook heavily to plan their coverage for the day.
New York's News Directors revere the city wires for the wealth of
information they provide minute by minute during the day's crucial drive
times, and for the tools they provide in helping news departments cover
the city. Many, who have worked in other cities outside of New York, are
in awe of the special services provided in New York City, which is one of
the few cities in the world where city wires are available.
"[The metro wire in New York] is unusual because the subscribers
to UPI's wire come from a highly localized area, and they are therefore
interested in highly localized news," explains Scott Latham of UPI, "whereas
a state wire will have its clients spread out over an entire state, and
therefore is interested in a wide variety of news. New York City, for instance,
doesn't really care too much about what the grape growers of Western
New York are doing. Conversely, the New York grape growers don't care too
much whether a bank got robbed on 42nd street, and that therefore should
not appear on the state wire, unless it were a major holdup which everyone
would be interested in."
Mike Collins of the Associated Press agrees: "We're in a special
situation here. We have New York City radio stations which aren't really
looking for rewrites, and suburban stations which are not looking for
rewrites. In other situations -- for example in Connecticut -- where you
have 45 radio stations we found the stations up there did use the rewrites.
Many of them are very short-staffed and had disc jockeys who were just
ripping the wire. So this [New York] wire is pretty unique. But so is the
And Collins tries to keep in touch with the special requirements
of his customers by talking to them a lot.
"The basic philosophy under which we have operate is to try to be
as much use as we can to any newsroom both in the city and in the suburban
areas. And we've tried to be very sensitive to... the ideas that these
radio stations have, and try to remain in close touch with them and see
what they have to say, because really, that's why we're here."
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The Associated Press - The official site of the Associated Press.
United Press International
- The official site of United Press International.