When a Music Legend Dies, How Does Today’s Mostly Automated Radio React?

Aretha Franklin died on August 16, the latest music legend to leave the stage forever. Sadly such obits are appearing at a steady clip these days as aging musicians give way to cancer, heart attacks or years of alcohol and drug abuse. For terrestrial radio stations, properly honoring those artists with deep dives into their catalog poses a challenge, as does simply delivering the news.

In the analog days, when someone died, you grabbed a stack of LPs and created a tribute on the spot. There was always a jock on the air since radio was live 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That’s not the case anymore as consolidation and technology have simultaneously shifted radio stations from live talent to automated and pooled content.

At thousands of stations, airshifts are entirely tracked, meaning there are many hours of the day – and especially overnight – when no one is in the building. So how do broadcasters react when an Aretha or a Tom Petty suddenly passes?

Big radio groups along with the syndication companies that provide prep services for stations have a protocol. First in line is the station’s program director who is in charge of all content locally and can remotely break into the automation from anywhere, even a cell phone, if need be.

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