Radio Stations are Adopting Drones

WTOP and KFI are on top of UAV newsgathering
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A drone’s-eye view of a light fixture in the parking lot where KFI’s Neil Saavedra and Steve Gregory learn how to fly it.

Photos courtesy Neil Saavedra/KFI

ROCHESTER, N.Y.—There are indeed a handful of radio people working hard to stay ahead of the UAV curve. It was no surprise, for instance, to look a row ahead at one drone session during the NAB Show and see someone from WTOP-FM in Washington, Hubbard’s all-news station, which prides itself on staying at the technological cutting edge.

“We consider ourselves to be more of a multiplatform news organization instead of just a radio station,” said Brian Oliger, WTOP’s manager of broadcast and news technology. “And so we’re looking from a digital perspective, can we use it on the Web and on other digital platforms?” That’s likely to mean lots of streaming video on WTOP’s website and mobile apps.

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On the West Coast, KFI-AM has made an even bigger commitment to UAVs. “We jumped all in,” said Assistant PD Neil Saavedra of the iHeart talker’s decision to buy drones for each of its field reporters.

That’s a particularly gutsy move to make right now: As far as the FAA is concerned, there remains an official prohibition on any commercial use of UAVs. But under heavy pressure from all sorts of potential commercial users, including real estate agents, farmers and, yes, broadcasters, the FAA has already issued a handful of waivers and plans to modify its rules for all users as early as 2016, allowing at least some commercial drone activity to get underway.

“One of the best things you can do as a station is to train your people now so that when the FAA says you’re ready, you’re ready to go,” said Ron Futrell of ArrowData, one of the presenters at an all-day “UAVs in Broadcast” session at the NAB Show.

That’s just what Saavedra is doing as the captain of KFI’s nascent drone team. Until his reporters can go out and use drones at work, they’re learning the nuances of UAV operation through a series of training sessions.

“It’s cool to see our reporters already thinking about this,” Saavedra said. “They come back to us, saying, ‘Hey, I was out at this story, and all I could think about was how I would cover it with a drone.’” In addition to learning the mechanics of flying, KFI’s reporters are also being trained in the art of videography, so they can make the most of their new viewpoints.

“We think so much about radio, we’ve always been about the word picture, but that’s not the case now,” Saavedra said. For KFI, that could mean even greater versatility than its TV competitors now enjoy with their ubiquitous news helicopters. “You’ve got the ground perspective and the 800-foot [helicopter] perspective, and oftentimes it’s that middle perspective that we’re missing. For safety reasons, we’d love to be able to push in a little closer without putting our reporters in harm’s way.”

As rules for UAVs in newsgathering are developed, Saavedra said KFI is trying hard to be a part of that process. The station meets regularly with aviation experts from the Los Angeles Police Department and other area agencies. “They’ve been incredibly supportive because they want us to write the book on how it’s used,” Saavedra said.

In a city where drones are almost certain to become a part of the tool chest for the paparazzi, privacy concerns are also looming large. “It’ll be like locusts out here,” Saavedra said. “That’s why we want to find that balance.”

The view from a drone hovering over a KFI training session in Burbank, as assistant PD Neil Saavedra and reporter Steve Gregory receive instruction from Mike Rivard and Tim Baur of RadFlight.

In Washington, as the rules get drafted, Oliger said another big concern will be the no-fly zones that cover much of the nation’s capital. Even so, he said there are plenty of ways WTOP hopes to use UAVs, including aerial coverage of DC’s frequent protest marches and, of course, another viewpoint on the market’s legendary traffic jams.

Other early adopters of drone technology include WTOP’s Hubbard sister station in St. Louis, WXOS-FM, which has already purchased drones to use in its sports coverage, and Alpha Media news-talk KXL-FM in Portland, Ore., which signed a deal with an outside vendor to provide UAV services once they become legal.

As radio catches on to the drone buzz, other uses are emerging, too. If you’re a promotion department at a music station, imagine a UAV view of the crowd at your big summer concert — but with safety always in mind. (“I have a personal rule never to fly over anything I’m not comfortable crashing into,” said Joe Herbert, creative director at Multicopter Warehouse, one of the drone vendors on the NAB Show floor.)

What about the tower industry? “I’m totally excited,” said Tom Fredericksen, construction project manager at Sabre Towers. “From a safety standpoint, we could monitor crews on towers.”

That, of course, depends on what the final rules for commercial UAV use look like. Saavedra and others expect that the FAA will maintain its current 400-foot altitude limit for personal drones, which may not be an issue for news coverage (“You will never need to get a drone 400 feet in the air for news,” Saavedra said) but wouldn’t be much use for inspecting an antenna connection on a 2,000-foot tower.

As those rules evolve, industry groups are becoming involved with the process. The NAB and the Radio Television Digital News Association recently filed comments supporting voluntary federal guidelines for drone newsgathering. The FAA is expected to have new rules in place by 2016, which promises to make next year’s NAB Show even more interesting for those with an eye to the sky.

Scott Fybush (www.fybush.com) is a longtime RW contributor who’s very interested in using drones to photograph tower sites he’s only seen from ground level until now.