Broadcast Staff Security—Protecting Your People

Regardless of market size, all it takes is one motivated crackpot to turn the fun of broadcasting into instant tragedy. It’s the needle in the haystack that can hurt you.

While setting up for the annual Lake ShootOut powerboat racing remote live TV broadcast at the event venue, the local radio station co-owner got a phone call. Every word from his mouth after “Hello” was shocking. His side of the conversation: “Expletive deleted,” pause, “expletive deleted,” long pause, “expletive deleted,” longer pause, “expletive deleted.” Then he hung up. He never talks like that. I had to ask.

The caller was his CFO at the station, working in the station front office with the traffic/receptionist. Moments earlier, an intruder walked into the radio station building with a gun wanting to shoot the DJ for some very peculiar reasons having virtually nothing to do with anyone at the station.

The CFO usually conceal-carries a pistol, but not today. 911 was called, the intruder was hauled to jail and everyone at the station was justifiably frightened. Over the previous few weeks, an unknown listener had called the station's public phone line several times with a list of complaints. While a bit shocked by the intensity of the caller, that staff was not necessarily surprised. "It comes with the territory," said the manager.

Magnetic Effect

About the only three common denominators all broadcast facilities share are antennas, unique FCC-assigned call letters and occasional deranged intruders demanding attention. These distinctions are also the top three industry trends most unlikely to change.

It seems broadcast station intruders almost always have the most bizarre motivations. Broadcast stations and TV cameras have always been nut- and crackpot-magnets, (insert your own joke here), even ma-and-pa 800-watt AM stations in cow country. The words “nut” or “crackpot” might offend some, but what else do you call an angry, deranged, strange guy waving a gun at employees in any broadcast facility other than "Sir?"

I've seen angry and or deranged people slip through security or the lack of it where I’ve worked more than a few times. Some have carried weapons and some intruders were women, so be careful about making generalities. Fortunately, broadcasters are good talkers and in every case where I've been present the complaintant was brought under control by station people calming the person until the cops could arrive. That’s what recently happened at the local radio station described above. Lucky us. Other broadcasters have not always been so lucky.

It seems every couple of years station intrusions make national news. The time, city, station, and circumstance are always different, but the motive is nearly always attention, and some people will do anything to get it. Some intrude studios, others invade live shots. Its random and it happens.

Broadcast stations are easy to find because it’s hard to hide the tower. About all a station can do is to tighten security and keep it tight. 

Modern security isn’t a job best assigned to the station business manager or general manager. Chief engineers and directors of engineering often inherit security by default. There is, however, a technology chasm between broadcast system expertise and security system expertise. Just because the IT director has the files safely locked down and backed up does not mean that person knows how to properly secure the station's physical facility. Maybe its time to call in an expert.

Secret Codes? Ha!

One morning when I was DE, the station receptionist called to announce a security system salesman was in for a cold-call. I went to the lobby to apologize for being too busy to visit. As I walked with the salesperson toward the front door, he stopped briefly by an interior hall door numeric keypad, punched in the code, opened the door, and said “Here, let me help you back to your office.” That got my attention.

Many businesses rely on key cards or pass codes to control access to sensitive areas. Fingerprints can be used where needed to provide a higher level of protection for high security areas. Image: UHPPOTE

Many businesses rely on key cards or pass codes to control access to sensitive areas. Fingerprints can be used where needed to provide a higher level of protection for high security areas. Image: UHPPOTE

The salesman had learned the code while sitting in the lobby watching hurried TV people poke the keypad. What he didn’t know until I told him was that the secret code was also was the GM’s phone extension, because the GM habitually forgot other codes.

What’s interesting about local TV is that each station is unique in nearly every respect. Almost every station has developed a unique personality from its original sign-on roots, and the internal numbering systems and workflows that full-power, Class A TV stations have created over time and still use are as disparate as the neighborhoods and frequencies they occupy. Often, so is their approach to security.

Walk the Walk?

I’ve talked with numerous security experts and they all start out with the same suggestion, “Think like an intruder.” Well, I’m not an intruder, never will be an intruder and wouldn’t know how to think like an intruder, which is why I recommend using a professional security expert.

I’ve taken long walks around facilities and grounds looking for weaknesses and did the same inside the as well. But while snooping around the station fortress such as it was, about the best I could do was to think like an engineer who occasionally locked himself out of the building without a key or security card. Of course, if I were desperate and convinced someone in the station was insulting me or my family on air and had nothing better to do, I would have reacted differently.

After dealing with station security first-hand and reporting about other station’s intrusions, it has become crystal-clear that if someone wants publicity, payback, or whatever madness is in their mind bad enough, they will find a way. Maybe they will grab an employee in the parking lot and take them hostage. The best internal building security in the world won’t stop that.

Building security at a Topeka, KS TV station a few years ago is a good example of not good enough. Doors were locked and visitors had to be buzzed in through a thick glass lobby door. The building seemed secure as a bank, but crazed people do crazy things. One morning, a guy with a complaint started beating a thick glass door off its hinges with heavy lobby furniture as the terrified receptionist who wouldn’t buzz him in called for help. Thankfully, nobody was hurt before the cops arrived.

Parking lots may require war-zone-like protection. I worked at one station were we had just broadcast a scathing 10 o’clock news editorial about the failures of the local NFL team’s coach. This took place in the first news block Sunday night after a big loss. By the time the newscast ended, the newsroom had received a bomb threat. The building was locked down until cops with flashlights, mirrors and dogs checked all the cars in the parking lot for bombs. No bomb was found, but it only takes one.

Streets and Sidewalks

Broadcast security extends beyond station property lines every time someone with a microphone or camera hits the streets. Sometimes deranged people find the station, other times the station finds them. Its about as hard to hide station logos or a microwave mast as it is a broadcast tower. Security depends on the individual good guys keeping their eyes wide open for potential threats. How closely does anyone monitor the live parking lot cameras at your station?

Warning: The video below has imagery that may be upsetting to some viewers

In the above video, a recently-terminated WDBJ-TV station employee shot and killed both the reporter and cameraman as the two worked to produce a story about the 50th anniversary of Smith Mountain Lake, a reservoir near Roanoke, VA. The shooter recorded his actions from multiple angles and then posted a copy to social media for broadcast. The shooter later killed himself.

On the streets, crews are on their own. Crews have phones, perhaps 2-way radio connection to the station, and maybe a video connection that can be seen in the control room as they setup. Is anyone monitoring their activity at the station? Probably not seriously. Very few stations send security staff with the television crews, even for live shots. Typically, outside crews watch for safety and security risks while on location, but while they are on air live their focus is obviously on the report. That is what a perp calls opportunity.

Opportunity Management

Along with all the usual reasons stations and departments call meetings to rally the troops, security should always be on every meeting agenda. The tiniest gap in security at the right time can permanently destroy a station employee’s future more than any company policy that might be explained at a meeting.

However, station people in group meetings tend to fall asleep about 5 seconds after security comes up. If security bores you, consider it opportunity management. Everyone's job is to hold invasion and intrusion opportunities to an absolute minimum, identify and closely monitor weaknesses for suspicious activity that needs immediate intervention, and warn others of the threat. Reviewing video of an incident afterword isn't security.

The three aspects of a crime are means, motive and opportunity. An angry, deranged person headed to a broadcast studio or live shot with a gun already has the means and motive. It is up to the station to control the opportunity. The station's management, owners and stockholders can’t do it alone. Opportunity management is a collective and individual responsibility of all employees and contractors, bottom to top. It is as simple as it is complicated: Pay attention to your surroundings, keep your eyes open for risks and threats and be prepared for surprises. It comes with the territory.

What do people in broadcast facilities do in their jobs every day? They pay attention, work together and watch out for each other. Station security is similar, but it reaches the highest of personal levels. Life and death are serious matters. Otherwise, aren’t we all just playing TV?

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