Let the newscopter wars begin


When on April 6, WDAF Channel 4 morning anchor Heather McMichael described grass-fire footage shot by the station’s news helicopter, Sky Fox 4, as something “no other helicopter in Kansas City” had, some viewers may have been confused. Just the day before, Sky Fox 4 would have been the only news helicopter in town. But not now. And McMichael’s statement, made just a day after KMBC’s NewsChopper 9 debuted, points to the fierce helicopter competition brewing between KMBC and WDAF.

Since 1993, when it became the first station in the market to launch a news helicopter, WDAF has been the only station to use one continuously. (In the mid-’90s, KCTV Channel 5 used NewsHawk 5 for a short time.) But now Channel 9’s NewsChopper 9, a 1995 Bell 206B3 Jet Ranger, is making the scene. Let the copter wars begin.

One reason KMBC now has a news helicopter, says KMBC General Manager C. Wayne Godsey, is that he is “predisposed” to using a helicopter. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Godsey, who has been at KMBC since early last year, worked at an Albuquerque station that found that using a helicopter was essential to adequately cover the large market area — in New Mexico, that meant the whole state. Here in KC, Godsey says, KMBC plans to use the helicopter simply to enhance its newsgathering.

“We’ve put a lot of emphasis in the last year on improving our morning newscast. Between 5 and 7 a.m. is one of the areas, not only across the country but here in Kansas City, where there seems to be a growing appetite for news…. One of the things that we’ve tried to do is do things with our format and so forth that would better serve that morning audience. Traffic becomes an important element to cover extensively in the morning, and the helicopter provides us just one more tool to do that.”

Although no specific costs are available, the estimated cost is about $1 million for the equipment. When factoring in additional maintenance and operation, such as pilot Greg Bourdon’s salary, the cost represents a significant budget commitment. Some might argue that such an amount could be better spent on improving the overall quality of the station’s news coverage, not just better traffic reports and quicker response and more access to breaking news. Why not use that money for more reporters?

“Well, I suppose you can always say more of anything would help,” Godsey explains, “but while quantity is always nice, quality is important. I think you can look at the group of reporters we have in this market and see that we have by far the most experienced group of reporters on the street in this town. You cannot look around to the other stations in this marketplace and find many reporters the caliber of Mike Mahoney, Bev Chapman, Peggy Breit…. So could we add another reporter? Sure. And we may at some point, but right now it’s fair to say that we’re extremely pleased with the quality of reporting that we have in these people and that the quality they put on the air on a day-to-day basis speaks for itself. We did not feel in any respect that we were or have been at a disadvantage in the market with respect to our reporting staff.”

Peter Morello agrees with that assessment. Morello, an assistant professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, worked for several years as a correspondent and executive producer for PBS in Europe and has experience working for a news station in the United States. He watches the local stations closely, and his concern is not that KMBC could use more reporters but that the use of a helicopter might shorten the amount of airtime available for in-depth stories.

“When you have a helicopter, you have to use it,” Morello says. “The station has to defend the expense of the helicopter, so all of a sudden you’re going to see a lot of stories where there’s a helicopter involved in it somehow. What that does is prevent other stories that are potentially even more newsworthy from getting airtime…. Sometimes these stories are hyped. Because you have a helicopter, then the story itself becomes more important than it’s really worth.”

Morello also points out that the competition among stations with helicopters can be dangerous. “If you’re going to start something called helicopter wars between Channel 4 and Channel 9, sometimes in helicopter wars there are casualties, and you don’t want that. And that’s exactly what happened in Denver,” he says, citing a Denver newscopter accident that killed two people in the early ’80s and, Morello says, was caused by an inexperienced pilot’s flying in unfavorable weather conditions while competing for a story. “You had casualties because they participated in helicopter wars. I hope these stations have policies in line as to when to use these helicopters, when not to, (and) to be blind to the competition. If they feel the story really deserves coverage by a helicopter, then do it, if it’s really for the viewer. If it’s just because Channel 4’s got one up there, they’re going to have problems with that.”

KMBC has strict guidelines regarding the station’s use of the helicopter in inclement weather, and the station says safety is its first concern. At WDAF, the decision of whether to fly is left to the discretion of pilot-reporter Johnny Rowlands. Rowlands, who estimates he has between 15,000 and 16,000 hours of flight time, 2,500 hours of which have been in a helicopter, says experience is the key. Rowlands has been with WDAF’s newscopter since it was launched, leaving KMBC in 1993 when he heard WDAF was interested in launching the area’s first news helicopter. “I have a good idea of what’s flyable and what isn’t, and from a competitive standpoint, I would hope that experience would give us a little bit of an edge, because I really can tell when it’s safe and what it’s not safe” For instance, last year Rowlands, on his way back from shooting video of tornado damage in Haysville, Kan., “stumbled across another tornado and ended up chasing it.” But, he says, he was comfortable with the weather conditions and the chase paid off. “We got some really terrific video of that, and we got pretty close…. But it was all a very calculated risk, and I don’t know if you can accumulate 15,000 to 16,000 hours without becoming somewhat familiar with risk management — because that’s all we do. Are there risks involved? You bet. Can you die from doing this? Absolutely, but are the risks manageable? They certainly are.”

Rowlands says he’s excited about having another helicopter on the scene. “I love to compete, so we’ll certainly respond to anything we think they may be doing better. I guess we’re about to find out if I’m any good.”

The competition between the two newscopters is already palpable, with both stations touting their strengths both in interviews and on the air.

For instance, one advantage for NewsChopper 9, according to Godsey, is that it is housed close to the station at the downtown airport, giving the station an advantage in response time. WDAF, which is in midtown, bases its helicopter in Johnson County. However, Rowlands counters that because he is a pilot-reporter, he doesn’t need to wait for a reporter from the station to get to the airport. He also notes that the downtown airport experiences fog conditions because of its proximity to the Missouri River.

The comparisons continue in terms of the equipment. The stations use the same model of helicopter, but WDAF promotes its experience. KMBC has been highlighting NewsChopper 9’s high-power camera in promotional spots: NewsChopper 9 has a 33:1 zoom lens on its nose-mounted camera; Sky Fox 4’s is 22:1. But Sky Fox 4 has more stamina. It can stay up four hours, compared with NewsChopper 9’s two-and-a-half-hour endurance. A race, however, would be a close call: NewsChopper 9’s cruising speed is 115 mph; Sky Fox 4’s is 110.

Despite all the hype, it’s hard to tell how NewsChopper 9’s unveiling will affect each station’s news coverage. The bottom line, according to Godsey, is that NewsChopper 9 is not meant to replace solid reporting. “I think we expect to use it the way we use anything else, the way we use our reporters, the way we use our Doppler radar. It’s just another tool to enhance our reporting. The bottom line is the helicopter is not going to, nor should it, make the difference in winning and losing in the marketplace. Your reporters should do that.”

Contact Michelle Rubin at 816-218-6784 or michelle.rubin@pitch.com.

Categories: News