May 12, 2004 - In recent weeks, AOPA has contacted television stations across the country after being alerted (usually by members) that they were working on stories about "lax" security at general aviation airports. The wave of stories is no coincidence: It's the May "sweeps" period, that time of the year when stations will do anything to get the best possible ratings. Big ratings mean big bucks because those ratings determine how much they can charge for advertisers to run commercials. But those ratings can also give GA a lot of headaches.
Believe it or not - there's now a Web site that helps stations by giving them ideas to generate surefire ratings. Guess what's high on their list? GA security. The site actually suggests that an "easy" ratings-grabber is to do a story about the local GA airport. All it takes is a couple of quick interviews with an unsuspecting local pilot or airport manager and a law enforcement official. Then a videotaped stroll on the ramp to see how easy it is to get near - or in - an airplane.
Back in the editing room, those 15- to 20-minute interviews are cut down to 15 to 20 seconds, and sound bites are selected to fit the predetermined story. And in no time there's a promo on the air - probably something like Death Lurks at Our Local Airport! Story at 11! - that gives viewers fits and GA a black eye.
"Don't make it easy for them," said AOPA President Phil Boyer, a former senior TV executive who knows all the tricks of that trade. "Take sensible steps to secure your aircraft. Follow all of the Airport Watch guidelines. Set up a buddy system to check on the aircraft tied down or hangared near yours. In addition to denying reporters their story, you'll also deny unauthorized access to your aircraft."
There are good reporters out there, like Chuck McCutcheon who recently wrote a solid piece on today's GA. AOPA works constantly to help reporters to better explain the GA side of the story. In one recent case, AOPA convinced a station to redo an on-air promo that was highly inflammatory. But by the time the promos start running and members alert AOPA, the story is already "in the can" and very difficult to get changed.
"The best way to beat them at their own game is to make the story a moot point," said Boyer. "Secure your aircraft. And lastly, think long and hard before agreeing to be interviewed. If you do, understand you're flying "in their airspace" and they set the rules. Better yet, refer them to AOPA's Communications Division at 800/USA-AOPA (800/872-2672).
"During sweeps periods, grabbing the viewers' attention is the name of the game. And remember that, no matter how friendly and outgoing a reporter might be, they have a job to do - and it's not likely to be promoting GA."