KXLY Uses Drone Technology to Create a Unique Weekly Feature

When life gives you lemons, make amazing drone videos.

When KXLY Spokane got its drone, the staff was expecting to be able to use it to cover all kinds of news stories. What the newsroom didn’t anticipate was how limited the area to fly in was going to be: there are pretty tight FAA regulations around Spokane because of two airports and a military base in the area.

Like any good innovator, station executives didn’t let this setback stop them though. They used it as an opportunity to create a new franchise for the station. They weren’t really able to fly in the city, but the area all around — the beautiful scenery of the Inland Northwest — was fair game.

“We’re a small company, and [station owner Morgan Murphy] saw this as a great innovation and really invested and trusted us to have this really fun, cool tool,” KXLY executive news director Melissa Luck says. “So we really wanted to find ways to use it.”

The final product that they’ve been producing for about a year is a segment called Air 4 Adventures — non-narrated packages that bring viewers “the beauty of the region from the air.” KXLY serves Spokane, Washington and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and according to Luck, there’s no shortage of ideas about what to cover next because there are just so many places to showcase, from snow-covered mountains to trails through forests of towering ponderosa pine.

Air 4 Adventure: Ride the Hiawatha

Most stories run about a minute-and-a-half and include an interview with someone related to the featured place instead of a reporter track, although Luck did mention that there are occasions where it’s pure video. The natural-sound features are broadcast every week on the Friday 6 p.m. newscast and then again on Sunday. “We thought we’ll do them Friday night when people can go into the weekend with a story that makes them feel good about where they live,” Luck says.

Air 4: Rowing on the Snake River

And the audience reaction so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Luck says producers have viewers giving them ideas about where to take the drone next, and “it’s opened up an entirely different world than we ever imagined when we started.” They’ve implemented some of the viewer suggestions so far, but the majority of the story ideas come from the station’s five photographers who are certified to fly the drone.

The photography staff at KXLY was especially excited to be able to use the drone. Brian Belanger, one of the two main drone operators, really embraced the new technology, Luck says. Belanger has been the chief photographer for about 10 of the 16 years he’s been at the station. He’s produced about 90 percent of the Air 4 Adventures and “his eyes light up when he shows us things that he’s shot with the drone, or ideas that he’s had, or just research that he’s done on creative ways to use it.” And the photographers are the ones who shoot, conduct the interviews and produce these segments as well. “Basically we give them full creative license to go out and just shoot a cool story.”

Luck sees Air 4 Adventures as more than just a “cute” weekly feature piece though. “There was a concern at first to think like, ‘Well, are these just features stories set to music?’ And I think you can’t discount the value of that. Of just making people feel good about where they live, and doing it through really cool, great video.”

Air 4 Adventure: Palouse Falls

KXLY still uses the drone for breaking news stories when it can, but the Air 4 Adventures provide weekly practice for the operators to stay on top of their skills, improve their handling and stay up to date on FAA regulations. For Luck, that’s one of the biggest benefits that has come out of Air 4 Adventures. “Unless you do something consistently, it’s going to fall out of habit, or it’s just going to fall by the wayside,” Luck says. “Especially with all of the things we’re dealing with everyday.” So when the station does need to use the drone to cover a breaking news story, the photographers are ready to go.

Is your station experimenting with drone technology in interesting ways? If so, email us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu and we’ll check it out.

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