End of an era: KYW no longer broadcasting snow-day school closing numbers

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The ritual of waiting for your school number on KYW may be ending, but the delights of snow days never will. With schools delivering the news via their own websites, texts, Twitter, or phone trees, many students and parents already know if they have a snow day or not without turning on the radio.

Ending an era, KYW radio has stopped broadcasting school closing numbers on snow days, a source of anticipation for children in the Philadelphia area for a half century.

Blame the Internet, cell phones, and robo calls for finishing off a childhood ritual.

KYW and other radio stations had broadcast the numbers since the 1960s, when Philadelphia's City Hall became the regional clearing house for school closings around the region.

But in 1989, the city got out of the business and KYW took it over, prompting many stations to abandon the practice and making KYW the exclusive source of news that could make or break a kid's day.

The station has been phasing out the service for a couple of years and decided in the off season to stop the on-air report, said Steve Butler, director of news and programming for KYW.

The station will still provide the information on KYWschools.com, and the data they collect from 1400 school districts, colleges and other schools will be used by CBS3 TV, he said.

The decision was an easy one to make. With schools delivering the news via  their own websites, texts, Twitter, or phone trees, many students and parents already know if they have a snow day or not without turning on the radio.

"We still get a tremendous amount of traffic on our website," he said, which is also mobile friendly and easy to search.

Reading the school numbers took up to 14 minutes of air time each hour. That time will be devoted to more information on traffic, airport conditions and even reports from neighborhoods,  Butler said.

Listeners thought of the school numbers as a "comfort food" of sorts. Station reporters would often ask local celebrities if they remembered the number for their alma mater.

"I know we asked Carli Lloyd and she knew," he said. Bradley Cooper needed to be reminded by one of his friends at Germantown Academy, he added.

Long time Inquirer weather writer Anthony R. Wood offers this reminiscence of growing up with the numbers and his own role in giving students in a school district a snow day they were not supposed to get.

"At the outset, I’m on record as saying that I always viewed school as a minimum-security prison with a liberal weekend-furlough policy.

 

And once I discovered that snow could close school, I was hooked on winter for life. No matter what winter would bring, nothing – absolutely nothing – could match the ritual of listening to the radio and waiting for that magic snow number.

 

Not hearing it on a snowy day was an icy dagger to the heart, especially when it sounded like everyone else was off.

 

But, oh, what unbounded bliss when your number was called … better than hitting the lottery … better than your horse winning the race… better than anything the devil offered to Dr. Faust.

 

Our sons inherited this particular passion, and it was the source of a profound family-bonding experience.

 

On even quasi- snowy mornings, no matter how hopelessly, we would gather in front of the radio and wait for KYW to commute their sentences for a day or deliver the crushing verdict by skipping over our number.

 

Somehow, seeing the number on the school website or the cable channel just isn’t the same.

 

I miss those radio days. For I had a particularly personal relationship with snow numbers, and not just for the reasons mentioned above.

 

Once upon a time, I was responsible for them. It was a dream mission.

 

As a fresh hire at the United Press International bureau in Philadelphia, one of my tasks was to assemble the school-closing numbers whenever it snowed.

 

In those days, before KYW claimed the franchise, the Philadelphia City Hall emergency office was the regional clearinghouse for snow numbers for the entire region.

 

Without charge, City Hall would transmit the numbers via teletype to the wire services, and we would transcribe them and distribute them to our broadcast subscribers, who would read them on the air.

 

On the first real snow day that I worked, I was astonished at just how many minimum-security prisons existed in  the region.

 

The snow that day was a surprise. It started right before schools were to open, and superintendents and principals were caught with their boots off and were playing  catch up.

 

The numbers from City Hall kept pouring in — hundreds of them — I was pulling finger muscles. I was never happier.

 

Then the bureau manager, the guy who hired me, gets a call from the manager of a rock station, the one that all the kids listened to, and one that had been threatening to drop UPI.

 

The radio guy said the superintendent of the Wissahickon School District was all over him because he just heard on his station that all his schools were closed. They were, indeed, very much open. What the hell was going on?

 

I admit I knew nothing about the Wissahickon School District; I thought maybe it was in the Wissahickon Valley. I didn’t know it had several schools and something like 5,000 pupils.

 

Well, it turns out that I had transposed a number. Big deal, I say to the boss. What about the hundreds of numbers I got right. Besides, I just gave thousands of  kids a day off.

 

He had a volcanic temper that belied a patient heart, and this did nothing to tame the veins evident on his scarlet forehead.

 

First, you realize we’re about to lose a client, he said. Second, because of the number you got wrong,  we endangered thousands of children who tried to get to schools that were closed.

 

Being a compulsive wise guy , I responded that I had just made a round of police checks, and came up with no reports of fatals. I believe I saw a vein pop.

 

Just to appease him further, a few days later a local paper actually wrote a story about the slip-up. When he saw it, his forehead would have been a mighty efficient snow-removal device.

 

He told me he called the newpaper's editor and stood up for me, telling that clown that the story was humiliating to UPI and the reporter.

 

Wisely declining to push my luck, I suppressed an impulse to say that I didn’t feel that way in the least. I was proud of the accidental misuse of power.

 

To this day, I have no regrets. My nieces and nephews saw the story and thought I was a god.

 

And every time snow was in the forecast, a teacher friend would call and say, 'Couldn’t you make just one little mistake?' "

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