Balloon Boy and KUSA: "Ma'am, This is the Real Deal"

Once in a lifetime news story lands in station newsroom

When Falcon Heene's parents realized their helium aircraft was airborne, apparently with their 6-year-old son inside, they appear to have called 911 and NBC station KUSA simultaneously-Richard contacting the Gannett station on the land line and his wife Mayumi calling the cops on her cellphone.

KUSA's newsroom got the call around 11 a.m. Oct. 15, as VP/News Director Patti Dennis was told by the desk manager that a crying man reported his son was aloft in a balloon that looked like a flying saucer. Her first reaction was, as one would expect, abundant skepticism.

"I sort of didn't believe him," she says.

A crowd of KUSA staffers gathered around the phone as Dennis called the man back 10 minutes later and started grilling him: What his son's name was, what school he went to, and why the kid wasn't in school yesterday. She got what seemed like reasonable responses, then asked why the cops weren't notified. Richard Heene told Dennis that a deputy was, in fact, in the house. Dennis asked to speak to the man.

She spoke to an officer named Bowser and asked for his supervisor's name. Bowser gave the answers, and then said, "Ma'am, this is the real deal." Dennis checked the info with the department's public information officer, then called for the joint KUSA-KMGH helicopter to take off and find the wayward balloon.

"We were off and running," she says.

KUSA led with the story in its noon news, as the rest of the country-and much of the world-started hearing about the bizarre case of the boy thought to be flying 8,500 feet in the air. The station covered it live from 11:30 to 2, then picked it up again at 3.

KUSA's was a key source of breaking news for residents in the #16 DMA and outside of it alike; President/General Manager Mark Cornetta says the site normally gets 750,000 to a million page viewers a day, with 150,000 unique visitors. Yesterday it was 4.6 million views and 939,000 uniques-the large majority of them between 1 and 4 p.m.

"It was a wild day," says Cornetta. "But it was calm throughout the news organization. Everyone worked on it together."

Yesterday was also a big test for the KUSA-KMGH helicopter share, which launched Feb. 1. Once it located the balloon, which Cornetta likened to finding "a needle in a haystack," the chopper captured compelling footage of it ambling across the Colorado sky. "The partnership is working out beautifully," says Cornetta. (A call to McGraw-Hill's KMGH was not returned at press time.)

Falcon was, of course, later found unharmed and hiding in his attic. Today's coverage focuses on the cost of the search effort and skepticism over whether the Heenes, featured multiple times on ABC's Wife Swap, were somehow launching some sort of publicity stunt. On their Wife Swap bio, the Heenes said they spent their leisure time "looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send into the eye of the storm."

"There's a lot of skepticism," says Dennis. "The family lives differently, with different thought processes and ideas of entertainment."

Little Falcon fueled the skepticism fire last night after telling CNN that he stayed hidden in the attic because his father told him "that we did it for the show." Police are to conduct follow-up interviews with the Heenes, and the Denver media outlets will stay with the story.

"We'll spend a lot of time digging," says Dennis. "We'll certainly be on that."