Disastrous wildfires in Maui that killed 97 people and Hurricane Idalia, the devastating storm that hit the Gulf Coast of Florida, provide the latest examples of radio’s critical presence – and resilience – as a vital public safety resource during times of natural disaster and crisis. For this special report, Inside Radio interviewed broadcasters on the front lines of these and other calamities, to shine a light on radio’s role as a lifeline when the power goes out and cell service and the internet become unreliable.
When Tampa went into the “cone of uncertainty” prior to Hurricane Idalia’s arrival in late August, iHeartMedia’s Hurricane Team followed what has become a familiar playbook. Key members of the team board up their homes, pack their bags, and get their family and pets out of town early so they can focus on providing critical life-saving information to listeners. “When they arrive at the radio station, they are prepared to stay for several days and work shifts,” says Tommy Chuck, Senior VP of Programming. “Members of our hurricane broadcast team take their role very seriously.”
Months before hurricane season starts on June 1, Audacy New Orleans begins preparations by updating its emergency contact list. It also finds out who’s willing to camp out at the station to provide emergency coverage. Before the storm makes land, Audacy news/talk WWL-AM & FM New Orleans (870, 105.3) takes care of those staffers’ family and homes so they can focus on the job at hand.
For 2021’s Hurricane Ida, WWL brought in blow-up mattresses and stocked up on water, food, and other essentials for hosts, producers, board ops, and news and engineering people. “Hurricane and emergency coverage is a team sport,” says WWL Brand Manager Diane Newman. “While the brand manager, news director and digital producer are strategizing coverage or engaging in pre-storm coverage, our GM and DOS are taking care of the essential ‘people’ needs.”
Once a Hurricane Warning was issued for the Tampa Bay region on Aug. 28, “NewsRadio” WFLA-AM Tampa (970) moved into Operation Storm Watch coverage that soon was being simulcast across its sister stations on the West Coast of Florida in Tampa, Sarasota, Punta Gorda, Fort Myers, and Tallahassee. The around-the-clock, radio-specific longform coverage aired for days, tapping into the 24/7 iHeartRadio News Team, augmented by local TV partner WFLA-TV. The coverage utilized air personalities from a variety of stations and formats across the region. To serve the Spanish-speaking audience, the “Accion News” team provided news content for Spanish talk WHNZ-AM (1250) and Spanish tropical “Rumba 106.5” WRUB-FM.
During Ida, WWL broadcast one week of wall-to-wall hurricane coverage across all the stations in its New Orleans cluster and a second week of 18 to 20-hour coverage on WWL. “Our office looked like a mash unit with make-shift beds in offices, everybody sharing clean-up and trash duties,” Newman recalls.
Radio stations function like emergency bulletin boards for the community during a crisis. Amidst triple-digit temperatures during Hurricane Ida, a New Orleans resident called WWL looking for assistance for her and her fellow senior citizens who had no food and water. WWL broadcast the call live and within seconds the station’s phone and text lines blew up with offers of help. A city council person also heard the plea, acted on their behalf, and got the stranded seniors out of the building to a safe place.
Misinformation And Mistrust In Maui
When horrific wildfires broke out in Maui in early August, leaving a trail of death and destruction, broadcast radio stepped up to fill the need for essential lifesaving information. With no power, cell service or access to the internet, residents were still able to receive free, over the air broadcast radio to help them find information, resources, and safety.
Talk-formatted KOAI-AM (1110) pre-empted normal syndicated programming and went with wall-to- wall coverage, anchored by hosts Jack Gist and Gary Forsberg. As residents of Lahaina were being evacuated, air talent on KAOI’s sister music FMs on Maui joined the coverage. “Each of the FM jocks focused in on one of the areas and filed reports, either from home or when they were here at the station,” says John Detz, President and General Manager of station owner Visionary Related Entertainment.
After returning to regular programming, the Maui stations broadcast updates every 20 to 30 minutes about shelters that were open, how to apply for assistance from FEMA and other essential info.
But there were problems for KAOI and other media outlets in Maui. “There was a lack of information from the officials,” Detz says. The station reached out to its contacts at the Maui Chamber of Commerce, the Maui Humane Society and other sources to help fill information gaps. “It's one of the advantages of being here for so long. We've got contacts that could get information responsibly to us,” Detz says.
A lack of communication from local officials fueled misinformation and wild conspiracy theories. That required broadcasters to carefully vet the info they were getting from their sources and listeners. “We were very careful to filter the information that we were getting,” Detz explains. “We stopped taking live calls on the air and recorded them, so we could vet the information.”
Steve Gregory, a seven-time Edward R. Murrow Award winner who has covered numerous natural disasters in his career, encountered that lack of communication from local officials in a very public way. After arriving in Maui on Aug. 13 to report on the wildfires for talk KFI-AM Los Angeles (640) and other iHeart outlets, Gregory heard from Maui residents frustrated by a scarcity of official information. On Monday, he attended a press conference provided by Hawaii Governor Josh Green and other officials. The Governor tap-danced around the issue of mistrust when asked about it by reporters. When Gregory brought it up, he suggested they let reporters into the impact zone so they could offer an objective assessment of the situation. The proposal was not well received. “The Governor turned the question into a political and emotional statement, and made it personal,” Gregory says.
After the presser, a FEMA representative approached Gregory and by the next day had arranged for a one-hour viewing of the impact zone for him and correspondents from NBC and ABC. Gregory interviewed members of the task force and worked his fire department sources in L.A. to put together a profile of the likely cause of the fire and its likely direction. His reports were available to all iHeart stations through its 24/7 news service. Given the close bond many Southern Californians have with Maui, Gregory also filed regular reports for KFI, where he is based, for news/talk sister KOGO-AM San Diego (600) and for iHeart’s stations in Honolulu.
“It took that FEMA person to lobby on behalf of the media,” he says. “And it took an outsider to come in and kind of stir stuff up to get people thinking that we have a role to play here as objective observers. That's the role radio plays.”
Gregory says he got a lot of listener feedback from his reporting. “I got a bunch of emails from my listeners here in Southern California thanking me for telling the truth and for asking the hard questions. It's a heavy responsibility to know that people are tuning to AM radio and KFI for that information. And it's a responsibility that I don't take lightly.”
A Comforting Voice In The Dark
Beyond disseminating essential emergency information during a disaster, broadcasters also provide a friendly voice and compassionate companion for communities at a time when they really need it. “These hosts are trusted personalities and influencers who listeners across a wide variety of formats have known and loved for many years,” says iHeart’s Chuck. “They share personal stories and bring laughs and reassurance during stressful times.”
When tragedy and disaster strike, that can go a long way. “Sometimes, all you need is a comforting voice, someone who not only gives you the latest storm information or updates from the Governor or the city leaders but also makes you feel like you’re not alone,” says WWL’s Newman.
During a deadly storm, the overnight daypart becomes as important as morning drive but for a different reason. “Being in the dark with the winds howling can be scary,” Chuck says. “One of the most important roles our hosts play is keeping people calm.”
During Katrina, WWL afternoon hosts Scoot and Ian Hoch did a second shift from 2am-6am. “This was like a morning drive for many people who didn’t have power,” Newman says. “When you can’t sleep, you turn on the radio. We weren’t serving up breaking news or interviews with leaders; we just talked to a community yearning for someone to listen.”
Job No. 1: Staying On The Air
Coverage before, during and after Hurricanes Ida (2021) and Katrina (2005) made WWL known as the “hurricane station” in New Orleans. Earning that distinction required a Herculean group effort that included technical preparations to ensure the station remained on the air. For Katrina, engineers set up remote studios in the Jefferson Parish Emergency Operations Center in case WWL’s primary studios were compromised during the storm. This included a backup portable Studio Transmitter Link (STL) so the station could to send a signal directly from the EOC bunker to the transmitter. “We strapped a backup antenna to the railing at the EOC and shot the signal to the STL receiver at the transmitter,” recalls Newman. Laptops were preloaded with software to operate remotely. WWL also had multiple backup power sources at its generator and primary and backup studios. “You cannot count on local power providers during a disaster that takes down power lines, poles and equipment,” Newman says. If all else failed, WWL had plans to broadcast directly from the transmitter site.
Maintaining phone communication during a disaster is critical. During Katrina, WWL used "bag phones" that could reach cell phone towers on offshore oil rigs when the land-based towers lost power, were damaged, or toppled. The station kept its stream going by preloading software at a site in Baton Rouge, where it could receive the broadcast signal and continue streaming even though it lost internet service in New Orleans.
With its 50,000-watt Class A signal, WWL-AM is one of nearly 80 AM radio stations designated by FEMA as Primary Entry Point (PEP) radio stations that ensure that nearly 90% of the U.S. population can be reached in the event of an emergency. Under the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act enacted in 2015, Congress required FEMA to upgrade PEP stations across the country to ensure the continuity of terrestrial broadcast services under all hazards, from tsunamis to earthquakes to tornadoes to hurricanes.
“Backup communications equipment and power generators are installed to enable continued broadcasting even through emergencies, and the facilities themselves are specially designed to withstand various natural and human-inflicted disasters,” says Jason Ornellas, Regional Director West Coast, Technology at Bonneville, whose “710 ESPN Seattle” KIRO-AM, another 50,000-watt Class A, was upgraded in 2021. “Not every facility can or is able to be ready for all-hazards use like these FEMA ones. Bonneville takes serving their communities seriously, and this is a terrific partnership with FEMA.”
Thanks to its reliable infrastructure, immediacy and trusted hosts, radio has proven again and again its ability to provide immediate updates and local information for a large and diverse audience. “While people can gain access to our information across a variety of new technologies and platforms, there is a reason that battery operated radios are part of every hurricane kit,” Chuck says. “Those radios don’t rely on internet or power grids, and broadcast radio is free over the air to all.”
We Got Your Back
At a time when radio’s position in the dashboard is being challenged by some automakers, broadcasters who have helped their communities during the worst of times attest to its resilient nature and the crucial role it serves. “Radio is a lifeline during times of crisis when communication is vital,” says Ornellas. “In times of real emergencies when lives are at stake, it’s critical to get news and official information that cuts through the ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ and gets to people everywhere as quickly as possible, regardless of Wi-Fi or other internet connections.”
Although Gregory has been in radio for more than 40 years, he says it took him a while to fully grasp the role it plays in people’s lives. “It took me a long time to really understand the gravity of radio and the power it has,” he says. “When you turn on the radio, you know you're going to get information faster than any other form of communication. It's just such a trusted friend, something that you can count on.”
Says Newman, “When everything else fails, when the power goes out, when the TV goes dark, when the internet locks up and you can’t recharge your phone or get Wi-Fi, when newspapers can’t deliver, we’re still here with the latest information, and the connection you need. We got your back.”