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September 16, 2008

On Media - It takes a crisis

Maybe you slept in Sunday. Not much going on. I woke up, checked the clock at 10:15, rolled over. When I looked again, the little red lights announcing the time were gone, yet out the window all you could see was sunshine. Beautiful. Kind of windy. 

So here was a fine dilemma. No power, yet the beginning of a beautiful, sunny day. Good day for golf, except that wind was shaking the tops of the trees in the yard. We decided to leave the Highlands and find some food about 12:30. Turns out we just beat seeing the road on either side of our driveway blocked by trees.

I was driving down Taylorsville Road, heading away from town in hopes of finding a Waffle House open. Not in Hikes Point. Nothing doing in J-town. So we headed up Hurstbourne, squeezing into a booth at the Waffle House next to I-64, with a clear view of the bending trees and a poor woman trying to manage the mélange of potted plants and greenery blowing around her nursery. 

It was about 1 p.m. when WHAS-Radio general manager Kelly Carls realized this wasn’t going to be a normal day of programming. Sundays usually feature a skeleton staff running syndicated fare. Local radio has taken its lumps, deservedly so, for not being so local. WHAS is a Clear Channel outfit. 

The first damage reports were coming in, and Carls was calling staff to see who could get to the station and available to work. Al Mayo took the reins at about 1:30. Francene Cuccinello, the weekday morning show host, went on the air by 3. Dave Jennings took over at 6. 

For news consumers, radio was suddenly the way to go. Listeners were calling in with damage reports. Francene talked with John Belski about the weather. She got a doctor on air to talk about how long food might last in the freezer. She called Jim Strader to talk about dangers to wildlife. They carried official press conferences. They were first to announce school closings. 

There were warnings to stay off the roads, but I drove by a soccer game in full swing on Newburg. Didn’t seem too dangerous. On the radio, Howie Lindsey was over at U of L talking about a soccer game on campus. Stay home, officials warned. 

 “We had to rewrite the game plan on the fly,” said Carls. “The first question I asked our people was, ‘Where are you?’ We had people dropping everything. We went live at 1:30, and stayed on the air wall to wall until 9.”

Carls said the station was directing viewers to its website, which had a record day. He said that of 900 stations in the Clear Channel family, its online traffic ranked 19th on Sunday. It usually doesn’t crack the top 100. 

TV stations had a different problem. Most folks who didn’t have power couldn’t watch TV. Ratings dropped so low Nielsen quit reporting its numbers. 

The wind gusts prohibited TV crews from setting up trucks for remotes. If you’re wondering why you didn’t see reporters standing in front of fallen trees, blowing in the wind, it’s because they couldn’t get their equipment to operate, according to WLKY-TV G.M. Glenn Haygood.

WLKY, airing the Colts-Vikings game, kept viewers up to date with live cut-ins during timeouts and breaks. Viewers didn’t miss a play in the game, yet Haygood said the station was staffing up. 

More than 200,000 LG&E customers were without power, yet watching the football games at Mom’s house in Fern Creek, I couldn’t believe local TV stations weren’t doing anything more than a crawl and brief cut-ins. It seemed like the ideal natural-disaster setting for live local news. 

All those false alarms for snow events had given me an expectation for crisis reporting, but this was totally different, Haygood said. In essence, they made a judgment call that viewers in other types of natural disasters need up-to-the-minute advice — go to the basement now!, for instance — and that, without power, TV had lost its mode of conveyance. 

Technology played a significant role, and the windstorm may have provided a lesson for future crisis coverage. Even without power, Haygood said there’s a significant online audience, so his station was streaming parts of its newscast online. 

For people without power, whose batteries had died on their laptops, there was still cell phone coverage, albeit spotty. All in all, in an age when we’re encouraged to consume everything via an outlet in the wall, radio — and batteries — won the day.  


Rick Redding writes regularly about media and politics on his website, http://thevillevoice.com