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The Power of Radio: Storm makes case for over-the-air radio.

 

Snowfall crippling a city would typically be a great opportunity for local stations to connect with listeners.  But what makes the storm that hit Atlanta an example of why broadcast radio can’t be beat in times of crisis is what transpired on the city’s highways Tuesday night.   It also helped make the case for radio’s one-to-many infrastructure.

Thousands of drivers were stranded in their cars for hours with nothing but the radio to keep them company as cell phone service became overwhelmed.  “Those people trapped in their car all night long weren’t listening to Pandora,” Cumulus Media’s Atlanta market manager Jeff Brown says.  “Radio was a lifeline.”  Throughout the night Cumulus’ “All News 106.7” WYAY and Cox Media Group’s news/talk WSB (95.5, 750) both went into overdrive with news, weather and traffic reports, although it’s the call-ins that were likely most impactful with listeners.

“It’s like you’re in a war and you want intelligence about what’s going on so you can survive,” WSB program director Pete Spriggs says.  “They felt that we were talking to them and we were giving them companionship, and that’s what radio is great at — it’s great at being a passenger in your car when you’re driving.”

It wasn’t just the news and talk stations that went wall-to-wall with coverage.  So did Atlanta’s top-rated music station, urban “V-103” WVEE.   PD Reggie Rouse says CBS Radio-owned station stopped playing music yesterday morning to put listeners and local officials on the air.   “Sometimes you have to let listeners talk — and this was that type of situation,” he says. “Yes we want to play the hits and we want to win 12+ ratings — but we have to service the community.”   Rouse, who worked an overnight shift when the regular host couldn’t make it into the station, sees it as WVEE’s live-and-local advantage when competitors are airing syndicated programming.

Beyond Atlanta, the Birmingham, AL market was also particularly hard hit.  There the Clear Channel cluster went wall-to-wall with an eight-station simulcast across all the signals in its cluster to maximize resources.

The roads weren’t the only things congested during Atlanta’s rare snowstorm this week.  As tens of thousands of motorists were stuck on the highway, cell phone systems were overloaded in what’s become a predictable situation in crisis situations.   Radio staffers were a lot more reliable, like a traffic reporter who worked nearly 24 hours or the talk show host who pulled a second shift — taking listener calls all night long.

Rouse says radio helped calm fears. “We were getting calls from a lot of female listeners stuck in their car with their kids — and people trying to reach their family members,” he says. “We’re the only media that could give them the kind of information that they needed.”

The storm didn’t just catch local highway departments off guard.   At every cluster there were horror stories of coworkers who spent 12 hours or more on the road.  Most Cox-Atlanta staffers slept on station couches since the International Poultry Expo was in town, leaving few hotel rooms to be had.  CBS Radio was able to get a few rooms, but that meant staff doubling up.  Cumulus was also able to book rooms for morning drive talent, but the storm and gridlocked traffic kept them from getting to the hotels.

Brown says they’re happy with the growth of “All News 106.7” WYAY, but an event like this can be a breakout moment for an all-news brand.  “There can be seminal, galvanizing moments for a station both external and internal,” he says. “That esprit de corps that you get from getting through this together give you more moxy, and that’s bigger than a one-day ratings extrapolation in PPM.”

Across the street at Cox’s WSB, Spriggs thinks Mother Nature gave every station an opportunity to shine.  “You always have competitors that are nipping at your brand, so if you can perform at times like this it is absolutely going to have long term positive effects,” he says.  “For me, something like this is better than a $500,000 ad campaign — it just brings the audience in.”


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