First Informers

As Hurricane Michael gained momentum early in the week, taking aim at the Florida Gulf Coast, the Category 3 storm was expected to strike the Panhandle on Wednesday as a major weather event. As always, radio is preparing for the storm by keeping the audience, first responders and the nation up to date.

Mandatory evacuations were issued Tuesday for 120,000 residents of Panama City Beach and across other low-lying parts of the coast, as beach dwellers boarded their homes ahead of what could be a devastating hit, according to AP. On Tuesday, sustained winds had reached 120 mph, “capable of causing devastating damage” from high winds, storm surge and heavy rains.

Weather forecasters said parts of Florida’s marshy, lightly populated Big Bend area could see up to 12 feet of storm surge, while Michael could dump up to a foot of rain over some Panhandle communities as it moves inland, the AP reported.

In Pensacola, Greg Tillotson, operations manager/Programming for Cumulus, tells Inside Radio that this is his first storm season after coming to the market in June from the Pacific Northwest. What he has found is that the radio group’s stations are at the ready: “My staff here in Pensacola is always prepared. There is a written plan that is in place. We go over the general responsibilities in the building and then work down to specific instructions for air staff.”

Cumulus’ news/talk WCOA (1370) is leading the charge for the five-station cluster that includes four FM music stations in Pensacola: country “102.7 Nash” WXBM, AC “Soft Rock 94.1” WMEZ, classic hits “Jet 100.7” WJTQ and urban AC “Magic 106” WRRX. It also partners with a local TV station and Accuweather.

iHeartMedia, meanwhile, is assembling resources on a local and regional level in its South Carolina and Georgia markets, where the storm may hit after Florida. “We are not only disseminating information to our local markets, but are assigning personnel resources when and where they are needed most,” a spokesperson said. “We’re making sure each market and station is fully prepared from an engineering and programming angle.”

This includes iHeart stations outside the storm zone that are able to provide short-form and long-form coverage of the storm. “We also incorporate reporters from our local TV partners for even more comprehensive local coverage,” according to the source.

And in the Destin-Fort Walton Beach, FL municipalities, Community Broadcasters is also prepared for Hurricane Michael. “All prep that can be done in advance is completed. As the storm wobbles in the Gulf we are preparing for the worst, hoping of course for the best,” says Kevin Malone, market manager for the group’s four stations. “Generators at studios and transmitters are topped off, staff is in place, and food, water and sleeping arrangements at offices and studios have been organized.”

All four Community stations are cooperating on coverage— country “Highway 98.1” WHWY, adult hits “102.1 The Wave” WWAV, CHR “Q92” WECQ and alternative “103.1 The Blaze” WZLB—while “our external information is coming from a multitude of sources,” including local police departments, county sheriff offices, emergency management, and local chambers and hospitals. “We are also following closely the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center in Miami.”

Wall-to-wall station coverage, as of Tuesday mid-afternoon, “remains a game day decision. At the moment we are in-format with twice hourly updates. When the final path is determined and as Michael approaches landfall, we will assess the vulnerabilities and dangers to our communities,” Malone says. Because the station covers 100+ miles of the Florida Panhandle, “our listeners will be experiencing varying degrees of severe weather.” So when warranted, “we will break format and simulcast wall to wall news/weather and local information. We realize the commitment and responsibilities we have to our listeners and communities and plan on staying at the studios and on-air throughout the storm.”

As the Cumulus Pensacola stations are keeping a close eye on the storm’s progress, Tillotson says, “If warranted, we will shift to complete coverage on all the stations.” And the iHeart spokesperson tells Inside Radio, “If the storm damage is severe enough to warrant wall to wall coverage, we’ll be there. Those decisions are taken seriously and involve our staff on the ground, local officials and our TV partner.”

Online And Social Media

In addition to the airwaves, stations are utilizing their other listener connections, such as online and social media. “iHeartMedia’s local, regional and national digital teams are already working to provide constant storm updates,” according to the source. The same is true for Cumulus. “The instant we got wind, we began pushing out information through Facebook and tweeting,” Tillotson says. “In today’s world you have to reach people every way possible.”

Community is on the same page. “We absolutely will be updating our Facebook and websites for all four stations as the situation changes,” Malone says. “Thankfully we have a half dozen pros many with prior weather-related experience ready to spend several days non-stop at the stations. They will be doing the heavy lifting needed to keep our four stations on the air and our communities informed with the vital information we know they will be seeking.”

Indeed, as has been made clear in times of crisis time and again, radio remains the best go-to source for information—when cell phones are down, power is out, and other forms of media such as television and social media are inaccessible. “Immediacy, portability and reliability,” offers the iHeart spokesperson. “When the power is out, portable radio is there. And we’re always available on mobile devices with the iHeartRadio app. No one is ever without the information they need as long as they have access to a portable listening device.”

Adds Tillotson, “We always have been the backbone of a community in good times and bad. Radio is instantaneous for the listener, and we can go anywhere a listener goes to keep them informed.”

And Malone contends, “Because we are skilled, ubiquitous, committed and free—and our listeners are our friends and neighbors—we recognize thousands will be leaning on us for vital information and we take that responsibility seriously. Even with an explosion of technologies, it’s radio the public will turn to in times like these. After the power goes out, cable fails and the internet goes dark, we will be here doing what we do best.”

And as broadcasters line up resources, equipment and engineers, the former head of FEMA is urging local residents to make sure they have a working AM/FM radio in their disaster kit. “Preparing for #HurricaneMichael, Stay tuned to your local Radio and TV Stations for the latest updates for your community,” former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate wrote on Twitter. “As conditions worsen, keep a portable radio nearby if the power goes out @BroadlyServing #FLwx.”