More radio stations along Florida’s Panhandle silenced by Hurricane Michael have returned to the air, including “99.3 The Beat” WEBZ, the iHeartMedia urban station licensed to Mexico Beach – Ground Zero for the destructive Category 4 storm. WEBZ, whose tower sits just 13-miles from where the hurricane made landfall, returned to the air 55 hours Michael leveled the small sport fishing town with 155-mile winds and a 14-foot storm surge. “Our chief engineer, Charlie Wooten, deserves a shout on this,” iHeart Panama City /Tallahassee area president Paul Rogers told Inside Radio. “He’s also one of the team of ham radio guys who used their personal time and resources to go and help Puerto Rico after the hurricane there.”
Meanwhile, Powell Broadcasting has made the difficult decision to cease operations at its Panama City cluster, after Michael took all four of its stations in the devastated market off the air. The stations include “Kick`n Country 103.5” WKNK, “Classic Rock 95.9” WRBA, adult hits “105.1 Bob FM” WASJ and rhythmic CHR “Hot 107.9” WPFM. Jeff Storey, who manages the cluster, told sister news/talk station KSCJ (1360) Sioux City, IA, said the deadly storm snapped an STL tower in half, which punched a hole into the roof of the Panama City facility, causing water damage inside. On Facebook, one staffer posted a video of the fallen tower used by WKNK.
“We have made the difficult decision to cease broadcasting operations in Panama City. Hurricane Michael did catastrophic damage to our physical plant to the point that rebuilding was uneconomic,” Powell COO Robert Bond told RadioInsight. “We wish the entire Panama City community Godspeed in rebuilding.”
In September Powell cut a deal to sell WPFM to Educational Media Foundation for $472,000. EMF was expected to put the contemporary Christian “K-Love” format on the 107.9 frequency. Powell also owns five stations in Sioux City.
As of Sunday, more than 435,000 customers were still without power in seven states from Florida to Virginia, according to CNN. And that’s putting the spotlight once again on the battery-powered resilience of radio. In one Florida county, when emergency management officials couldn’t reach some of their staff members because of down cell phone and communications towers, they went on the local radio station to give them instructions.
That said, the latest update from the Federal Communications Commission shows 13 FMs, and three AMs are off the air. But the FCC’s voluntary system only collects reports from stations that are willing or able to check in with Washington to share their status. Illustrating how difficult it remains to get information from the region, the FCC was only able to confirm that 95 FMs and 21 AMs were operational—even though the number is almost certainly significantly higher.
Not surprisingly the Category 4 storm seems to have hit the Panama City market the hardest. Radio is however the way Bay County officials are reaching the public. They’re telling people to listen to local public radio station WKGC-FM (90.7) where the station has partnered with WMBB-TV which was knocked off the air.
There are also beginning to be stories of how radio helped Americans get through the crisis, such as this WEBZ listener who sent her thanks via a Facebook post.
The FCC continues to collect data from across Florida, Georgia and Alabama and according to the reports gathered there are three television stations off the air. But the biggest impact is on cell phones. The FCC says 6.2% of wireless towers are reported offline across the three-state region. But the number is significantly higher along hardest hit areas along the Florida Panhandle coastline, where as many as seven in ten cell tower sites aren’t working. In Bay County, which includes Panama City, 66% of cell towers are offline.
“Data from the FCC’s Disaster Information Reporting System shows that Hurricane Michael caused substantial communications outages along its destructive path,” FCC chair Ajit Pai said. His office and staff from the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau began reaching out to broadcasters and other communications providers early today to discuss the situation on the ground and how to restore service as quickly as possible. Pai said he was happy to learn that wireless companies pre-positioned mobile equipment that can roll backup towers on the backs of trucks into the region to get wireless service up and running in many locations.
“In the hours and days ahead, the FCC will continue to work with our federal partners and the private sector to ensure that communications services are restored in those areas affected by Hurricane Michael,” Pai said, adding,” Our thoughts are with all of those who have been impacted by this historic storm.”
DIRS Reporting Expanded
The impact of Hurricane Michael is still being assessed, and the FCC on Thursday expanded the region that it hopes to collect voluntary DIRS reports from to nine additional counties in Georgia. It added Charlton, Clinch, Echols, Lanier, Lowndes, Marion, Pierce, Stewart, and Ware Counties to the DIRS list. They are in addition to the stations in 99 counties in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama that had already been asked to file updates each morning by 10am ET in order to help the FCC track whether a station’s infrastructure, such as towers, withstood the storm.
The Commission has also announced that, in order to address any emergencies that may come up during the next several days, the FCC Operations Center will be open 24-hours a day. The FCC Ops Center can be reached at 202-418-1122 or by e-mail at FCCOPCenter@fcc.gov.
The FCC has also issued a statement saying it’s prepared to handle any emergency requests for special temporary authority (STA) that are the result of Hurricane Michael. It also points out that the FCC’s rules allow stations to, when needed, operate outside the bounds of normal authorization to provide the public with information during an emergency. That typically is using daytime patterns to cover a larger geographic area after dark, or a daytime-only station going 24-hours.
Got a hurricane related question?
FM Stations: Dale Bickel, (202) 418-2706; Dale.Bickel@fcc.gov
AM Stations: Jerome Manarchuck, (202) 418-7226, Jerome.Manarchuck@fcc.gov
After Hours: FCC Operations Center, 202-418-1122 or FCCOperationCenter@fcc.gov