As Hurricane Michael walloped its way from the Florida Panhandle to Georgia on Wednesday, radio stations in the region moved to the next level of providing necessary information to listeners: increased reporting and wall-to-wall coverage. Forecasters were already saying that Michael is the strongest hurricane to reach the continental U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. As it slammed into Florida with winds of 155 mph—super-charged as a Category 4—a 13-foot storm surge was at risk of horrendous devastation. Duke Energy Florida projected 100,000 to 200,000 power outages in the Florida Panhandle.
If there were any doubt of the urgency the wicked storm has created in its affected wake, automated emails tell the story. Two contacts that Inside Radio reached out to responded as such: “We are covering the landfall of Hurricane Michael in Panama City and Tallahassee. Please note, I will either be on the air or assisting coverage all day Wednesday.” And the second: “Due to Hurricane Michael, I may not be able to respond to your email as quickly as usual, and may lose coverage completely at some point.”
As always, radio prepared for the storm early in the week by keeping the audience, first responders and the nation up to date, as Inside Radio reported Wednesday morning. With Hurricane Michael now touching down, stations have escalated their coverage. “As the storm enters our listening area, we'll increase local reports between music. Should the situation change or warrant it, we're prepared to go wall-to-wall at a moment's notice,” said Joseph Brannan, assistant general manager of PMB Media in Columbus, GA, which operates four stations in the market. “We also use our social media outlets to share the latest information and remind listeners they can find us on-the-air as well, should their cell network or home internet go out.”
Likewise, Greg Tillotson, operations manager/Programming for Cumulus Pensacola, tells Inside Radio, “We are inserting four breaks each hour with information about the storm in relation to Pensacola and then stretching out to the storm. We started Sunday telling listeners we will have the coverage on-air and online. Having live and local announcers, we are able to do live breaks reminding listeners we are here with them, to stay tuned for important information.”
Cumulus’ news/talk WCOA (1370) is leading the charge for Cumulus’ five-station cluster that includes four FM music stations in Pensacola. “We are letting the AM talk station take the lead, giving information to the other stations. We have an Accuweather meteorologist who has been great; he actually gave us a heads up on the storm two weeks ago. We are also using local TV partners for their angles.” And within the company, Cumulus is pooling its talent as needed. “Promotions director, market manager – everyone pitches in when we need help,” Tillotson said.
PMB Media is also treating Michael as a “cluster event,” with its four stations staying on top of the forecast, closures, messages by local law enforcement and the like. It also “works with our TV partner to bring in expert reporting when available,” Brannan says, while “we can take their wall-to-wall coverage live to air should that be necessary.” He adds that part of the company’s “standard operating procedure is to contact all local law enforcement and community leaders ahead of the event, reminding them we are available at all times to get information out to our communities.”
Staff: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
Another issue that stations must face when covering such weather events is how to deal with staffing—balancing decisions about essential air-staffers and engineers setting up camp at the station studios and/or nearby hotels versus maintaining minimal personnel in instances where there are evacuations—such as with Hurricane Michael.
iHeartMedia is staffing for Michael “with safe sleeping arrangements, food and basics for those who are able to be at work,” a spokesperson tells Inside Radio. “In some instances we provide hotel accommodations close to the studios. But we believe in safety first and encourage all of our employees to make sure they and their families are safe.”
Brannan explains, “We have our ‘PMB Weather Team,’ which consists of operations manager Dave Arwood, local personality/weather enthusiast Brian Thomas and me. We plan to be at the studio through the duration of the strongest parts of the storm. We've got enough comfortable couches and a shower to accommodate a long stay.” Regarding other staff, “We ask employees to decide for themselves their ability to be at the station during their normal shift,” he adds. “We want our employees to make the best, safest decisions for themselves and their families.
At Community Broadcasters in Destin-Fort Walton Beach, FL, market manager Kevin Malone says, “Our studios are, relatively speaking, on high ground and our generators will operate throughout the length of the storm. So we are pretty confident our studios are safer than most of our employees’ houses and expect many to come ride out Michael here at the office/studios. All non-essential personnel have been asked to follow local evacuation suggestions/mandates—to heed those warnings and leave. But others are encouraged to come to the offices where they will be safe, dry and have continuous electricity. Schools are closed so we could have a pretty large group.”
Based on past storms, radio vets know there is often an upsurge in listening and website traffic as locals lean on their stations for essential information. Brannan recounts, “The last major weather event was a snowstorm at the beginning of this year. While it would be a ‘normal winter day’ in a northern city, any hint of serious snow and/or freezing shuts down most of our roads, schools, government agencies and businesses. We always expect some sort of surge.”
In addition, he recognizes that during such crises, it is radio that remains the essential media platform. “Especially in a market like Columbus, radio is the go-to medium during an emergency because of the immediacy of the information available and the ease with which people can tune-in,” Brannan says. “Radio doesn't require a cable-box or computer/laptop or mobile device with Internet access of some sort—although we are available on those devices as well. There is also the trust listeners have in our live and local announcers to provide information for their best interests and to be there with them through the depths of the storm.”
Local governments are also placing trust in their hometown stations to keep people informed.
Leon County, home to Tallahassee, took to Twitter before the storm made land to urge residents to tune into the market’s local iHeartMedia stations as well as to Florida State University news/talk WFSU-FM for regular updates until Michael passes.