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What to Do When the Thing Hits Your Station


hurricane devestation

This article is primarily addressed to the station manager or the unfortunate designate charged with getting a station back on the air, i.e. returning operations to “business as usual” after a natural disaster has struck. Perhaps other disaster survivors, including those who have recently gone through the experience of recovering from Sandy, can add to or correct the material offered here. Please feel free to offer your thoughts in a comment below.


What to Do When the Thing Hits Your Station

--David Freedman, WWOZ-FM General Manager

When you look at it, “natural disasters” aren’t all that natural. As a society, we certainly have the capacity to preemptively prevent breaches in seawalls, wave surges over badly engineered barriers, flooding due to inadequate drainage and run-offs, earthquake damage due to indifferent structural design, etc. etc. Not every consequence of a disruptive natural event can be prevented, nor can preparation and planning save us from every type of disaster. But preemption is where it starts; and those who cite the exorbitant cost – such as the $10 billion it would take to build floodgates to protect New York City—might reflect on the $50 billion-plus that it will take to rebuild the demolition inflicted by Sandy—not to mention the deaths, injuries and emotional losses that can never be brought back with mere money. If you’ve never lost all your family photos you may never know what I’m talking about. Or, oh yeah-- lost your family. Preemption, of course, can be practiced on the personal level as well. Houses can be built ten feet above ground, as they now are in New Orleans by those no longer trusting federal levees. Radio stations can and should have back-up generators, up-to-date contact lists, and staff that have reviewed and rehearsed their annually revised emergency plans. But you know all that. The SAFER site, developed by NFCB, as well as many other sources, are available to tell you what you should have done.

But even in the best of circumstances, you may wake up one morning after some cataclysm and your station is dead in the water. I don’t think there will ever be a manual for this. There are too many variables. But here are some of the takeaways we’ve garnered:

1. Communications. How fast can you (re)establish communication with (1) your staff, (2) your public and (3) sources of possible assistance? Offers of assistance often come from contacts at sister community stations, or through the NFCB itself. Other possibilities are local government agencies, NGO’s and your core list of foundation and major gift supporters during normal times. There is also the long shot of some special assistance coming from outside national sources. But, unless you have established a way to handle offers of support, or chase after it, by actually tasking someone with this assignment, precious time and opportunities will easily be lost in the chaos of the moment.

2. Needs assessment. This sounds obvious, but the quicker you start, the better. A slowly unfolding or threatening disaster will give you a head start. Take advantage of it and begin to rehearse the possibilities in your mind even while you are losing sleep over the horrible possibilities that await you. Especially while you are losing sleep. Take advantage of this time. Think of it this way: If I had to build this radio station all over again, what would it take, and in what order would I take it? Once you’ve gotten all the bad news that anyone can handle, then just start following whatever you’ve been able to imagine as soon as you possibly can. Experience has taught us that those who leap to action will be handsomely rewarded, while those who hold back, do so for far too long, sometimes to the point of paralysis. Just do something! The first step is the most important step. And just keep stepping until you regain your wits and your heart. You might be lucky, in that-- all that the sirens of doom report back to you is that the roof caved in and your studio equipment and record library have just been wiped out. Or you might be the GM who was told that his station was firebombed and the transmitter is beyond repair. The possibilities are endless. But most operations are pretty much the same. Follow the transmission chain from the back to the front, and start working in that direction from wherever your particular disaster lands you! Think of it as playing existential Parchesi.

3. Resources. Most of us are operating on a shoe string and don’t have a lot of walking around money to rebound from major disasters. There’s not much advice beyond the all-too-obvious that can help here. How much do you have? How much will it take? Where can we get it? And how long will it take? Not much different than any other day in your week. But this is where embracing Item 1—Communications—can come in handy: Communications with your public and with possible sources of assistance will greatly enhance whatever answers you come up with to the money questions barking at your heels night and day.

4. Staying Connected. This is something you can do to help yourself, a lot more easily before rather than after the Devastation. Either way, you will want to have proxy servers and ways to stream your programming while you’re off the air (if those services are available in your broadcast area). In the overwhelming ADD atmosphere of a traumatic disruption it is easy to lose sight of the importance of your non-broadcast connection to your fan base. Properly maintained and engaged, they will be one of the most likely sources of financial support to help get you out of your current mess. The worst thing you can do is loose contact with the faithful. The longer you do, the longer it will take you to return to “business as usual.” You might want to think about making arrangements for your station’s non-broadcast channels now while the sun is still shining.

5. Disaster Programming. This is something else that is better to have in your back pocket rather than improvise on the back of a napkin when that’s all that’s left of the dining room. This is as important as staying connected to your fan base, because what you do with that connection during and after a disaster can spell the difference between just surviving and actually deriving some benefit (at far too great a cost, I’m sure) from your misery. Here, truly, there is no one magic format bullet. The usual knee-jerk response is to hyper up your coverage of the Thing. But, that’s not always smart. Being authentic and relevant and true to the personality of your station is just as important. Sometimes there is no disconnect between what you do during/after and what you did before. Just check it out before you put your programming on automatic.

As an example of what I’m talking about, I’ve added below a recent presentation made in October at the Integrated Media Association meeting in Boston. Very recent!

Final thoughts: Before is better than after. Sooner is better than later. Smarter is better than harder. Resilience is better than waiting for assistance. Adaptivity and resourcefulness are better than plans and narratives about the ways things are, fall down- get up is one motion— all the same stuff that being in community radio hopefully teaches you every day. Now, when times are good, use the wonderful privilege and opportunity you enjoy as a community broadcaster to make a difference. What is your station doing right now to force society to hear itself think clearly on the long-term cost-benefit of preemptive infrastructure investment? Sometimes it’s loose lips that sink ships. Other times, it’s a surging tide.

Presentation to Integrated Media Association, Boston, October 11, 2012

Case History: WWOZ Weathers Hurricane Isaac

1. Opportunities to Innovate Are Not Always Planned. This is, after all, the Integrated Media Association. But integration is something that can only happen after you’ve reached a certain stage in the maturation process. At least that’s how it’s worked for us.

2. 1994 Netscape 1.0. So, in 1994 we launched our website. I was severely criticized by staff for raiding resources, when we didn’t even have enough money to run a radio station. They were right about not having the money, but I had come out of five years working in Silicon Valley and that’s where I had seen the future being invented.

3. 1995-- WWOZ 24/7 Web Stream-- Real Audio 1.0-- Live Remote. We were one of the first 50 stations in America to simulcast over the web. We may well have been the very first to broadcast a live performance from a remote location: Johnny Adams, Davell Crawford and the Soul Rebels from the Howlin’ Wolf. Streaming at that point sounded like it was being transmitted over 2 tin cans and a string, but I knew it was just a matter of time before the algorithms would catch up with the horn section.

4. 2005-- Federal Flood of ’05-- WWOZ-in-Exile. Hurricane Katrina actually hit the coast 60 miles east of New Orleans. Our city was devastated by 17 breaches in 3 Federal levees. 100% of the population was displaced for more than a month, some 200,000 folk never returned at all. Almost every other broadcaster rushed to return to air, although there was no electricity and no one in the broadcast area to tune in.

Instead, within 5 days, WFMU-FM set up a proxy server for us in New Jersey. In addition to FMU’s own New Orleans music files, programming was supplied by our listeners who sent in years of lovingly hoarded air checks. Sightings of musicians who were safe were posted on our website—WWOZ-in-Exile. I don’t believe the term existed at the time, but this may very well have been the first instance of crowd-sourcing.

5. 2006-- Remote Transmitter Control via Internet/Multiple Laptop Deployment. Now we went into overdrive. We acquired a big-ass remote truck that would be used as a mobile control room for future weather events. We also devised a system whereby two engineers could be deployed in opposite directions away from early storm tracks with laptops pre-loaded with two weeks programming and the ability to directly connect to and control the transmitter via the Internet.

6. 2007 à Facebook, Twitter, Mobile Apps. We turned our attention, as was everyone, to developing our social media presence. When we initially built our website, we thought the name of the game was to keep our audience “at home” on our site. As we moved deeper into social media, we learned that real estate doesn’t matter as much as being on every platform wherever people are looking for an ’OZ experience. A voyage of discovery.

7. 2012-- Hurricane Isaac-- Day One-- WWOZ Announcement on Facebook and Twitter: "Please remember that while nobody plays better music than WWOZ, we are NOT a source for emergency information -- and you should be ready to tune to other stations for more official information. Please stay safe, and stay calm!"

So, this August 29, 2012—7 years to the day of Katrina’s landfall—New Orleans was faced with its first really big hurricane experience. Many evacuated, but many more chose to ride it out, figuring that it was “just a Category 1,” not counting on its size or how slow it was moving. 20 inches of rainfall was predicted, easily enough to flood the city—this time from the skies.

8. Twitter/Facebook. Tweets/Facebookcomments pour in to ’OZ from all corners of the globe. Facebook views more than triple. Internet streaming of WWOZ begins to spike as national news outlets turn their attention to the Gulf Coast.

9. Taken with an iPhone 3 – 15,000 Views


10. Day Two. Management cancels all air shifts. WWOZ implements remote control of its studio and transmitter, staying on the air. WWOZ’s French Quarter studios are shuttered against the wind. The station is locked down. Isaac approaches New Orleans .

11. WWOZ Announces on Facebook and Twitter: "Everybody in the New Orleans area, please remember to be safe. WWOZ is on the air and is staying on the air and still playing the best music anywhere. And to our out-of-town friends, checking in online, your concern and support means the world to us -- THANK YOU!"

12. Isaac Will Remain over New Orleans for a Record-Breaking 52 Hours. WWOZ is the only music station on the air in New Orleans, as other stations have all switched to news and emergency information.

13. Day Four – On Facebook and Twitter. With power gone, New Orleanians rely on smartphones to communicate and get Internet access, and on battery-powered radios for news and music. Many huddle in their cars in the rain while recharging devices. Twitter becomes the fastest way for locals to find out which businesses are open, which roads are blocked and how each neighborhood is managing.

14. WWOZ Continues to Broadcast as the Only Music Station on the Air in New Orleans. When your calling card is your authenticity, you can never go wrong just being yourself. Clear-Channel went All-News. Many stations turned their facilities over to the audio portion of local TV coverage. The fact of the matter is, in a very slow moving hurricane, you could probably tune in every 6 hours and still be up-to-the-minute. After being up all night, people wearied of the repetition. They wanted respite, and the only place they could find it was WWOZ.

15. Day Five through Seven. At the end of Day Five, Isaac finally leaves. Power crews cannot repair downed lines until winds drop below 30 mph. Power is not restored to much of New Orleans for 48-to-72 hours, and in some cases even longer.

16. WWOZ is still playing music. The studio is reopened for air staff. Twitter users proclaim that WWOZ is the only thing keeping music going in New Orleans. WWOZ on a portable radio is the only way most people in a music-loving town can find any music, with most bars and venues still closed.

17. Day Eight. Most of the city has power restored. Bars and clubs are reopening with live music. Thousands of Facebook comments of support have been sent. Thousands have tweeted about WWOZ remaining on the air. The biggest single impact on New Orleanians within the newly constructed $10 billion levee system was the lack of electricity. Some died of heat stroke. Cabin fever continued to mount, as people were deprived of their daily media habits.

18. It Comes Down to This:

19. So, three weeks later ... The bartender at French 75 starts waxing eloquently to his clientele about how great it was to be able to hear ’OZ through the entire ordeal. Only here’s the kicker: It seems he only had a little pocket transistor radio in his house, but the batteries were dead. So he took the batteries out of his remote control and put them in his transistor radio.

20. Opportunities to Innovate Are Not Always Planned. The successful integration of WWOZ’s digital and over-the-air resources proved to be a winner. The response through all its social media channels was overwhelmingly supportive. Years of commitment to continued innovation paid off, but in unexpected ways. You’d have to say that the key innovation was the integration of WWOZ’s operations, which allowed the station to be incredibly nimble in the face of the unknown.


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