Eyes and Ears on the Storm

| November 21, 2012

By Mike Kinosian
RadioInfo                                                                                                   
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief

LOS ANGELESAmerican voters are conditioned every four years to believe that the presidential ballot they are about to cast will be the most crucial such decision they will make in their entire lifetimes.

That was certainly a dominant theme of the 2012 campaign, yet less than 10 days before Election Day, something else began percolating that had approximately 20% of the country hitting the “Pause” button to politics: “Sandy.”

Innocuous as the name sounds, “Sandy” unfortunately arrived as advertised and now, weeks later, harsh reality remains in its wake.

It is impossible to factor precious loss of lives and the shattering of countless dreams into the billions of dollars of wreckage caused by one of the unkindest of oxy-morons – a so-called “perfect storm.”

As another testament to our democracy, the November 6 election went off without a hitch and the country would ready itself for one of its proudest traditions – setting aside a day of thanksgiving (albeit followed by the dubious recent sales custom known as “Black Friday”).

Radio stations though in locales that include the country’s #1 market – New York City – are continuing to focus on what has been consuming them since (roughly) Saturday October 27.

Suffering through Sandy was brutal.

For many, enduring the aftermath is considerably worse.

Calm voice turns deadly serious

Several different storm systems colliding with each other would create the sort of havoc weather professionals feared.

Much like elections, weather systems have been trumped-up, so it was not surprising that some assumed Sandy was being oversold and wildly exaggerated.

Nevertheless, many northeast radio programmers in late-October were starting to contemplate their emergency plans.  “We saw the stories one week prior to when the storm was supposed to hit, so we were aware forecasters were predicting the odd circumstances that would make this storm very significant,” recounts Tim Scheld, director of news and programming for New York City’s venerable WCBS-AM.  “You begin to pay attention as it gets closer.  We certainly were not putting up staff schedules a week before, but we were looking at who would be available, where we would be, and what areas would most likely be impacted.  That is where the professionals come in – that is why you pay people to be staff meteorologists.  We have one of the best – Craig Allen – who has worked on this radio station for about 30 years.  He is a reasoned, voice of calm in the market and hates the fact that weather people get a bad rap for hyping storms.  He is the anti-hyper and he rails against something that is not going to be there.”

Dedicated individuals such as Allen have convictions in their science and in what they do.  “In this case, I think Craig really believed that his work could actually save lives,” Scheld strongly asserts.

In addition to Allen, WCBS-AM brought into service Todd Glickman, who works part-time for the mega all-news facility.  Similar to Allen, Glickman has been affiliated with WCBS-AM for approximately 30 years.

Every day leading up to the storm, the two weather pros talked about the direction Sandy was taking and supplied Scheld with their best guesses as to what would eventuate.  “I think we really began taking it seriously Thursday [10/25] or Friday [10/26],” Scheld states.  “Craig called me at home on Saturday [10/27].  He was concerned that several officials, including New York City Mayor Bloomberg, said the storm was going to bypass us.”

It is Scheld’s contention that Gotham’s mayor was attempting to downplay the storm’s severity but Allen was concerned that residents would misinterpret that and let down their guard.  “Craig and Todd went on our air and told people the truth,” Scheld points out.  “Listeners in New York could hear in Craig’s voice on Saturday and Sunday just how serious this was.  He does not hype this kind of stuff, but he was deadly serious.  They talked more about ‘potential’ – they discussed tide charts.  We have seen flooding in traditional places, but Craig and Todd were talking about ‘surges.’  Hopefully, we will never see another ‘surge’ like this again.  To see the water come up around the edges of this area was remarkable.  It was breath-taking to see The Battery eaten up by the river and the harbor.”

PB&J as a luxury

Programming memos that Scheld sends out usually go to 80-100 people, but the nucleus of WCBS-AM’s staff is between 30-40.

Given that the city’s mass transit system was shut down 24 hours in advance of when the storm was predicted to hit, Scheld instantly understood that members of his staff who live a notable distance from the station were not going to be able to come in to work.  “We did not want to put them in harm’s way,” he explains.

Accommodations were made for some WCBS-AM staff members, however that was short-lived because the hotel soon lost power.  “We were sleeping in rooms without lights and walked up stairs,” Scheld notes.  “They used flashlights just to get into bed so they could sleep for a couple of hours.  There was no maid service for sheets or towels.  It is not a complaint – think of all the people who did not even have homes.  We at least had a shower and a mattress.  There were no pizza places around the corner to get food.  Luckily, my wife packed a loaf of bread and peanut butter & jelly.  The engineering guys had pancake mix and made that with the emergency power in the kitchen.  Vending machines did not work because they were not on emergency power.”

Camping out at the station was a logical choice, so a common sight was staff members catching naps in empty offices or under their own desks; Scheld furnished a blow-up mattress.  “Each person in our core staff would work eight-12 hours and then go sleep,” he remarks.

Six CBS Radio, New York City stations are located on the tenth and eleventh floors of an office building on Hudson Street in the southern end of Manhattan, an area blacked-out during Sandy.

Sports WFAN, all-news WINS, and the engineering department occupy the tenth floor; WCBS-AM, classic hits WCBS-FM, adult contemporary WWFS (“Fresh”), and mainstream contemporary hit radio WXRK (“Radio Now”) are on the 11th floor.  “Anyone working here at that time had Spartan circumstances,” Scheld confirms.  “The city was almost unaffected upwards of 34th Street – there was full power there.  Life went on in certain parts of the city.  If you lived in unaffected parts of the city, you could get taxis down here.  We had a combination of people who needed to sleep here, as well as those who could get in and out.  Some of our staff members hopped in news units to pick up some [fellow staffers].”

Emergency generators and excellent planning kept WCBS-AM on the air.  Above and beyond that, Scheld – positively magnanimous in his refusal to take a shred of credit for his Herculean effort while simultaneously being nothing less than insistent in praising each WCBS-AM staffer – credits “the courage” of his engineering staff.  “It is probably the best in the land,” he maintains.  “Our chief engineer – Rob Bertrand – was the chief engineer at WCBS-AM before he took over for [CBS Radio’s New York cluster].  He is tremendous – one of the best at what he does.”

Last year during hurricane Irene, WCBS-AM was housed at CBS’ Broadcast Center on West 57th Street; the station and its five siblings relocated to its current Hudson Street address in December 2011.  “When Irene struck, we had no issue with emergency power – but we did get some water in the building,” Scheld recalls.  “There was some concern about the emergency generator.”

During Sandy, WCBS-AM was fully-fueled with emergency generators.  After five or six days though, the station needed to re-supply the energy.  Fuel, of course, was at a premium but Scheld isolates an important reason why WCBS-AM was able to obtain this precious commodity when others could not.  “The world is all about relationships,” he emphasizes.  “These engineers had those relationships for exactly this reason.  They knew that when needed, those trucks would be there for them.  After the trucks fueled up the building here, several other people in the vicinity asked to have their generators fueled as well.”

Close call

No one else was working in the building where the CBS Radio stations are located when Sandy hit.  WCBS-AM’s newsroom and studios were lit up – the hallways and bathrooms were not.

Only one elevator went to the 10th and 11th floor during the blackout.

Building management was very helpful in terms of providing support and Scheld comments, “There was no air circulation, but it was not terrible.  The real story of heroism was keeping the station on the air when the ‘surge’ came.  Most New York City radio stations – certainly the FMs – have their transmitters on the Empire State Building, so there isn’t a concern, unless flooding rain gets into those rooms.  Our transmitter, along with that of WFAN, is located on High Island in the Bronx.”

In the past – most recently with Irene – Scheld has witnessed waters come up to dangerous levels on High Island.  “The day before the storm hit, Rob came in and said, if predictions were correct, we were going to be knocked off the air,” Scheld explains.  “It wasn’t like there could be a chance – he said it was going to happen.”

During the storm, there were people on High Island and the expectation was the site would be powered by emergency generators.  “That is what happened because Con Edison power went out,” Scheld notes.  “Our engineering staff here was in contact by walkie-talkie with people at High Island, who did a play-by-play of how close the water was coming to the emergency generator.”

If it shorted out, WCBS-AM would have been knocked off the air.  “It got to the floor of the generator room and went slightly up the block but we escaped the tide,” Scheld points out.  “It was close but we stayed on the air.  The guys on High Island were away from their families and risking their lives to be there.  They were stranded for a significant period of time.  The tide eventually receded and once that happened, we were okay, but we were still on emergency power there for many days.”

Meeting of the minds

Several days before the storm made its unwelcome arrival, programmers of CBS Radio’s New York City cluster convened to ponder what they would do if “Sandy” became a civil emergency.

That high-powered group included esteemed WFAN operations manager/CBS Radio, New York vice president of programming Mark Chernoff; WINS news and program director Ben Mevorach; WCBS-FM and WWFS program director Jim Ryan – who famously programmed cross-town, market dominant Clear Channel adult contemporary WLTW (“Lite-FM”) from 1996-2008; Rick Gillette – who became WXRK’s PD this past March; and Scheld.  “The five of us wondered how big the storm was going to be and what we needed to do to serve the community,” Scheld notes.  “We discussed strategies of putting the news stations on FM, if need be, and/or having reporters talk on WFAN.”

Fully aware they could use the power of six major radio facilities, the five programmers considered every possibility, well in advance of the crisis.  “As the storm was coming in, the engineers were more convinced we were in trouble on High Island,” Scheld explains.  “Jim Ryan and I had many conversations on Monday [10/29] about a pre-emptive strike where we could simulcast WCBS-AM on WWFS.  It was clear at that point that this was going to be a big storm and a big story that would affect many people.  At about 9:40pm, we began simulcasting and WFAN went on 92.3 [WXRK].  We continued simulcasting for four or five hours.”

Despite the fact that two of America’s leading all-news facilities share common ownership and are in the same location, WCBS-AM and WINS maintain separate identities and separate staffs.

That continued during Sandy and Scheld insists, “It works well that way.  If I saw one of their people on the road and they needed a ride, I would pick them up but the editorial staffs exist on their own.  We see each other in the hallways and on the street.  There is a competitive edge but, at a time like that, you are not looking at what someone else is doing.  If you are going to be successful, you know what you need to do.  You put your head down and do it.  If, for example, you are WCBS-TV, you are not looking at what WNBC-TV or WABC-TV is airing.  Do what you think needs to be done and let the chips fall where they may.”

That is how Scheld has always felt about WCBS-AM’s sister station WINS, which just so happens to be his primary competitor.  “We will give WINS a big hug at Christmas and give them a slap on the back because it is an excellent station – one of the best in the country,” he declares in earnest.  “I am friends with many of the people who work there and I have no doubt whatsoever they did a great job during the storm but we do not spend a lot of time focusing on how they cover the news.  We do the best we can and if they beat us because of how good they are, we go get them harder the next day.”

Realistic assessment

It is difficult for Scheld to equate covering Sandy to 9-11, primarily since he was a correspondent for ABC Radio News during the September 11 attacks on America.  “There was a different emotion – an element of shock and sadness over a terror attack,” the Saint Francis University alum states.  “I think we were all surprised at how wounded the storm left portions of the city.  Still, you cannot really compare Sandy to 9-11.”

A 10-year national correspondent for ABC Radio News (1994-2004) and a seven-year WCBS-AM reporter (1987-1994), Scheld has eye-witnessed hurricanes up and down the east coast, although he is quick to proclaim, “There has never been anything like this.  They usually knock down trees and some power lines.  The extent that this storm crippled America’s largest city and decimated whole neighborhoods was very surprising.  When our helicopter got up in the air, we took pictures of the Jersey shore.  It was an absolute shock to see how badly we were hurt.”

Mass transit and infrastructure damage were serious hurdles to clear, yet Scheld focused on another troubling aspect.  “I must say that this was exhausting because we were pushing aside personal circumstances.  That was very difficult because after working all day, a person would go to a home without heat.  One or two nights are okay, but some people were without it for 10 days – or longer.  That is not fun.  All of our people worked much more than a full day and faced tough circumstances just to get here; however, that is why we are in this business.  We want to cover the big stories and it was an eye-opener for those who hadn’t been through something like this before.  I could not be any prouder of our people who told some amazing stories.”

At the time that was happening though, he actually was unable to listen closely to the radio station.  “You are trying to be sure you have people doing their jobs,” he explains.  “I have since had a chance to hear on CD some of the raw emotion, pain, and suffering we were broadcasting.  To know our stations contributed to deliver needed information is very satisfying.  The number of people we reached was eye-opening.  When we first added up the outages, it was 4.35 million people who were without power.”

Given that America’s biggest city was hit by the biggest storm anyone can ever remember, Scheld candidly comments, “I am sure we missed some stories or some angles.  I guarantee we did not get to every community right away but I think we were able to cover as much of it as we could and deliver the stories that needed to be told.  We did not miss anything really big for any long period of time.  You do as much planning as you can, but you must understand that you will not be able to handle everything.”

Customarily a “listener line,” WCBS-AM’s “talkback line” proved to be a tremendous value.  “On the first day of the storm, we asked listeners for feedback and to tell us a story we were not telling them,” Scheld notes.  “Many listeners told us many things.  Over the course of two or three weeks, we had thousands of calls – hundreds of them got on the air.  It allowed us to get to communities we would never have been able to cover and we were able to understand the storm’s dramatic impact.”

Giving thanks to loyalty

Much of the last three weeks on WCBS-AM has been all-Sandy coverage.  Among other things, listeners have been connected through live news conferences.

For a time, the station ran commercial-free, but it has gradually been adding in other news and is slowly getting back to normal.  “For about a week, we did not do much sports programming,” Scheld states.  “The storm and the recovery though continue to dominate our news wheel.  If there is a more important story that needs to lead the newscast, such as a temporary cease-fire in Gaza, that’s what we’ll do.  In the world we live in, that might be the most important thing.”

Even so, approximately 60% – 70% of WCBS-AM’s news coverage is still Sandy-related and Scheld envisions it will probably be that way for a while longer.  “Gas rationing is still going on in the city but has been completely solved in the suburbs,” he points out.  “There are no more lines – that is not an issue.”

To add further insult to the injured metropolitan area, four inches of snow fell after Sandy, but that has passed.  The short-term crisis has slowly subsided and the city’s transportation system is about 85% restored.  “That had been a real nightmare,” Scheld comments.  “I am certain though that the people in crisis will not be out of trouble for many months.  Homes and businesses are completely destroyed.  There are no short-term solutions to things like 40,000 homeless.  Those are long-term issues.”

Many WCBS-AM staffers have caught up a bit on their sleep but as Scheld stresses, “We are in the news business, so we like active stories.  In the past few days, we have been focusing on international stories.  You have to be careful not to give a story short shrift just because you may be exhausted from covering it.  We have such great people who work here.  There are so many good stories out there to tell and we are not tired at all.  Our reporters are chomping at the bit – especially since it is Thanksgiving time, which is always when we think about people who are in worse circumstances.  That is what Thanksgiving is all about.  You count your blessings and focus on those who do not have as much as you do.  There is not enough time on our clock to tell the stories of goodness going on here.  Luckily, we have many people who will not grow tired of this story.”

In the end, one of Scheld’s greatest takeaways was the need to have “good, smart people” working for your organization.  “You must be as loyal to them as possible,” he emphasizes.  “They need to react, rather than panic, when given difficult circumstances.  The day you need them, you are going to ask that they give more than you think you should be asking.  We asked a lot from our people.  We asked them to give up their families and to go into dangerous circumstances – not a single person balked.  It is gratifying to know that the people we have gathered here are among the best in the business.  When we needed them – they came through.  We were all ready for Thanksgiving.” 

Temporary syndication stoppage

Compared to what was happening in New York City, Bill Hess acknowledges that Washington, DC “dodged a bullet” with regard to Sandy.  Cumulus Media-owned talk outlet WMAL’s program director comments there was actually more damage this past June (2012) from a mid-Atlantic/Midwest storm.  “It just kind of blew up on a Friday night,” Air America Radio’s former senior vice president/programming recounts of the derecho.  “It was supposed to be thunderstorms and I wound up losing power at my house for four days.  It hit late at night and the severity was only beginning to be known by daybreak.  It was much more difficult because we were not ready for it.”

That was not the case with Sandy, although Hess was not sure about that until late-Monday, October 29.  “Some forecasts still had the storm coming up around the Delaware Bay or the Chesapeake but it did go a little further north,” he reports.  “For us, we have had worse storms over the last few years.  Along the eastern shore and Maryland coast, they had high surf and damage in places like Rehoboth, Delaware and Ocean City, Maryland.  In the immediate DC-area though, it was mostly several hours of heavy rain and decent-sized wind gusts.  There were some power outages but it was nothing compared to what happened in New York City or in New Jersey.”

Having spent many years in New England doing continuing coverage of numerous snowstorms, Hess approached Sandy as if it was going to be a major weather event.  “You sort of hearken back to that,” the former director of programming for Clear Channel, Providence; and programmer of Massachusetts talk-adult contemporary combos WHYN AM & WHYN-FM, Springfield and WTAG & WSRS, Worcester remarks.  “We actually began doing live/local programming Sunday afternoon and Sunday night [10/28].  We brought in several staff members who live quite a distance away and put them up at a hotel so we would be set.  Our news team was deployed out in the field but when we woke up the next day, we saw it was not as bad as it could have been.  The first half of Tuesday [10/30] was spent reassuring/updating listeners and we had power company officials on every 30 minutes.”

Coverage on WMAL included opening up phone lines and having hosts disseminate information.  “It is important to have the audience feel it is connected to the rest of the world,” Hess emphasizes.  “We did that throughout Monday [10/29] because we did not know what it was going to be like.”

Syndicated programming was dropped on Monday and local hosts were brought in.  “We went back to syndication on Tuesday afternoon [10/30] when the weather wasn’t so bad here,” Hess notes.

Four or five calls – actually less than Hess expected – came in regarding Rush Limbaugh being pulled in favor of Sandy coverage.  “We are local until noon and we just stayed local on Monday,” the former Capstar Communications’ regional vice president/programming notes.  “We were not sure what was coming although some predictions said it was going to be substantially bad.  We wanted to make sure that people had the best information.  Our listeners knew we would be here to connect them, and that is important.  We went back to carrying Rush at noon the next day.  Given the situation here in Washington, if I had not gone back to Rush on Tuesday, I think I would have received more complaints.  I do not want to play-up the callers, but they were saying that we were in the middle of an election.  My response was that the election would be here tomorrow, too.  I suspect that if I were in New York, that would have been a multi-day decision, for sure.”

Companionship and connection

No less than two months after Hess first arrived in the DC area in 2003, hurricane Isabel was making its way up the coast.  At that time, he was programming Clear Channel adult contemporary WASH, which at that time was live around-the-clock.  “We brought in news people to co-host and we cut a quickie deal with one of the television meteorologists,” he recounts.  “We were able to have a team to provide companionship and a connection.  People who lose their power wonder if they are the only ones and want to stay connected.”

FM music stations have to make some decisions on-the-fly but Hess opines, “If you had the resources to do so, I can’t imagine how stations in New York City, along the Jersey shore, or on the Connecticut coast could not be in wall-to-wall storm coverage.  It is hard to say that, ‘If winds get to 80 mph, we will do this.’  There are too many variables.  The guiding principle is that you are there providing information, which could include bringing in a news staff after every record or two.  I frankly cannot imagine that when people woke up on Tuesday morning and realized the enormity of what they were facing, there would be much time to play music.  Part of it is riding out the storm with your listeners but it is hard today to multi-staff around-the-clock.”

Just as when Hess was in charge of programming the station, WASH began playing all-Christmas music the Friday before Thanksgiving (11/16 this year).  “Stations have been doing it for so long that there is a level of acceptance at this point,” he comments.  “The audience buys into it completely from Thanksgiving on.  From my perspective, going one week before Thanksgiving gave me extra time in the fall book.”

One year, it was 82 degrees in the nation’s capital the first day Hess transitioned WASH to all-Christmas music.  “I always looked at it as much as a marketing tactic as a programming one,” he states.  “It gets your radio station attention and when you are doing mainstream adult contemporary – that is a good thing.  It is also a great way to interact with your audience.”

As far as Hess’ current station, WMAL, is concerned, it thrives on being there when there is breaking news.  “That could be an approaching election, storms, or any number of things,” he remarks.  “That’s when the team jumps in and the station gets its listeners though it.”

Reach RadioInfo managing editor/west coast bureau chief Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@radioinfo.com or (818) 985-0244.

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