During Hurricane Katrina, it was old-fashioned radio, not newfangled insta-media, that served as a lifeline for people battered by the storm. In the dark chaos of the Louisiana Superdome, or the lonely quiet of their homes, people along the Gulf coast huddled around battery-operated devices, seeking comfort and news from the on-air voices.
But broadcasting during the crisis and the aftermath has been no easy feat for New Orleans radio companies, who face the same hardships as their listeners. At first the they operated piecemeal on whichever stations their engineers could keep running, but didn't take long for the city's two rival radio companies, Entercom Communications Corp. and Clear Channel Radio, to realize that they'd have to work together to keep their signal alive. Four days after the hurricane hit, the two companies formed a groundbreaking partnership sharing equipment, space and airtime. The new entity, which they call the United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans, transmits via the Internet and six stations serving evacuees in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.
When Katrina made that fateful eastward turn three days before slamming into New Orleans, most people weren't home listening to their radios for weather advisories. The city's beloved Saints football team was playing a pre-season game at the Superdome and it was Jamboree Weekend, when the high school football teams scrimmage. But already there were reports that a nasty storm was brewing. David Cohen, the news director at WWL, an AM Entercom station, decided to start running periodic news briefs, even breaking into coverage of the Saints' game to make announcements. By 7 a.m. Saturday, the station was broadcasting round-the-clock coverage of the storm.
Cohen took an engineer and two reporters to a concrete bunker in Jefferson Parish two miles from the transmitter, where they hoped they could broadcast despite the hurricane. It was a smart move: Katrina trashed the downtown studio, blowing out the 5th-floor windows that overlooked the Superdome, and forcing the 40 employees still inside to flee. Those with SUVs drove to safety, while others waded through waist-deep water to get to a rescue bus. Others were airlifted out of the city with some Clear Channel employees, many of whom began working out of a Clear Channel studio in Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, the WWL reporters working from the Jefferson Parish bunker donned weather gear and charged out into the gathering squall, relaying what they saw to their listeners until it was too dangerous. Cars were being pushed around in parking lots, fences were flying through the air, traffic signals were ripped from their wires.
Cohen started taking calls. They were panicked, desperate cries for help from people unable to reach anyone else. They were submerged in chest-deep water, or trapped in their attics with no escape. "It was surreal, bizarre, frightening and unbelievable," he says. "We were getting calls from people who may not be with us much longer, who may well be in the body count. It still haunts me to this day. ...It's never what I expected to do as a broadcaster."
Once the storm subsided, Entercom, the nation's fourth largest radio broadcaster, and Clear Channel, the nation's largest (they own about nine percent of U.S. radio stations), struck a bargain. They'd "make friends, and make history," as Dick Lewis, Clear Channel's regional VP says. They wanted the public to have as much information as they could, and decided that the best way to do it was to work together, broadcasting the same information across their working stations. In a few hours, Clear Channel had put together a new studio in Baton Rouge, and the Entercom team moved in, some of them bringing their families who had no other place to go. And so United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans came to life.
In a building made for about 60 employees, the companies managed to cram "about 300," Lewis says. "Now we have what we affectionately refer to as 'Camp United.'" They serve two hot meals each day--often barbecue cookouts. People share desks and chairs, or work on laptops on the floor. Employees sleep in a few RVs, hotel rooms or bunk in houses the companies have set up. And the radio broadcasts round-the-clock, always with two anchors--a personality from each company. "You'll have an Entercom WWL newsperson sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a Clear Channel hip-hop radio talent. Yet these two people are responsible for giving quality radio to a city that's totally dark," Lewis says.
The calls haven't stopped coming from all over the country as evacuees settle in far-flung states and tune in for the news from home that they crave. The signal is available almost everywhere since the companies offered broadcast rights to independent radio stations locally and nationally who wanted to pick it up, and streamed it online. So people call in looking for family members, or information on how to apply for services. Others call in with donations: "I have ice, who needs ice?" Some just want to know when they can go home.
The Louisiana State Police posted an officer in the station to respond to emergency calls. People like Tracey Jones, who helps run a food bank in her part of Southeastern Mississippi, uses the radio to determine who needs help. In her rural community, the National Guard had trouble finding people tucked away down winding roads. Jones used the station's broadcast to relay messages about where people could find her pantry, and listened for hungry people nearby who called in. "They're keeping the community going," Jones says. Without the radio, " we wouldn't know how to get to them."
Like all partnerships, especially those with rivals in close quarters, there can be complications. "There are no private conversations here," Lewis jokes on the phone. Both camps say they'll stay together as long as necessary, but not longer. Already, as the urgency of Katrina news recedes, WWL has split off one of its FM stations to broadcast Saints and Louisiana State University football. On another station, Clear Channel airs Morning Drive, a syndicated talk show.
It's also a financial strain on both companies. "For every [advertising] dollar, the operating cost is probably $100," Lewis says. The stations refused to run ads in the first days of the hurricane and subsequent flooding, because it was more important to provide emergency information. Even now, many of the ads are storm-related: insurance companies relaying information on how to file claims, power companies releasing updates. It will be sometime before the dust settles and dollars are counted, but Lewis estimates that Clear Channel alone has spent tens of thousands of dollars on top of regular operating costs to stay on the air. They've had to use thousands of gallons of diesel fuel for generators and buy satellite time among other things. And that's in addition to paying full staff salaries, even for employees who have evacuated to distant points, as well as underwriting emergency staff housing.
Both Entercom and Clear Channel hope to have all of their hurricane-stricken stations up and running before they dissolve the partnership. (Entercom has six stations in the area and Clear Channel has seven.) For now, they say they are not abandoning the New Orleans market despite the crippled local economy and the dispersed population. And this week, as a new hurricane bears down on the Gulf, they are conscious that listeners have come to rely on them during times of crisis and transition. "We're the only thing they have," Cohen says.
To listen United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans online go to: www.wwl.com or www.stormaid.com