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Webmaster’s Corner: Radio’s Coverage of Hurricane Sandy

When Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the South Jersey coast near Atlantic City, untold millions of people from Norfolk, VA to Boston, MA were affected in a way perhaps as never before. Not that hurricanes haven’t hit the Northeast before – history is replete with memorable storms. 1938’s storm did enormous damage to New England, as did Hurricane Agnes in 1969. But nothing in history can compare with the absolute devastation that affected an area 1500 miles across, from the wind damage in Southern and Coastal areas of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts to the terrible flooding that accompanied an unheard of tidal surge that roared into Long Island Sound, flooding most of New York City’s lower Manhattan business district and most of the subway system and car tunnels, and up into Rariton Bay in NJ – essentially wrecking the NJ coastline from end to end.

History will show that the preparations and response by government on the local, regional and Federal level was impressive. But how did the one local medium that most people rely on in emergency situations fare? That’s the topic of this discussion.

Radio has historically been the only way that information can be disseminated to the masses in cases where there are power outages and people don’t have access to any other form of communication. That’s why its called ‘mass media’. And, historically, it has been the AM stations that have done the best job at covering natural disasters. And one would expect that, because the biggest storms and emergencies, except for 9/11 and a few Blizzards in the 90s that have affected the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast have been far enough in the past that most of the audience was tuned to the AM band for everything including News and music. So, past coverage was excellent, given the resources that those stations had back in a time before the internet, ISDN services, Cable and Satellite information services.

Cell phones weren’t even in wide use until the 2000s!

But this is 2012, and you would expect radio to have an enormous amount of resources at its disposal.

For the AMs involved, and a few FMs which either simulcasted their sister News AM (include WTOP 103.5 Washington DC in this group), the coverage was outstanding.

I can’t report on stations I didn’t hear, but living within the footprint of nearly all the New York City radio stations, AM and FM, I think I can be fair in my reporting. Some stations and groups did an abysmal job, others did fair and still others were on this storm from the beginning, serving their Community Of License (COL) properly, as a stipulation of their license to broadcast from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Starting with the AM stations –

New York
WINS 1010 – All news. Coverage was excellent. At some point in the storm, the station’s transmitter was swamped by the incoming tidal flood, and at that point the station moved it’s coverage over to 92.3 FM WXRK for the duration of the outage on 1010. 92.3 FM with its low ratings is prime for a format change – a discussion we’ll have at another time – and WINS would be the perfect format for 92.3.

WCBS 880 – I spent a lot of time listening to WCBS, as the signal is better here in Connecticut than WINS. For days leading up to the storm, WCBS anchors and it’s meteorologists covered the steps the city was taking, covered, along with its sister station WINS, all the press conferences between Mayor Bloomberg, the Governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, FEMA and virtually any other group/organization involved with the planning and execution of emergency plans in their respective areas of responsibility. The weather coverage was exemplary, as was the traffic coverage. By Sunday, 10/28, coverage was nearly non-stop about the storm with very little other news, except for CBS Hourly news. About the same time that WINS went off the air on 1010, WCBS was warning listeners that their transmitter was in harms way and they announced to their audience that WCBS would move their coverage to 102.7 FM WWFS in case of an outage. Unlike WINS, WCBS remained on the air on 880 for the entire event.

WFAN 660 – For a sports station with the reputation of The Fan, and the immense audience it has, one has to wonder how they performed. I tuned all over the dial and did stop at WFAN for periods of time. Their usual sports anchors were mixing in storm coverage and making it relevant to their sports banter. Talking about the opening game of the Nicks who just moved to Brooklyn and wondering – at least up until just before the storm hit – if they were going to get to play their first game. It seemed as though there was more coverage of Sandy here than sports, but one has to think that the WFAN broadcast on storm day was pretty good, for a station whose resources are geared to everything sports. Overall, good.

Virtually every AM station in the city was doing some sort of coverage. FM, however, where the majority of the non-News/Talk audience is, was a different story. I’m going to rate the vast majority of FM stations in the Tri State region as terrible. Here’s why:

In New York, 92.3 WXRK was, for much of the storm and the following day, broadcasting the All-News format of WINS. It was a good move, in my opinion, as it gave WINS access to a wide audience that otherwise might not have bothered to go to AM.

95.5 WPLJ – Wall to wall music with some occasional updates. Now, I guess I can understand the need for some people to feel happy and listen to music in the midst of a major disaster, but for the life of me I can’t understand the wisdom of Cumulus New York to not combine the staffs of WPLJ and WABC and cover the hurricane as a combined team. Perhaps WPLJ, like so many FM music stations, isn’t staffed well enough with live bodies and relies on voice tracking so much that they couldn’t… Hell, I’m just making excuses for them. Somehow I can’t fathom the line of thinking that perhaps Taylor Swift is more important than saving lives. Or maybe I’m overblowing this.

Out of order… 93.9 WNYC. Public radio. Was doing full coverage. In fact, for a Public Radio station I was highly impressed with what I heard.

Lets, while I’m at it doing FM, move out of New York City for a bit. 92.1 WLNG out on the eastern end of Long Island had the best coverage anywhere. Somehow managed to stay on the air. I call this the little station that could. Perhaps that’s because it’s one of the only totally live FM music station out on Long Island. Considering the scope of the damage, WLNG did an outstanding job.

I didn’t sample AAA 92.9.

95.1 WRKI Danbury – limited storm coverage but lots of Rock.
95.7 WKSS Hartford. CHR. All music. In fact, while I didn’t listen that long, during the actual storm on Monday, I didn’t hear one mention of the hurricane. Pitiful, but expected.

95.9 WFOX Norwalk CT – Impressive storm coverage. This is normally a Classic Rock station serving Fairfield County which was hit very hard during the storm. The studios are housed in Milford, CT with 99.1 WPLR, both Cox outlets.

96.1 WJVC ‘My Country’ – Blown off the air before they could do any coverage. They are located on Long Island right in harms way.

96.5 WTIC-FM Hot AC – ALL Music. I was terribly disappointed with TIC-FM’s coverage efforts, which were virtually non-existant. Considering that sister station WTIC 1080 did an outstanding job with local and regional coverage with local talent, there should have been a simulcast, or at least news updates on 96.5 from the 1080 newsroom. Quite disappointing, and really shocking given that this is a CBS station and CBS overall did a good job. 96.5 is given to much voice tracking and satellite jocks. Not impressed whatsoever.

96.9 – AAA simulcast with 92.9 on Long Island. I didn’t sample.

97.1 WQHT New York City – All Hip Hop. But at least the jocks here were mentioning the storm and some essential information in between songs. They get a B for effort.

97.5 WALK-FM Hauppauge NY. Another one of those All-Music disasters. A ‘bit’ of coverage.

98.7 WEPN New York City – Didn’t sample, for some reason. Normally all-sports ESPN. BUT, I’m told they switched to a full simulcast of WABC 7’s TV coverage.

99.1 WPLR New Haven CT – Like their sister 95.9 WFOX, impressive coverage. WPLR covers all of Southern New England from New Haven. Cox of New Haven gets an A+ for its coverage.

99.9 WEZN Bridgeport CT HotAc “Star 99.9” – Okay. Plenty of updates but some music. Part of the aforementioned Cox group.

100.3 WHTZ New York City CHR ‘Z100’ – the signal to my house is marginal at best and I didn’t sample much, when I did, they were playing music.

100.5 WRCH Hartford AC – Well, like so many other stations, they were in music mode for most of the storm. But, I suppose being a light rock station they didn’t feel the need for wall to wall coverage or otherwise. Guess I won’t beat up on stations from Hartford northward, since the storm’s worst impact was clearly further south. WTIC-FM being the exception since they are part of a News/Talk group.

101.1 WCBS-FM. Oldies – I’m told that they had impressive storm coverage, and I would expect that. Can’t pick them up here so can’t comment firsthand.

101.3 WKCI Hamden CT. CHR – Here’s another example of a station sitting on the coast where the Hurricane’s effects were the worst in the state. They knew it, and blew it. In fact, the station is so automated, there was almost no mention of it aside from PSA’s running on the station mentioning shelters, etc. They get the award for the WORST (meaning, lack of) coverage of any station here. Although, I’m not disappointed. I rather expected it, actually. It’s Cheap Channel, after all.

101.9 WRXP New York – Active Rock – All Rock. The station was just four days away from flipping to a simulcast of WFAN, which went off on time at Midnight Friday, 11/2. Don’t know how I feel about that other than I guess there was no airstaff to do much of anything. I half expected CBS to simply do the format change to WFAN right there during the storm to add WFAN’s coverage and sports talk to the FM band in case the 660 AM transmitter was damaged. But they waited. CBS knew they already had WINS on 92.3 FM and WCBS on 102.7. Probably the right move.

102.1 WAQY Springfield Mass – Classic Rock – For a station that while affected by Sandy, wasn’t in the bulls eye, their storm coverage consisted of mentions and updates in between Rock sets. Owned by Saga. Actually, I’m impressed by this. I didn’t expect much coverage on FM stations north of Connecticut, except in the Boston area.

102.3 WBAB Babylon NY – Active Rock – Pretty good coverage. In the bullseye on Long Island and they had to be on their toes. I didn’t listen often but when I tuned in, they were talking and not rocking (much). Good.

102.7 WWFS New York City – HotAC – The aforementioned simulcast of WCBS 880 AM. Good move.

102.9 WDRC-FM. Buckley Broadcasting did a good job here. ‘DRC-FM did a lot of storm updates in between the Oldies. Hey, they coulda let WTIC-FM jump in, but took the ball and rolled with it. As it turned out, TIC-FM did nothing. Once upon a time, those two stations had the biggest rivalry in town. Long gone, but that’s another one of those discussions for another time.

103.5 WKTU New York. Dance. Yep, all dance music. I guess you could say, dancing around the raindrops. Not impressed at all, but I didn’t listen to them for a long period of time. When I did tune in, I heard music. If they covered the storm, good. I missed it.

104.1 WMRQ Hartford – Alternative. All music. Not even an ounce of effort in covering any aspect of the storm. But you could listen to Green Day!

104.9 Hispanic now. Used to be Religious WIHS Middletown CT. (That format change slipped by me and it’s somewhat recent). Anyway, There was some coverage in broken English and Spanish. From what I could tell. Lots of music too.

I’m going to skip all the stations except one. 107.9 WEBE Bridgeport – AC “Webe 108”. I’ll give them a B-. A LOT of music played, but there were updates. I was about to blast them on the day the storm hit but then they started to give some information. What bothers me is that sister station 600 WICC was doing some fantastic coverage (and they really do serve their community quite well), but at some point the WICC transmitter was flooded out and they got blown off the air. Given that WEBE is right down the hall, accessible and capable of it, they should have gone to WICC programming, or done more in the way of news and information. I’m disappointed and surprised, since I know the programmers and thought there’d have been more of an effort. Perhaps it was a manpower thing, being right on the coast they might have had trouble getting staffers to the studio. Not sure, but still disappointed with WEBE.

I’m told that WKXW “New Jersey 101.5” was wall to wall coverage during the entire storm and had the best coverage anywhere. That doesn’t surprise me. I’m always impressed with that station.

To the stations that went with either a simulcast or frequent updates, that’s what you’re supposed to do. This is the FM band, where the vast majority of radio’s listening audience is today.

I ask you, with all the stations on a crowded FM dial, is it imperative that ALL of them go to news? Well, that depends upon how large your audience is, how big your transmitter is and where you’re located I guess. In the case of BIG CHR and HotAC stations – they have the largest audiences. Yes, they SHOULD be doing news coverage. Most of the time. The perfect example of how and why would be the New York City blackout of 1977. WABC, when it was a Music Station broke format and did continuous news coverage. And it was only a blackout. Not the disaster that was Hurricane Sandy.

Lets be frank about this. Some ownership groups did it right, others failed miserably. Clear Channel, I call you out by name. The most miserable, worthless bunch of radio stations anywhere when it comes to living up to the terms of their licenses. Your cities of licenses were up to their neck in flood waters and debris and you’re still playing music. Voicetracked from God-knows-where. Do the radio world a favor and SELL your stations to someone who will actually run them as radio stations and not automated jukeboxes. Actually I’ll go one better. I’d call for a boycott. If you buy radio ads, DON’T DO IT ON CLEAR CHANNEL STATIONS. THERE. I said it. They don’t serve their communities, they just plug in songs and collect ad revenue.

Other groups acted like real Broadcasters. CBS gets mixed reviews. Most of their properties did an excellent job in covering the storm. But some outcasts, like WTIC-FM, were non-existant. I’m sure CBS has their reasons. Cumulus – well, many of their stations, including WABC did put in an effort. I give them that. I’m certainly not going to beat them up and put them in the useless category, but they could do better next time. Try doing something useful with WPLJ next crisis, for a good start. Practice makes perfect.

I can’t go into more detail on every station and ownership group. But I will say I was really appalled at the amount of music heard on FM. Sure, everybody loves music. Until their house blows away. This was not an occasion to turn out the lights and send everyone home. This is precisely the time when radio traditionally shines. It usually comes together, brings in all of its people, its resources, and serves its community. Some did. LOTS didn’t. So, YES. Every station needs to be onboard when it comes to a major disaster like Hurricane Sandy. If for no other reason than who knows, all the other stations might get blown off the air. If you’re the last station standing and you’re playing Rhianna, you’ve dropped the ball. And put thousands of lives at risk in the process.

If radio wants to remain relevant in this online age, it better give listeners a reason to select an FM station to listen to over you tube videos and Pandora. Being live, local and relevant is the answer. Or give up and turn off the transmitter. Your choice.

Steve West

Steve West

Heard on great radio stations like WGKX "Kix 106" and WMC-FM Memphis, online at HitOldies.com (and once upon a time at RadioMaxMusic.com), loosely contributed to some yearly countdowns at MusicRadio77.com, and most importantly, Webmaster of this great Radio Historical site, Airchexx.comLook for me on the Ham bands. Perhaps one day you'll have a QSO with K1FRC. Happy DX and Happy Listening!

3 Responses

  1. Yekimi says:

    Even though I live in the midwest, we did get hammered by edge of Sandy, most of the damage was in the Cleveland area. WTAM, a CC channel, did a good job of covering the storm but even they could have done better. The rest of the stations get a big fat “F”. I ended up listening online to a lot of stations from New York City and I thought WCBS did an outstanding job. Also watched WCBS TV online and was also impressed with the storm coverage.

  2. Cal says:

    WOR carried the audio of WNBC-TV’s local coverage and the NBC Nightly News national broadcast Tuesday afternoon. The NBC coverage was top-notch. With so many viewers without cable, it was a smart move.

  3. Ding Recto says:

    WCBS-AM is way better than WINS when it came to Sandy Coverage because they showed more about the damage that affected the NYC Suburbs. I know WINS tend to say Sandy’s effects only in the City as in NYC.

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