Local Broadcasters in the Eye of the Storm

Alpha Media Vice President and Market Manager Gigi South shares how their stations mobilized before, during and after Hurricane Matthew to keep their communities in Savannah, Ga., and Hilton Head, S.C., safe and informed, working around-the-clock to provide a lifeline to those affected by the storm.

The Savannah – Hilton Head area has seen lots of hurricanes in recent years with little to no damage. We were hearing that Hurricane Matthew could be different. Residents and broadcasters were skeptical. Then, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley ordered a mandatory evacuation of the South Carolina coast and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal followed soon after, getting everyone’s attention.

We met with our programming staff to bring them up to speed on the track of this massive hurricane and solidify our plan. Most of the staff evacuated, leaving a small crew of broadcasters who would ride out the storm to make sure that the residents left behind had vital lifesaving information. We prepped the studio – it was boarded up like every storefront – and made contingency plans in case of tornados, straight-line winds or flooding. We bought an extra generator and a lot of junk food. We made arrangements for our own homes and families and met back at the studio Friday morning, October 7.

Since our stations in Palm Beach were in Matthew’s path first, Alpha’s market manager there, Elizabeth Hamma, and I shared texts through the night with our Executive Vice President Bill McElveen. Once we were in the clear, we were able to pass along information to our stations in Columbia and Myrtle Beach, who did the same for our Greeneville/New Bern stations.

At 6 a.m. Friday, October 7, we started a seven signal simulcast of live storm information with limited music and commercial breaks. Our coverage was led by Monty Jett, a lifetime Lowcountry resident with 54 years on the air. Monty knows every nook and cranny in our area and was able to speak to callers about specific areas, tides and even give BBQ restaurants as landmarks. Rob Walker (operations manager and program director), Gabe Reynolds (program director and digital content director), Mark the Shark Ediss (WXYY), Jake Thomson (WUBB), myself and our engineer, C.B. Gaffney, hunkered down in the studio through the weekend and into the following week. We cold brewed coffee and lived on junk food and Lean Cuisines thanks to a small extra generator. Alpha provided hotel rooms for the crew, but there were curfews and the team wanted to stay together so most took turns shift sleeping at the station on air mattresses.

Since both states had ordered mandatory evacuations, they warned that there would be no emergency services available to residents who chose to stay behind. We heard from those residents all night and all weekend long. There was no power for several days in Savannah, Bluffton, Hilton Head, Beaufort or Brunswick. People get lonely, panicked and desperate when they are alone in the dark. We have many stories of how we connected listeners directly with other listeners for the help they needed. For instance, our on-air team helped to get oxygen delivered to a listener who was moments away from an empty tank.

This was my second natural disaster, following the devastating Tuscaloosa tornado in 2011. Both times, I’ve noticed that afterwards, there is a new appreciation for local broadcasters. With Hurricane Matthew, there was no power in most of the area until the following Tuesday, some areas waited even longer. With no power, there is often no internet, no cell service and sometimes no TV. In natural disasters, radio becomes a lifeline. We don’t actually administer lifesaving help, we connect listeners to it. We heard lots of stories from listeners thanking us for being the only voices they heard for an entire weekend. Some had battery-operated or weather radios, others went to their cars to listen once the storm had passed, but they were still in the dark.  The use of new technology was fascinating. Mayor Lisa Sulka of Bluffton held frequent press conferences to speak to her town via Facebook Live. She would let us know she was about to broadcast. We plugged a phone into the board and carried the conferences live. Thankfully, we had a generator to charge our phones!

Having FM radio receivers in cell phones in these situations can be so helpful, providing another way for people to tune in to our stations and be informed in a crisis. Practically all smartphones have the hardware capable of receiving free FM radio signals, but not all phones have this feature activated. Unlocking the FM chip in cell phones gives us another way to reach our listeners without draining precious battery life with traditional streaming.  We also recommend that anyone facing a possible natural disaster have back up cell phone batteries. Several of us had these packs and they were all used several times to power up.

Our simulcast ended the following Friday, October 14. We were well into recovery mode, working with FEMA and local authorities in our various communities. We are back to the music with necessary Matthew updates. Our area still has a lot of work ahead to recover from Matthew and Alpha will continue to be there. We are grateful that lives were not lost here. Other areas were not as fortunate.

That’s the power of local broadcasting. We are neighbors helping neighbors. Friends and family connected to the community. This is a vital role we are honored to fill in the Savannah, Ga., and Hilton Head, S.C., communities.