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Battle-Tested Coastal Stations Gear Up For Irene

Fresh off lessons learned from this week's earthquake, last spring's tornadoes and 2010's hurricane season, station newsrooms are applying those learnings as Hurricane Irene prepares to slam the Carolinas region. Preparations include rolling in reinforcements from sister stations in the greater region, and fine-tuning social media strategies to connect with as many users as possible with critical storm information.

"These kinds of storms keep us hopping," says Susana Schuler, Raycom's VP of news, in between planning calls with newsroom chiefs.

As of the afternoon of Aug. 25, Irene looked as though it would wallop Wilmington, N.C., the Outer Banks and other area coastal regions by Saturday. Raycom has a station stronghold along the southeastern U.S., and its regional news directors have been having two phone conferences a day since Aug. 22. Same as it did for April's tornadoes, Raycom has deployed its "Go-Team" plan, a detailed playbook that involves loading up personnel in major-news areas, with different category levels requiring commensurate levels of deployment. On the morning of Aug. 25, a crew from its WBRC Birmingham station headed north to pitch in.

"The teams from Birmingham are returning the favor from the tornadoes," Schuler says.

It's a similar story in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, where Virginia Beach, and perhaps other communities, is gearing up for a roundhouse punch. WTKR Norfolk President/General Manager Jeff Hoffman says he's heard from most every GM in the Local TV group, asking how they can help. That includes WHNT Huntsville President/General Manager Stan Pylant, who received all manner of assistance from within the group when his region was devastated by a tornado earlier this year.

"He was the first guy to raise his hand," says Hoffman. "I thought that was great."

The Media General group also has a large presence in the potentially affected areas. On July 15, representatives from a half dozen stations, including WSPA Spartanburg and WNCT Greenville, in the region met to share best practices in the event of hurricanes. Via Skype, the general manager and news director out of WVTM Birmingham shared their experience from the tornadoes. WNCT is getting personnel reinforcements from Myrtle Beach sibling WBTW, among others. "The next time I need help, they'll help us out," says David Hart, WBTW director of content.

Skype's the Limit

Social media and its various applications emerged from those emergency skull sessions as an increasingly vital communicator. Raycom had recently partnered with the digital outfit Vibes Media to bolster its text messaging strategy. "It gives us the ability to do text alerts as a cohesive group," says Schuler. "We've driven up our talking about it [with viewers]."

While virtually all stations are making due with fewer bodies than they had a few years ago, the newest technologies enable them to produce more, and more timely, content with fewer resources. Several stations are using Skype to connect reporters on the front lines with their producers -- and with users and viewers. AT WTKR, everyone is a reporter during times like this. "Everybody with a smartphone knows to dial the Skype line with anything they have," says Hoffman. "We expect everybody at the station to participate in social media." (While WTKR was spared from tornadoes in the spring, the station did get some extreme weather practice in December, when a rare snowstorm struck a few days after Christmas.)

WBTW is has found a cost-effective, and reach-effective, way to get its video out, uploading weather forecasts to YouTube, and promoting the clips on Facebook. The station usually does that once a day, but has been doing it two or three times daily with Irene lurking. "It's a great low-tech way to get video out there," says Hart. "Everybody does text, but to get video out there is great."

Besides picking up big game experience from the recent tornadoes and earthquake, stations also acquired major numbers of subscribers to their various digital properties from the natural disasters. WBTW, for one, added 2,000 "Likes" to the previous 20,000 on its Facebook page. "That's attributable directly to the storm," says Hart, who adds that such extreme news events are typically good for 10% spikes in membership.

While newer media is a critical way to connect with users on the go, station execs stress the importance of not forgetting about the bread and butter product, on air, especially when cellphone service freezes. WTKR's CW sister WGNT had targeted Aug. 29 to debut a morning newscast, but moved the start date up to Aug. 25 with Irene barreling up the coast.

The hurricane may either drift harmlessly out to sea, or go down in history with the most devastating storms. Either way, station staffs are geared up to throw countless lifelines to their communities in the coming days.

"This is what we do best," says Raycom's Schuler. "This is why we have a license to serve."