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Oklahoma Stations' SavvyReporting Saves Lives

A finely honed disaster strategy enabled Oklahoma City broadcasters to offer pinpoint reporting on the dangers of a pending tornado last week, which may have saved hundreds of lives. Using lessons learned from a fatal tornado that struck the area 14 years ago, as well as the smaller tornadoes that roll through the Great Plains with frightening frequency, local television and radio stations worked in tandem to warn residents of the fast-approaching peril on May 20. While 2,400 homes were demolished, according to Vance Harrison, president of the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the report of 24 fatalities at presstime speaks to an extraordinary broadcast news effort.

“Probably the thing I’m the most proud of is, despite the disaster, the very, very low death count,” Harrison said. “Countless lives were saved.”

Cellphone communication was not only shut down in Moore—just south of Oklahoma City— the towers themselves were, in some cases, wiped from the terrain. Poor communication may have been a factor in the initially overstated death toll, which had climbed to close to 100. But every TV and radio station stayed on the air, said Harrison, and every radio outlet simulcasted the signal of one of the four news-producing TV stations. “You could not have been in your car and not heard the four TV stations on every single radio station,” said Harrison. “It was a remarkable coalition.”

The Moore area sustained mass power outages, increasing local radio’s role after the tragic tornado. Radio is particularly vital when disaster strikes before 5 p.m., when much of the market is at work, or out in their vehicles, Harrison notes. Having informed voices instruct drivers on where to go and not to go prevented massive tie-ups on the highways that could have subjected many more to the fearsome F-5 twister. “The accuracy of these weather forecasters was unbelievable,” said Harrison. “But just as important was the radio component embellishing TV.”

Griffin owns CBS affiliate KWTV. Local TV has NBC station KFOR. Hearst TV has ABC outlet KOCO, while Sinclair owns the Fox-CW duo, KOKH-KOCB. The 5:30 p.m. news reports on May 20 were viewed by 476,200 households in the DMA; in comparison, the Super Bowl in February was viewed by close to 375,000.

The stations earned high marks for their coverage from sources as varied as Reuters, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin and the Columbia Journalism Review. “Channels 4 [KFOR], 5 [KOCO] and 9 [KWTV] did an outstanding job of covering this,” said Vince Orza, president and CEO at independent KSBI. “The [death] total could have been in the hundreds but for their coverage. The press is the reason [many] people are alive today.”

Orza dedicated one of his “Common Sense” editorials on KSBI last week to praising the local news media for its performance. “A lot of people take great pleasure in blasting what is commonly referred to as the ‘lamestream media’ and big government,” he said. “But on days like we’ve had on May 19th and 20th, the media and government earned and deserve great praise.”

The local media also got a shout-out from Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the NAB. “Time and again during a crisis, local radio and TV stations have saved countless lives with ‘boots-on-the-ground’ reporting and advanced weather meteorology,” said Smith. “There is no doubt that local broadcasters face new competitive threats in the form of social media, smartphones and the latest apps. But it is equally true that broadcasting’s ‘one-to-everyone’ transmission architecture remains indispensable as a lifeline service in times of danger.”

It’s no surprise that the Oklahoma City stations would excel in times of extreme weather. The market’s news staffs are battle-tested, and the region is ground zero for sophisticated meteorological study. The National Weather Center is in Norman (which borders Moore) and the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is in the metro area as well. “This is the mecca for forecasting,” said Harrison.

The tornado was big-time disaster training for reporters both fresh-faced and seasoned. “Unfortunately, we’re used to it,” said Rob Krier, the Griffin Communications COO who oversees KWTV. “After the [Oklahoma City bombing in 1995], we did the same thing. After May 3 [the fatal 1999 tornado], we did the same thing. We’re pretty good with disasters and pulling together.”

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