During Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Radio Stations Help Communities Weather the Storm

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 30, 2017 in Crosby, Texas.

For as dangerous as 2017’s hurricane season has been, millions of Florida and Texas residents have had an old friend help them get through the toughest days: AM/FM radio.

“It’s always been a medium of immediacy,” says Marc Sherman, the iHeartRadio senior vp who oversaw programming in many Texas markets during Hurricane Harvey. “And now there are many more ways to connect and bring community together.”

For all that’s been said about terrestrial radio’s diminishing influence in an ever-expanding arena of competitors -- including satellite’s SiriusXM, online services like Pandora and Spotify, and now voice-controlled speakers like Amazon’s Echo -- its reaction time and assistance during local emergencies helps it maintain a significant advantage over all comers.

While Hurricanes Irma and Harvey wreaked their greatest damage, most stations in their path not only quickly shifted from regular programming to that solely focused on storm coverage, but also used other available channels such as social media to help those in trouble, and sent recovery teams to parking lots and damaged homes to bring relief where it was needed most.

“Time Was Of the Essence”

After hearing a call to WLYF (Lite FM) Miami morning host Julie Guy from an apartment complex where families had no power or food, a listener went to the complex and handed out gift cards. Lauren Kelly, co-host of “The Morning Mix” on Houston’s KHMX-FM (Mix 96.5), was taking calls from others in similar situations while learning that her own parents' and grandmother’s house had been flooded. 

“This is what sets radio apart,” says Doug Abernethy, regional vp/GM of Entercom South Florida, whose four Miami stations, including WLYF, kept Irma coverage going until the day after the storm. “In times of crisis, it shows the power of our brand.”

For some stations, there was no precedent for what happened on air during the hurricanes. “We’d never done anything like this,” says Sarah Frazier, senior vp and market manager for CBS Radio Houston, who directed the simulcast of KHMX and CBS’ other stations during Harvey. “We just knew time was of the essence because if you’re evacuating, you can’t search for a street to get out on, you just have to get out. We made that our focus.”

Radio groups followed a similar strategy in Florida. “We broadcast non-stop, with state officials, the mayor, sheriff and the spokesperson for Florida Power & Light [on the air],” says Jesus Salas, executive vp of programming for Spanish Broadcasting System’s Miami and Key West stations. Across the state, Cox Media Group station coverage also featured local officials. “News 104.5 WOKV’s presence is so strong in Jacksonville that emergency managers and power company leaders were calling in with updates,” says Steve Smith, Cox’s vp of radio programming.

In Tampa, Beasley Broadcast Group’s stations opened their phones for listeners. “Some just wanted to thank neighbors for helping and say how grateful they were to have survived,” says Beasley operations manager Tee Gentry

At iHeartMedia stations, nationally syndicated morning hosts Kane and Elvis Duran joined the coverage in Tampa and Miami. Duran and Miami-based show cast member Froggy spent the weekend at WHYI (Y100)’s studios, where they did Monday morning’s show. Duran also was part of the team on News-Talk WIOD. “Riding out the storm, spending the night with a hundred dedicated colleagues, was an honor,” Duran says. “What mattered most was being a companion to listeners, again proving the unique value of live sound content over all other forms of media.”

"Not Just Four Walls and a Microphone"

Powerful as it was during the hurricanes, radio couldn’t accomplish everything in a vacuum. "Social media was really the connector," says Frazier, whose CBS Houston website received 7 million hits over the four days of Harvey coverage. "One of our producers put together a text line where if you were trying to find a shelter, all you had to do was text your zip code and he’d text back the address of the closest one. He answered every request, 12 hours a day for three days."

iHeart carried Irma updates and live coverage on Facebook Live and other social platforms, while WIOD’s emergency coverage was promoted on Clear Channel Outdoor’s digital billboards. "It was special to watch our music station talent -- who have this great companionship with their listeners -- be there for them even when they weren’t on the air," says executive vp of programming Gene Romano. iHeart’s Sherman adds, "It’s another great example of our medium no longer being confined within four walls and a microphone."

"A sense of humanitarianism"

Whether it was Spanish Broadcasting System stations collecting goods for Irma’s victims, or KODA (Sunny 99.1) Houston morning host Dana Tyson bringing families from shelters into her home until they can return to theirs, radio’s work after the hurricanes was far from done.

Stations hit the streets offering ice, water, batteries, flashlights, phone charging, even home repairs. Trucks loaded with in-demand items -- such as one sent from iHeartMedia in San Diego to those affected by Harvey, or from Cox Media Group to the hard-hit residents of the Florida Keys -- were common sights during recovery mode. Beasley’s Tampa stations made the process a bit sweeter by sending out the WRBQ (Q105) ice cream truck with supplies as well as frozen treats.

On- and off-air, stations have promoted donation drives, such as Entercom’s Neighbors 4 Neighbors and Beasley’s Community Of Caring. iHeartRadio Presents: Support for Victims of the Hurricanes, a special program hosted by Duran and syndicated host Enrique Santos, which aired on stations in 150 markets, featured interviews with flood victims and first responders, and included an appeal to donate to the American Red Cross.

Whether or not the coming weeks bring yet another hurricane to any of these regions or along the eastern seaboard, it’s comforting to know AM/FM radio will be ready for whatever. Says iHeart’s Sherman: “A sense of humanitarianism is always prevalent among those on our stations.”