Radio, TV Stations Show Unparalleled Commitment While Covering Ala. Tornadoes

Radio, TV Stations Show Unparalleled Commitment While Covering Ala. Tornadoes

May 25 2011

By Donna Francavilla, Frankly Speaking Communications

BIRMINGHAM, AL –  On April 27th, a series of violent storms tore through the Southeast much like a lawnmower cuts and flings grass. At least 350 were killed in the Southeast; 230 people in Alabama alone.

One victim described the miles of damage to me this way: “Imagine stuffing your house in a blender, turning it on high, then raising the lid.”

Tornado victim Lee Limbaugh emailed his friends as soon as power was restored to his Pleasant Grove, Alabama home.

“The tornado narrowly missed my house, but for so many here, it showed no mercy whatsoever. The destruction is unimaginable.”

For some of those victimized by violent tornadoes in Alabama and the tattered southeast, radio signals provided their only link to the outside world and life-saving information. 

One radio listener wrote the following to Citadel Broadcasting: “
Incredible coverage with Leland, Valerie and the gang yesterday.  We’ve been without power for two days and you were all we had to keep us informed of tornado tracking and storm info.  I’m sure you’re exhausted, but we really appreciate your efforts.  Thanks for being there!” 

While other stations were broadcasting television audio, Citadel’s Birmingham talk show hosts described where the tornadoes touched down. Video references could not be discerned on radio very well. Birmingham Citadel stations were the only ones to originate live radio coverage although the tornado came within a mile of their large-windowed, mountaintop, 2nd and 3rd story building.

Radio and television stations were instrumental in saving lives. They provided a critical link between those in need and the needy.

Tornadoes whipped winds so close to of some of Birmingham’s major radio and television stations, many were ready to seek shelter themselves. Yet all entities remained on the air, and vigilant.

One meteorologist, at times exasperated and speechless at the immensity of storm, begged viewers to text to their loved ones to seek shelter immediately.

The broadcasters realized they faced a true emergency. All major broadcast outlets moved into commercial free mode or aired very few spots, provided warnings which saved lives, and after the storms hit, provided a lifeline for those stranded.
Talk show hosts connected the needy with the charitable, and gave a voice to obliterated communities that FEMA had not yet discovered.

In Alabama, three major broadcast groups—Clear Channel, Citadel, and Cox—implemented independent fund-raisers to help those in need.

The four television stations in town initially attempted a joint telethon, but in the end the collaboration attempt faltered.

The Clear Channel stations worked with the local Fox affiliate; Citadel with all stations, but mostly the CBS affiliate; Cox Radio with the ABC affiliate.


Cox Media Group

Vice-President-Market Manager at Cox Radio David DuBose said when the storms were predicted; his group activated their disaster plan.

One day after more than 40 tornados destroyed or damaged 14,000 homes, DuBose said, “All 7 Cox stations joined a relief effort collecting, loading 12 truckloads of bottled water and personal toiletry kits, diapers, etc. We continue now raising cash.”
DuBose continued, “The lesson here is to have a disaster plan, keep adequate local news staff so even music stations can provide critical info, stay with the story, keep going round the clock as we did for two days.

DuBose knew the time was not right to return to music formats until much later. “We continued with multiple reports all through the weekend carrying all press conferences live from the Governor, Birmingham Mayor Bell, FEMA, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox and the President.” Birmingham Mayor William Bell publicly acknowledged Cox radio stations saved lives with their early warnings and extended coverage.  DuBose’s programming efforts were also noticed by listeners, who took the time to call the station, and gush with gratitude. Listeners thanked managers for their consistent tornado programming when competitors had already returned to music programming.

Cox continued coverage relentlessly despite two staffers who lost their homes and two staffers with homes that were heavily damaged.

Clear Channel Communications

“Having the largest radio news operation in the state paid off,” said Clear Channel Operations Director Tom Hanrahan. 
“The 5-station cluster utilized news-talk WERC, and veteran morning hosts from its FM music stations.” Our first concern was getting information on the air.” Music was not aired on the Clear Channel cluster, for 13 hours after the day after the storms passed through.

“Stations stayed in simulcast from 5 AM-6 AM across the cluster.  WERC stayed in long form coverage from 5 AM-9 PM Thursday-Sunday after storms, opening lines to callers to get info out, and included special guests in studio like FEMA reps to answer listener questions.”

Hanrahan said Clear Channel worked with Fox affiliate WBRC-TV and Raycom Media stations, raising significant amounts of money. Radio station WQEN staged a one-day telethon netting more than $55,000 for The Red Cross.

Clear Channel station WDXB aggressively promoted a County Music Television telethon called “Music Rebuilds” in an effort to donate their time to raise money for the rebuilding effort.

Said Hanrahan, “It’s the right thing to do.” 

The stations are now involved in promoting a June 14th  “Bama Rising,” country music benefit concert for Alabama tornado recovery.

Market Manager Ray Quinn felt the unsung heroes during the storms were the engineering teams, which managed to keep the stations on the air when power was going out, and towers were falling down. “It amazes me all this talk about satellite radio and Pandora encroaching on terrestrial radio. How helpful were they during all of this?  No wonder why over 95% of the Birmingham population still tunes in to radio for about 17 hours every week!”

Citadel Broadcasting

Citadel Broadcasting Market manager Bill Thomas in Birmingham,  knew the storm was going to be of historic proportions when a National Weather Service Meteorologist predicted “loss of life and one of the most disastrous storms we’d ever see,” on one of the news-talk stations he manages.

Thomas said, “We took that seriously. We basically went to a full simulcast mode the day of the storm and that allowed us to use personnel across the stations but we were carrying the actual weather and storm coverage across four FMs and two AMs.”  The next day, stations were separate so that they could serve their particular coverage areas.”

Thomas manages WJOX AM/FM, WAPI AM/FM, WUHT-FM, WZRR-FM, and the Paul Finebaum Radio Network.

On the day the storm hit, Finebaum described the tornado as he watched it approach the big picture window in his studio. Since then, Finebaum hasn’t talked much about sports.

Finebaum said, “On the day the Bama Rising concert was announced, we had (Alabama native country music star) Randy Owen in studio for the entire show, four hours, promoting the event, taking phone calls about the tornado. He ended up giving a mini-concert. (Citadel manager) Bill Thomas told me afterwards that we broke every rule in sports radio history; however, it was by far, the most memorable and meaningful program we have ever done  – and the best. He sang many songs and naturally ended the show by singing an acoustic version of “My Home’s In Alabama.’’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the house or in cars across the listening audience. We have stayed with the story non-stop with the support of our partners at Sirius-XM.”

The stations used their airwaves to mobilize listeners immediately in an emergency fund-raiser.  WAPI Talk show host and former news anchor/reporter Leland Whaley organized an emergency donation drive by utilizing empty parking lot space. Donations poured in rapidly. The obliterated towns of Concord and Hackleburg received their first relief supplies from the radio stations, not the Red Cross.

Thomas said, “Leland created the quick-turnaround fundraiser, but more than 50 staff members and over two hundred listeners were key to pulling it off within hours of the tornadoes….many working at the site despite damage and power outages at their own homes.   In fact, listeners to the stations online were responsible for seven additional semi-trucks coming from other states.  Our fund raising will go on for sometime to come.  (Recently, we collected thousands for the Salvation Army with Birmingham’s Biggest Yard Sale and more than 300 listeners paid for the chance to dunk (Afternoon talk-show host) Richard Dixon in a dunking tank, with proceeds for tornado relief.)”

More than two million-dollars worth of donations filled 10 tractor-trailer trucks in Birmingham, bound for distantly affected towns. Callers passionately called news-talk WAPI, expressing gratefulness for the life-line, saying that they had no power, no supplies, but did have a radio. Radio station hosts informed storm victims. The airwaves were used as a critical public forum to broadcast needs and meet those needs.

The merits of acting quickly during a tragedy aided those without, but seemed chaotic as each station seemed to have its own project to promote.

Lessons Learned

Birmingham-based national sports radio host Paul Finebaum criticized Birmingham television stations for failing to fully cooperate.

“Everybody’s been calling attention to themselves,” Finebaum said. “I’m extremely bothered that the four TV stations did not work cooperatively.

I thought the ABC affiliate jumped the gun to get their telethon on two days after the storms hit.” Finebaum told his listeners he felt the stations blew a chance to cooperate more fully. 

“It was in poor taste for the station to have quickly shifted its focus from rescue and recovery to fund-raising,” he told me.

ABC affiliate: WBMA TV

WBMA, the ABC affiliate for Birmingham and central Alabama, also known as ABC 33/40, agrees that collaboration among the stations in the same market is a great idea, and something stations throughout the nation should ponder should tragedy strike their market in the future. 

WBMA General Manager Mike Murphy said, “The worst time to try learn to dance is in the middle of the song.” 

Murphy feels stations can benefit from working jointly should disaster strike. Less than a month after the disaster stuck, Murphy took action to plan for the future. He recommended a plan of action among stations to the Alabama Broadcasters Association.  “There’s no reason we can’t have a collaborative disaster plan.” 

Collaboration: NBC affiliate: WVTM TV

Murphy credits Birmingham’s NBC affiliate General Manager, WVTM’s Gene Kirkconnell with attempting to orchestrate a unique cooperation among media outlets.

Kirkconnell commends the ABC affiliate for moving fast and raising a good deal of money for the Red Cross quickly.
Kirkconnell said when so many repeatedly asked him, “How can we help?” he shot for the moon and doing so paid off as donors opened their wallets in an unprecedented way.

“This is a moment I’ll never forget.  The need was there. We put out the call. People answered. A lot of people are going to get help because of it.”

Kirkconnell seemed awed how the effort caught on like wildfire when the Alabama Broadcasters Association extended the details of the effort and spread the word.

WVTM-TV Alabama’s 13 United Way Tornado Relief Telethon was aired one week after the tornadoes hit, with participation by stations throughout the state and across the United States.

“The idea I had was to put together a method by which it would be really easy for newspapers, websites, radio stations, and television stations within the state of Alabama but also really anywhere in the United States and beyond to say “Yes” to putting an appeal out there for the donation of funds,” said Kirkconnell. 

Phone line and text numbers, web and postal addresses were established. Newspapers and websites advertised the telethon. CNN donated satellite time. NBC weatherman Al Roker was moved. He told his Today Show and Weather Channel audiences about the fund-raising efforts.

Kirkconnell said Crawford Broadcasting also participated in the effort, along with many, many media partners.  Birmingham natives and nationally syndicated morning show hosts, “Rick and Bubba” talked about the telethon on their radio show, which claims more than 50 affiliate stations.  Media General stations promoted the event and more than 200 markets carried the WVTM-TV Alabama’s 13 United Way Tornado Relief Telethon.

As I spoke to Kirkconnell about what seemed like the momentous wave of goodwill, a donor walked in, and hand-delivered a check for $10,000 dollars.

CBS Affiliate: WIAT TV

The telethon was also carried by the Birmingham CBS TV affiliate, WIAT, on its main channel in a fully collaborative effort. The CBS affiliate went a step further: It also lent a satellite truck and operator for custom live shots. Its anchors and personalities made appearances. The station pulled out all the stops to help with competitor, WVTM’s efforts.

WIAT Vice-President of Marketing/Programming, Alex Morrow, said,” During a time of disaster there should only be one priority and that is the welfare of our viewers. This means all viewers, not just those loyal to WIAT. Because of this, WIAT was willing to partner with any station or allow any other station to partner with us in the recovery efforts.”  

Morrow said the station linked with community partners. “WIAT formed a unique partnership with five credit unions throughout our DMA  (Designated Market Area) and each credit union established a ‘CBS42 Disaster Relief Fund.’ During our extended news coverage and through the heavy rotation of promos, the station encouraged viewers to visit any of those credit union locations to make a donation. The collection sites are still on-going and 100% of the proceeds will be given to the Red Cross.”

Also:  We got excellent support from other New Vision Television stations…three of them sent us people to help out, several others sent equipment.  We literally could not have kept the wheels on without that assistance.

Plus, on, WIAT established a “Neighbors Disaster Relief” tab, which serves as a one-stop resource for those in need of help and those who would like to help.

“By creating and in-depth resource we’ve been able to provide valuable information to everyone, and it is available day and night,” Morrow said.

There were no tallies available on how much was raised at the time this article was written.

Morrow continued, “In addition, WIAT partnered with Country Music Television to simulcast the ‘CMT Disaster Relief Telethon’ on 42.2 on May 6, 2011 with those dollars also being donated to the American Red Cross.”

Unparalleled News Commitment

To me, it seemed every working journalist for every radio and television station in the Birmingham area operated on adrenaline. That feeling was echoed by all news directors in town.

“I have been doing this a long time and have never encountered a total team commitment like this coverage required.  We did massive amounts of special programming and the only griping I got was from people who wanted to be even more involved.  Everyone stepped up.  Everyone did above and beyond.  It was a week before anyone got a day off.”

Veteran WIAT-TV News Director Bill Payer said, “I’ve obviously been proud of other accomplishments over the years, but I’ve never been involved in something that combined excellent television, excellent journalism and genuine service to the community the way this coverage did.  Everyone involved should be both proud and humbled by this.”

I asked Payer: As a news manager, did you do anything differently than when covering past storms? 

Payer said, “The main difference was the realization that literally nothing else mattered.  We scrapped carefully crafted plans and schedules for the May book to devote our full attention to storm and aftermath coverage.  Storm related coverage and recovery coverage was our total focus.”


Vice-President and General Manager of Birmingham’s FOX affiliate, Lou Kirchen felt her experienced staff knew what to do when word of the approaching storms first became known.  “If you have a strong meteorologist and very strong news director then to some degree, we follow their lead. When we saw the size of this event, we went wall to wall. We did 72.5 hours of news,” between April 27th at 2 p.m. and the evening of April 29th.  With Fox’s blessing, “we delayed the showing of Idol. We didn’t show the Royal Wedding festivities. We stuck purely with news. We knew the most important thing in the DMA was this story.”

Our staff worked around the clock, said Kirchen. In addition, personnel flowed in from Raycom stations in other markets around the country supplying the station with additional personnel and equipment, such as microwave trucks for live shots. “These units are called, ‘Go Teams’…ready to help supplement coverage during times of disaster.”

Lou Kirchen said she would be willing to discuss the merits of a multi-station collaborative disaster plan especially, one involving stations throughout the state.

Fox 6’s Red Cross fundraising effort was state wide, in that Raycom stations in Huntsville, Montgomery and Dothan, as well the Clear Channel Radio stations in the market participated in that effort.  “That’s why we felt it would have been confusing to change directions mid-stream,” said Kirchen.

Kirchen said her station partnered with the Red Cross, using social media and the web. During the news coverage, reporters and anchors conducted informational interviews to raise money.

“On Your Side” and “Call for Action” personnel were activated to provide additional help for those in need.  Viewer advocacy shows, such as “Law Call” helped viewers get their legal questions answered. Feedback from viewers indicated those services were appreciated, said Kirchen.

“We told people where to go to donate their money. We directed them to the Red Cross website.” The Red Cross is trying to determine the value of items donated.

Kirchen also enjoyed combining forces with Clear Channel stations. “They were a tremendous partner. Their stations did a very fine job helping us cover this.”

Utilizing Social Media

A tool kit utilizing social media was created to make donating easy said Alabama 13’s Kirkconnell.  “The text-to-donate stats came back. And we had donations from all 50 states, from Singapore, Japan, Italy and Puerto Rico.”

In the end, Alabama’s 13 United Way Tornado Relief Effort generated more than $804,000.
More Lessons Learned

WBMA’s Murphy said his station moved quickly into telethon mode because the Red Cross advised donors would be more generous if the station acted quickly. ABC 33/40 was able to mobilize fast. In a little more than 36 hours and with the help of a few major donors, the station created a telethon that raised $575,000 for the American Red Cross. Murphy did not collaborate with any radio stations but did broadcast NBC affiliate WVTM’s telethon on their second channel, and promoted their United Way effort. 

Murphy recalled how Poynter broadcast consultant and RTDNA contributor Al Tompkins taught him long ago, that his real  job was to make a difference. 

The TV station coordinates clean up efforts, which will continue every Saturday as long as there is a need.

Many nationally syndicated radio and television morning show hosts flew to Alabama to raise awareness and be at the heart of activity here. This article addresses only a few who came to this state, but each one contributed significantly to the ultimate outpouring of generosity which will be critical to this area’s eventual recovery and rebuilding.

How’d They Do?

In the end, radio and television stations managed to align themselves with a broad array of broadcast faculties and charitable organizations.  Those partnerships resulted in saved lives, awareness and significant fund-raising. The station managers each felt they provided the kind of service broadcasters can be proud of.

Holding Public Officials Accountable

In the wake of the disaster, news operations at local radio and TV stations are holding public officials accountable to maximize recovery efforts.  Some municipalities acted quickly to remove piles of debris. Yet the city of Birmingham was slow to remove debris in Pratt City. The news-talk station’s audience, the eyes and ears of the community, questioned the pace of the clean up, triggering Alabama’s governor to question Birmingham’s mayor.

Why Do It?

How do you measure success? Donated dollar amounts tell some of the story. Testimonials tell the rest of the story.

Listeners Express Appreciation

Listener Shelisa took the time to write to Cox Radio’s David DuBose:

“Just wanted to write and to thank the ‘Radio Angels’ that have been covering the tragedy that occurred on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 within the state of Alabama.  The staff at your station has done a marvelous job in the coverage that you’re providing to the public as well as the donation drive that you have put together.  I appreciate the way the Cox Family has allowed your ‘air-wave angels’ to deviate from the normal scheduled program and allow the people to express themselves.”

“Some of the listeners that have been affected by this tragedy and just listeners in general are allowing petty things to get the best of them.”

“You know, government officials may or may not get around to visiting to every affected area, but thanks be to God that money has been allocated to everyone that has been affected in the state. Again, I would like to thank you and your angels for ALWAYS being there for the listening audience whenever there is a threat of severe weather or when something like this happens.  It is my prayer that God will bless each of you and your efforts and know that some people are very, very appreciative.”

“Yours in Christ,

And this note, sent to the Paul Finebaum Radio Show from listener Malcolm Howard:

“I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate what The Paul Finebaum show has done to help ease the pain of this horrible event. Yesterday was the most inspiring piece of radio I’ve heard.  My daughter lost everything, but she is alive, her neighbors were all killed and it was a miracle that my family is intact.  I’ve been a fan for over 20 years, and I gotta say I’m so proud of you, your staff and everyone involved with the show.   I mean that with all my heart. Some may think radio is a dinosaur, I say you guys are making it stronger.   The show is National, and I know its growing leaps and bounds. Again, please echo my grateful appreciation to everyone involved with show, we love y’all, and you make us proud everyday!”

Malcolm Howard

Station personnel put in long hours without sleep; they sacrificed time with their families; put themselves at personal risk, gave up income and dedicated unprecedented resources to save lives and rebuild lives.


It’s what we do as journalists.

Donna Francavilla is a media consultant for Frankly Speaking Communications, a freelance reporter for CBS Radio News and a field producer for CBS The Early Show.