Coast radio stations play a vital role in keeping residents informed and entertained day in and day out. That role is magnified before, during and after storms. Last season’s massive Hurricane Katrina affected stations in different ways.
In hard-hit Hancock County, station WBSL 1190 was totally destroyed, but owner Ira Hatchett is working hard to get back on the air. “We will be back up in a short period of time but I can’t say exactly how long that will be,” he said. “We’re working as hard as we can to get back on and hopefully will stay on the air as the new hurricane season comes.”
The Bay St. Louis station is in a rebuilding stage but plans to retain its blues, news and talk format. Hatchett says resuming full operations is more challenging because many area businesses were destroyed and have not come back yet.
Based in Gulfport, the Coast Radio Group operates five local stations. During Katrina, Steve Spillman, general sales manager, says the popular country station Kicker 108 (WZKX) was down for only a couple of hours and was the only radio station on the air for a few days following the storm.
“Our tower is in McHenry north of the Coast and that helped,” he said. “Plus, we made a lot of good preparations and the whole building is powered by a natural gas generator. It was less likely of that going down.”
He says it was lucky the radio group’s building, located on Lorraine Road in Gulfport, didn’t get blown away.
Coast Radio Group’s easy listening AM station, WROA, was turned over to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to use to disseminate information for two weeks. However, during that time period the other four stations pretty much were used for the same purpose, Spillman said.
Residents were allowed to call in and speak on the air to ask for help, seek the whereabouts of displaced friends and relatives or pass along helpful information. Phone lines were opened up that way for the first time during Hurricane Georges of 1998. Prior to that time, information was written down and given to radio personalities who made the on-air announcements.
“It worked real well this way and was more personable. We will continue to do it the same way if there are other storms,” he said. “If nothing else, it was a venue to express feelings and made people feel better. They were able to comfort each other.”
Spillman says station personnel “really heard some stories” including that of the young woman who walked to the station with a plea for special formula needed for her baby. She was down to the infant’s last can of formula and had no functioning telephone to reach anyone. Within a few hours of an announcement airing, a sufficient supply of formula was located.
“There were a lot of calls like that,” he said. “People helped each other.”
After two weeks, Coast Radio Group’s stations started going back to their original formats. “We thought it was important to try to give a little bit of normal back to people with the music they were accustomed to hearing,” Spillman said. “None of our formats have changed.”
The stations have picked up some new listeners among emergency and construction workers. As those listeners complete their work and leave, others come and old listeners return home.
Spillman says the stations are not having problems securing advertising either although many businesses have not yet come back. “Progress continues and many restaurants have opened in different locations,” he said.
There are quite a few new listeners for WAOY FM 91.7, a 24-hour Christian radio station in the Orange Grove area of Gulfport.
“We have a larger audience now,” says station manager Ron Myers. “Katrina made a lot of people put things in perspective, and we’ve picked up new listeners in Louisiana because the Christian station went off the air there.”
The station has a 70-mile radius reaching from New Orleans to Mobile and north to Laurel. Following the hurricane, it had a signal going and was on the air within 72 hours but only had a 20-mile radius for two weeks.
“We were fortunate to have very little damage to our studio and were up to full power after two weeks,” Myers said. “We operated a lot of relief efforts because we get a lot of things donated through here. As a Christian station, we have to do more.”
The station continues to take donated supplies to Bay St. Louis and Waveland where Myers says it’s hard to believe some people are still living in tents so long after the storm. “Our role is not so much changed, but it has forced us to get out in the community more and help,” he said. “It’s refreshing and we’ll continue to do it as long as there’s a need and the supplies come in.”
While the station’s format of Christian music, news and information remain unchanged, WAOY tries to put information on the air to help with listeners’ grief, shock and depression. Myers’ live afternoon show, “Inspiration and Information,” features guests who deal with related issues.
“We’re trying to calm people’s fears and ask them to put their faith in God as the 2006 hurricane season approaches,” he said. “We learned a lot from Katrina and are trying to fine tune everything we did.”
He added that advertising has been good following the storm and that most of the station’s supporting businesses were up and running soon after Katrina.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.