Superheroes: How Broadcasters After Hurricane Michael Saved The Day

It may not be something that is often contemplated, but broadcasters understand that what they do holds significant value. The information and entertainment that they facilitate provides a critical service within the communities – large and small- that they serve.

But let’s be real; it usually takes a major crisis of sorts for others to see their true worth.

Broadcasters are like superheroes, living quiet lives within their communities. That is, until extraordinary circumstances call upon them to step into a phone booth, loosen the tie, rip off the Average Joe persona and take on the mantle of responsibility.

RISING TO THE CHALLENGE

There is no better example of the importance of broadcasting than what we in the Florida Panhandle experienced following landfall of Hurricane Michael, October 10, 2018. The Category 4 storm came ashore quickly and with furor, knocking out terrestrial and wireless communications and all utilities (electricity and water). The citizens of Bay County, Florida were left – literally and figuratively – in the dark.

Here’s where local radio and television stations came in to literally save the day. Broadcasting was the only means that government and the public had to communicate with one another.

Though Hurricane Michael negatively affected the ability for most local radio and television stations to broadcast over the airwaves, IHeart Panama City managed to get 4 stations back on the air shortly after the storm.

As the citizens of Bay County tuned their radio dials the morning after the storm, they found IHeart Media. They’re signal was live on their country powerhouse, WPAP, and being simulcast to all four local stations, providing critical communications and information. Their local on-air talent worked round-the-clock, without interruption.

While sharing the needs of individuals and neighborhoods to volunteers, on-air talent shared information about critical resources  (food, water, and health care) to their listeners. First responders and other local leaders came to the station to speak directly to the region, reassuring listeners that everything was being done to bring valuable resources back to the Panhandle.

The IHeart facilities quickly became a hub for information. Like a town square of sorts, individuals looking for assistance called in to the station to ask for help or stopped by and left messages to be read on the air.

It wasn’t slick; it wasn’t pretty. But it WAS broadcasting at it’s best. And it was exactly what the community needed.

IT’S ALL ABOUT REDUNDANCY

With a Cat 4 storm knocking at their door, how did IHeart recover so quickly and get back on the air? It was all about planning.

Being a life-long resident of the Panhandle, IHeart Market Engineer Charlie Wooten knew what to expect from a major hurricane, and had thought through a solution – multiple layers of redundancy, in fact – that could quickly put his station back on the air.

After the loss of his STL tower – twisted like a pretzel by high winds – Charlie put in place a terrestrial IP backup. And when it failed, Charlie switched to a satellite IP solution from the studio to the transmitter.

In addition to implementing multiple layers of microwave, terrestrial and satellite, Charlie had generators at each transmitter and site and at the studio. Charlie and his team diligently kept the generators fueled and regularly serviced for days – even weeks at some sites – until power could be restored.

IHeart did it right. Because they had planned for a disaster like Michael, they were ready. Not all stations had the layers of redundancy that Charlie at IHeart had implemented, so (sadly) they missed their superhero moment. But in the days following the storm they, too, returned on air, providing valuable community service.

Luckily, none of the stations – or groups of stations – in the Bay County area had put their eggs solely in the fiber basket. Good thing, too, because as of today we are still waiting for fiber to be restored to most of the region – 47 days after the storm.

Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle of Florida with such force that it will be a decade or more before the region is restored. All too quickly, billions upon billions of dollars of damage devastated Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

Yet, the Panhandle is rebuilding. Small glimpses of normal are returning to our lives.

THE TAKEAWAY

Make no doubt about it, broadcasters using satellite were able to do what the multi-billion dollar terrestrial giants like Sprint, AT&T and Verizon could not do; be a critical link in the dissemination of life and death community information in the aftermath of a storm.

Fiber is NOT designed to be that critical link, and neither are wireless phones. Terrestrial connectivity is an elegant solution to many of our communication requirements, but it will NEVER be a solution during a natural disaster. Neither in it’s present form, or with the roll-out of 5G.

Just ask the people of Bay County.

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