Stations Go Multi-Platform To Cover Storms

TV stations across the South covered last week's deadly tornados using a combination of broadcast, website and social media to reach viewers on the Internet and on portable, battery-powered smartphones. And the stations also used those same tools to gather news and to direct coverage. What emerged is that the information delivery model is changing and in emergency situations particularly, you need to use all conduits available.

For television broadcasters, the killer storms that raked across the South last week highlighted just how important new media are in the industry’s accelerating evolution.

“Social media and the Internet was huge in every way,” said Tom Henderson, news director at Freedom’s WTVC, the ABC affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn. (DMA 86).

The station was one of many covering the storms to use its website and social media like Facebook and Twitter to reach viewers on the Internet and on portable, battery-powered smartphones. And the stations used those same tools to gather news and to direct coverage.

“We had people tell us stories about hiding in the bathtub, the power off, watching us on their iPhones, hearing the reports and warnings,” Henderson said. “They saw it as a lifeline.”

The tornadic storms, the deadliest to hit the U.S. in nearly 100 years, highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of conventional broadcasting.

A core strength is the broadcasting’s ability to gather, analyze and disseminate information. Cutting-edge weather technology like Baron’s Viper weather radar enabled meteorologists to locate, track and determine the severity of the deadly tornadoes.


“Thank goodness for the prediction models, equipment and technology we have,” said Lou Kirchen, general manager of Raycom’s WBRC Fox affiliate in Birmingham, Ala. (DMA 40). “In earlier episodes, we would not have been so lucky. … These storms were very unpredictable, but our meteorologist was able to look at the technology and often beat the National Weather Service by 30 seconds or minute or two. Thirty seconds or a minute can make huge difference getting into safe place.”

The advanced weather hardware-software combinations also enabled stations to warn viewers several days before storms hit and continue coverage of the storms until warnings had expired.

Still, a TV station can have the best technology, staff and backup power in the world but it all comes to naught if viewers are on the move or the power goes out.

“There were 100,000 homes without power in our market,” said Bill Payer, news director at WIAT, New Vision’s CBS affiliate in Birmingham. “Sometimes we say we’re doing great stuff here … but you wonder if anyone can see it. It’s not as simple or simplistic anymore as someone at home sitting in front of the TV.”

That was a common theme among broadcasters throughout the hard-hit South — the information delivery model is changing and in emergency situations particularly, you need to use all conduits available.

“There are three questions I task everybody in newsroom with asking of viewers: What do you want, when do you want it, how do you want it?” said Richard Russell, director of digital journalism at WJTV, Media General’s CBS affiliate in Jackson, Miss. (DMA 90).

“It’s not about us dictating to viewers anymore that you’ve got to watch our newscast at whatever time. They want the information they want when they want, how they want it. That can change moment to moment. When it’s severe weather, they want it on their cell phones.”

What emerges from the experiences last week is that there is no single “best” pipe. A combination of broadcast and broadband — wired or wireless — is what’s most effective at getting warnings out before and during the storm.

And radio, the original wireless portable medium, plays a role, too.

“When the area started losing power, we were simulcasting on our radio partner WUSY-FM,” said Derrall Stalvey, news director at WRCB Chattanooga, an NBC affiliate owned by Sarkes Tarzian. “That was how most people were getting information — battery-operated. That really saved a lot of lives.

“Even without power, people had access to Facebook and Twitter and we had two employees dedicated to nothing but updating social media in addition to the station website. That’s another way people were hearing about warnings.”

Information must flow in both directions for broadcasters to be effective. And last week, TV stations in the path of the storms also used the new media for newsgathering.

“There’s no question that the Internet has opened up a whole other realm of coverage for TV stations,” said Garry Kelly, news director at WCFT, the Allbritton-owned ABC affiliate in Birmingham.

“We did several reports via Skype, several where our reporter was in the field and literally did a live report through smart phone. Does it look as good as an HD signal? Absolutely not, but it’s a lot better to have that than to have nothing.”

For Kelly, the directive is clear: “There is no can’t. You just have to.”

At Chattanooga’s WRCB, station management was ready for the tornados, having made the move less than a year ago to equip all their reporters and photographers with iPhones.

“They can take quality video and stills with the same device,” said Stalvey. “That’s our back-up plan.”

As important as the broadband pipe is in enabling the flow of information for broadcasters, it’s no panacea. Even when cell towers remain standing, wireless networks often were jammed during last week’s storms, making mobile communications difficult at best, impossible at worst.

“Our meteorologist was sending back live video via Skype, but the cell network was overloaded or cell towers were blown down,” said Payer. The technology you’re counting on to get video back may not be there or may be too slow. At some point we said screw it, just drive it back.”

Partnering new and old technologies for distribution or news gathering requires a change in mindset, the broadcasters say.

“When people ask me how many people work on our website, I say everybody in news department,” said Payer. “That’s the only way it will work.

“What’s really changing is the internal attitude,” he added. “It’s getting to the point — I would argue we’re not quite there yet — where it’s a totally different platform with a totally different audience.

“There’s no need to wait to put something on the website because it hasn’t been on the air yet. We still have a public service obligation, legally and as citizens of the county, to get it out as fast as you can, whether that’s on  Facebook, Twitter, our website or smart phones.”

If the storms weren’t enough to drive home the integral role new media can play in broadcasting, station staffers will take the lead, Henderson said.

“I’ve got an amazing staff,” he said. “They get this. They are not fearful of these changes. They lead management frequently. I’ve got a reporter out there who’s done live video reporting on Twitter. We have early adopters here who show management what the possibilities are.”

While it might be easy to get blinded by shiny new technology, keeping the fundamental objective in mind is important, Kirchen said. “What I would say is that new media is an extension of the product. The branding, Facebook interaction, people using the Web, tweeting with anchors and staff, that’s an extension of the brand, not a separation of broadcast and new media. To me it’s all just a different conduit for information but the same information.”

For her, broadcasters’ public service mission is summed up in one bittersweet anecdote from the storms:

“The night of the storm, there was a baby found in the rubble whose mother had died. We showed a picture of the baby and asked if any family members could be found. We ended up finding the baby’s family. That makes all the coverage worth it.”

Comments (5)

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Matthew Castonguay says:

May 4, 2011 at 8:59 am

This is becoming exhibit #1 in the case for mobile DTV (this and the recent experiences in Japan): “Even when cell towers remain standing, wireless networks often were jammed during last week’s storms, making mobile communications difficult at best, impossible at worst.” Remember also that besides live TV breaking weather/disaster relief coverage, the ATSC M/H standard also supports datacasting…which could be all kinds of other life-saving information in an emergency. The FCC, by completely ignoring and taking for granted the public service functions provided by free broadcasting, is really abrogating it’s responsibility to the public in it’s hell-bent drive to free up spectrum to secure giant new revenue streams via inefficient one-to-one delivery for paid telco services.

Matthew Castonguay says:

May 4, 2011 at 9:43 am

I’ll add that anecdotally from a lot of people who have more inside perspective than I do…telcos care not one whit for things like public service/emergency info, etc. This is probably one of those things we’ll learn the hard way, and some FCC guy will be saying “we had no idea”. “Honest mistake”. Yeah, right.

Wagner Pereira says:

May 4, 2011 at 11:53 am

Last figure I heard, 300,000 were still without power. Everyone seems to forget that the battery backups for celltowers only run 6-8 hours without recharging. They are long dead (though they are a usually a priority for electric restoration in Emergency Diaster plans….dead is still dead in the critical hours after a disaster). Ditto cable routers/switches/distribution amps out in the field between the Head End and the Customer (and these are not priority electric restoration in Emergency Planning). Even if one happens to have electricity at their home or office, internet service would not be a guarantee. Today, Broadcast, not internet, is the only source of information for countless people, just as it was in Japan, New Orleans after Katrina and other areas where Hurricanes or Natural Disasters have struck. Perhaps most interesting was all the News reports from both Japan and Alabama where people were overjoyed that Broadcasters gave them up to 30 minutes advanced warning of the disaster coming their way, which they joyfully credit for saving their life. I have yet to see or read anyone say the same about the internet.

    Kathryn Miller says:

    May 4, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    The Internet gave me five year’s advance knowledge of the death of Osama Bin Laden; I just had to wait until it was true. “Definitive, authoritative” isn’t just a news positioning statement.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    May 4, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Anyone who chooses to take immediate Hurricane, Tornado or Earthquake/Tsunami action 5 years in advance will most likely pay the ultimate price when the event actually occurs 5 years later. As the old saying goes, even a broken watch is right once (or twice) everyday.