Jim Withers was 8 in 1956 when his grade school held a mock political campaign and election. His parents, being Republicans, sent him off to school wearing an "I Like Ike!" button.
But that was then. In September of 2008, Jim didn't like Ike so much.
On Wednesday, Sept. 10, the storm of that name had just slid off the west coast of Cuba and was gathering energy to push across the Gulf of Mexico and plow into Texas. All of the models showed Corpus Christi — which just happens to be the location of Jim's little broadcasting empire, KSIX(AM) — right in the middle of the likely landfall. Jim, himself based in St. Louis but in regular contact with his staff in Texas, began to think this might be "the big one."
Jim is a Radio World contributor and shared his thoughts throughout the next four days and lessons he took as a broadcaster from the experience.
7:06 a.m. I've got the Weather Channel on, and so far, Corpus is still in the bull's eye. Today, I've got Yannis, my operations manager, picking up the standby generator from the servicing place, where foolishly it has languished for a few months because there never seemed to be enough time to pick it up. I'll need to make sure that happens.
7:24 a.m. I'm sending an e-mail to the staff to get everyone's emergency contact information. I've got to get an idea of who plans to stay and ride this one out, and who is going to head for higher ground. I share a transmitter site with the Malkan group, so my Plan B is to see who intends to stay over there and see if I can use them if I need some critical help.
7:55 a.m. Yannis just called back and is staying, so that's good news. He's taking his folks to San Antonio and then coming back. He plans on bunking on the couch in the lobby, so we should be OK operationally, provided the phones and power stay on. If not, we'll move to the transmitter site and use our sports mixer to go live from there. I told him to stock up on microwave meals and pay for them out of petty cash. Yum yum.
8:10 a.m. I just downloaded the latest release from the Nueces County Emergency Preparedness Office (NCEP) and have e-mailed it to the morning show guys. Since we don't have an official news department (unless me pounding away on the keyboard here in St. Louis counts), this will have to do for now. I know Nueces County has a phone line we can access for refinery evacuations. Maybe it will also be used for this. I need to check that out this morning. We've started live updates in the morning and afternoon shows, so we're treating this like the real deal on-air, and that makes me happy. Reminds me of why I got into this business.
9–10 a.m. A lull in the planning process, so I'm just trying to think of everything we need to consider. The satellite dishes on the studio roof are going to be a problem if the wind kicks up too high, which seems likely, even if the storm veers away from us. At best, we're probably going to lose signal as the wind buffets them. At worst, they'll end up decorating a live oak tree somewhere between Corpus and San Antonio. Either way, we're going to have to figure out what to do if we lose the network.
I'm conflicted about the storm's path. The station owner side of me wants this storm to head north. That's because if the storm hits north of Corpus, the wind, waves, everything is less impactful due to the way these storms rotate.
The human side of me votes for a southerly track. Two of the least populated counties in the whole country lay just south of Nueces County. Kenedy and Kleburg Counties are home to the King Ranch, which has a land mass about the size of Rhode Island and way more cattle than people.
10:11 a.m. Just got a call from a very good client. Her dad is on oxygen and they are headed out and need a hotel in San Antonio. I'll call a guy I know and offer him every trade baseball and theme park ticket I have. Like I said, she's a very good client.
10:25 a.m. The first hiccup. Apparently, the EAS decoder, which flawlessly spits out weekly and monthly tests, keeping us squeakily legal, doesn't want to broadcast actual emergencies. For some reason it doesn't put the weather receiver on the air. I've got a part-time guy babysitting it and manually putting it on the air until I can figure it out.
1:43 p.m. I found the hotel in San Antonio. I think I've got a client for life.
2:45 p.m. Nueces County just announced a mandatory evacuation. Looks like it's Show Time.
3:34 p.m. The second hiccup. Our standby generator, which worked so well at our old transmitter site, has, of course, never been tested at the new site, and no one down there is too certain how to hook it up (assuming of course that we can get it there, which still has not occurred).
That sound you hear is my head banging against the wall. I'm pretty sure I can get John Gifford, the CE of KEYS, with whom we share our new transmitter site, to help us with this since I have offered to share some of our critical 30 amps with him. I've done the math and figure we can both run about 60 percent power for the duration … easily enough to cover everyone left in what is quickly becoming a ghost town.
5:11 p.m. Scott, our sales manager, calls to tell me he has taken the lead and decided to call all of our local clients to tell them they will get full make-goods for the spots that we are running during the emergency. Much better than waiting for them to call us. He gets a gold star for being client-friendly, particularly because I would never have thought to do this.
7:05 p.m. My wife does the logs up here in St. Louis and I do the accounting for the station, so all of that will be unaffected by Ike. She's doing triple duty, though, since we are now on our third log for tomorrow. We run a lot of local sports, and game locations and times are being moved around like chess pieces. I'm just going to stay on the phone and out of her way.
9:04 p.m. On the phone with Yannis again. He's going to gas up the station van and take it to the transmitter site tomorrow morning (picking up the generator on his way). The lateness of this is driving me nuts, but it's my own fault, so I'm trying to stay calm. On the plus side, the transmitter site is a few miles from the beach and 50 feet above sea level, so it will stay dry. Also, the building is an old 1960s fallout shelter made of concrete block. Both it and the van parked behind its west wall will survive the wind. We'll also have an extra 20 gallons of gas that we can siphon out to keep the generator going if we really need it.
9:38 p.m. Yannis calls back to tell me that Texas will activate the "Contra Lane Interstate Plan" first thing tomorrow, in which all lanes of I-37 from Corpus to San Antonio will be turned around to make four lanes out of town. I told him to make sure we get that announcement on the air as well.
10 p.m. One final look at the Weather Channel. Ike is turning north, but is a huge storm, 400 miles across.
That is actually a benefit. Since 1995, when I bought my first station in Texas, I've become a student of these things, and know that wind speed is based on the pressure gradient between the center of the hurricane and the outer edges. The steeper the gradient, the stronger the winds, so smaller storms typically pack deadlier winds. On the flip side, bigger storms dump more rain and cause bigger storm surges, so that's a problem. And with those thoughts to dream about, I'm going to bed.
4:11 a.m. I woke up remembering that we are running spots for a resort on Galveston Island. I also remembered seeing an interview with the mayor of that town saying a voluntary evacuation was in effect. I'll have to have those spots pulled this morning.
7:05 a.m. Coffee in hand, I'm back on the Weather Channel. No doubt about it, Ike has turned north. Still forecast as a big deal in Corpus, but not as big. Most of our morning call-in show this morning is dealing with evacuations and game rescheduling. I doubt any other station is paying much attention to sporting events, so we're definitely filling our niche. The local NCEP emergency information number has also been changed for some strange reason, so we're broadcasting the new number every 15 minutes or so.
11:43 a.m. Timing in life is everything. The station van — The Death Van, as we call it — has chosen this moment to die. Yannis is working on it, but I'm thinking tow truck and have begun kicking myself, even as I bang my head into the wall.
11:47 a.m. Scott has called with an updated program schedule for tomorrow, Friday. I've got a call into ABC to confirm that they will begin sending a hurricane network feed and have called in on the remote line to make sure we can access that to do updates as we get them from the NCEP office. We're dead if the phones quit.
2:55 p.m. It's turning! Not good news for Galveston and Houston, but I'm breathing easier by the minute. We're still on high alert, but it looks like we've dodged the bullet.
3 p.m. The afternoon show just started and we're all over the new track of Ike. According to our callers, the exodus has slowed already, although schools, banks, colleges and even the mall, all are closed tomorrow.
5:15 p.m. The battery in The Death Van was dead. Yannis has gotten it charged and is on his way to test the generator at the transmitter site. We had to bring in a part-time producer for the afternoon show, and that resulted in some on-air gaffes, so now we've got to somehow make that right with today's sponsor. Things do snowball in the most unexpected ways.
7:06 p.m. Yannis again, who says the dedicated Network Hurricane Feed is just tone. Too late to call them, so we'll check on it again tomorrow. Wonder of wonders, we now have an on-site emergency generator at the transmitter site. Another mark in the plus column and I now figure that the things we've done right at least equal the things we've goofed up.
8:31 p.m. I owe my wife another dozen roses. We just got word that the Astros and Texans both moved their respective games for this weekend. Two more revised logs coming up.
10:30 p.m. Ike is headed north. I'm headed to bed.
6:47 a.m. Ike is a monstrous storm. Not the biggest from a windspeed standpoint, but on the size scale, this thing is huge. The outer bands extend over at least half of the Gulf of Mexico, and that's no fish pond. Some wind and Lot's O' Rain are predicted tonight and tomorrow in Corpus. I'm still worried about the satellite dishes, but we've got more than one, so I've got my fingers crossed.
10:12 a.m. Just got off the phone with the FCC. They have a group of folks calling radio stations (and presumably TV stations) throughout the affected area to tally up what each station's situation is, and to let everyone know that they are assembling a list of resources available to stations that might need help staying on the air, or coming back on if they take a big hit. I told them that we were "The Little Station That Could" and planned on staying on unless the tower blew down. A bit more bravado than I might have been able to muster had Ike been bulldozing directly toward my little seven hundred-watter.
11:47 a.m. Still no feed from the network on the special satellite channel. Called the affiliate relations guy and got V/M. Looks like it's not going to happen.
2:24 p.m. We've updated the last announcement, loaded the computer, finalized the logs for the weekend, put together the contact list and tested — again — the Programming Source of Last Resort: the dial-up phone coupler. Now we're just going to wait it out.
9:03 a.m. Against all odds, Ike has veered way north, all the way to Houston, which is over 200 miles away. We are just spectators now, but looking at the video, Ike has hammered Galveston and Houston.
10 a.m. Yannis is at the station setting up for the Texas A&M Kingsville Football game, which was moved to Oklahoma in deference to Ike. Except for the Astros and Texans games that were moved, all of our programming is back to normal.
Noon. Now that the crisis has passed uneventfully, I have time to reflect on our preparations and execution.
At best, I give us a C+. On the plus side, I was absolutely committed to staying on the air, and I believe that commitment is at least 75 percent of getting something done. So long as the tower hadn't come down, we would have stayed on … sounding ragged, perhaps, but on the air nonetheless.
On the negative side is almost everything else. Unlike tornadoes, hurricanes are easily forecast. The track is unknown and, as this storm demonstrated, not accurately predictable, but we knew Ike was coming. Even so, we — and by that, I mean "I" — deferred basic decisions until it was almost too late.
Write down emergency procedures. Train people in them. (And don't forget to train new people as they join the staff).
Test things. A standby transmitter (or in our case, generator) is no good if it won't fire up when you need it.
Plan for the worst. We did this somewhat, by having a plan to stay on the air no matter what, but the details escaped me. I am still upset about the things we missed.
Broadcasting is the source of choice for Americans during times of local, regional and national crisis. We are an integral thread in the national fabric. As station owners, managers and operators we have a special responsibility to be available to our audiences during those times. That availability must not be compromised by poor planning or execution. To that end, we'll note our mistakes with Ike and correct them.
As for the next storm and our little band of merry men (and women)? I'm a Texan at heart. Bring it on.
Thanks to Jim Withers for this first-person account. Comment to firstname.lastname@example.org.