Feb. 1, 2003. For KICKS105’s APD/Production Director Sean Ericson, it was supposed to be just another Saturday remote.
However, by the time Ericson started broadcasting from the Tipton Ford dealership in Nacogdoches, Texas, the world had changed. An hour earlier, the shuttle Columbia had exploded 200,000 feet above east Texas. The explosion shook the community. The debris fallout rained at least 1,200 pieces onto Nacogdoches alone.
Some of those pieces had fallen on the dealership itself. The result: when Sean Ericson hit the airwaves at 10 a.m., he was no longer just working another remote. Instead, Ericson and Tipton had become part of the story.
Billed as “The Country Leader,” KICKS105 is one of four Clear Channel Communications stations in Lufkin, Texas – the “Lufkin Group” – 15 miles south of Nacogdoches. The other three are news/talk KSFA(AM), classic rock Q107.7, and all-hit KAFX(FM).
At 9 o’clock that morning, Ericson was at the studio preparing for the remote.
“Even though the station is made of concrete, including the roof, I was shocked by the intensity of the noise and the shaking of the building as the shuttle passed overhead,” he said.
He wondered if a local factory had blown up. “I called up the local police department to find out what was going on,” he said. “That’s when I was tipped off to the shuttle situation.”
Ericson drove to Tipton Ford, where the client was drawing the names of three engaged couples in its month-long “Tie The Knot” promotion. The couplers were to get married at Tipton two weeks later. The couple that won the most listener votes would then win a seven-day Caribbean cruise.
KICKS105 management and the client faced a decision. Going ahead with a standard remote seemed inappropriate. However, a lot of time and money had been spent building up to this broadcast.
After some discussion, it was decided that the Tipton remote would go ahead in an upbeat yet low-key fashion. To set the tone, Ericson summed up the Columbia situation for Nacogdoches residents, warning them to stay away from the debris. He held a moment of silence in respect for the fallen astronauts. Then the remote went ahead with its regular cut-ins while assistant music director/imaging director Morgan Mason ran the board back at the station.
Parking lot debris
When not on air, “we walked around the dealership’s parking lot, where we found pieces of debris,” Ericson recalled. “Neighboring homes within walking distance had larger pieces of debris. And in the downtown area, just three minute’s drive away, were even bigger parts of the shuttle; some which were shown on national television.”
“It was actually frighteningly normal,” he said. “Even as we walked through the lot and identified pieces of debris, and then called the authorities, there were people jogging down the street. There were people continuing to come in and register for the prize before we gave it away. I think that people were aware of what was going on, but it hadn’t sunk in.”
Back at KICKS105, Morgan Mason had her hands full.
“Within five minutes of arriving at the studio, one of our stations in Houston called me for a live report,” she said. “Somebody handed me a piece of paper with information on it. As I was reading it on air, I couldn’t decipher the person’s handwriting. This, plus the stress of the moment, officially flustered me. My voice cracked, and it took everything in my power not to lose it.”
As more debris reports came in, Lufkin Group Operations Manager Danny Merrell called for help. Unfortunately, a lot of people were on vacation, including him.
“I was in Hot Springs, Arkansas,” Merrell said. “As a result, I did what I could over the phone. The best we could muster were five part-timers.”
With the handful of staff, the four stations did what they could. Soon, a pattern emerged. KICKS105 stuck to format, with frequent news updates on the Columbia disaster and how to cope with debris. Q107.7 went to a “rolling news format,” using local and national news clips.
“We were so short-handed that we even sent Q’s PD to a press conference,” Merrell said, “just to find out what was going on.”
KAFX and KSFA, which was running nationally syndicated talk content, stayed within format as well.
To say the least, it was “am extremely hectic day,” Mason said, with listeners calling to report debris findings. Most did as they were told and left the pieces alone. However, “we had people calling us and saying, ‘I’ve got this piece of debris in my truck,'” she said. “It was hard to make people understand that the pieces of Columbia weren’t souvenirs, that there were evidence, and that all of them were needed to figure out what went wrong.”
Meanwhile, local officials seemed confounded by the Columbia disaster.
“We’ve had hurricane evacs that went without a hitch,” Merrell said. “However, we’d call government people asking what to do (about the shuttle debris), and they just didn’t have the answers.”
Eventually, as the story clarified, the state of alert eased at the four-station complex. Within two days, the broadcast day was back to normal.
However, the memories remain.
“I wasn’t living in New York when 9/11 occurred, and so it was hard for me to grasp what people there went through,” Mason said. “Today, I understand their sense of loss. I know what they were feeling.”