Station Execs: Tips on Tackling The Next Super-Storm
After Sandy swept through the country, execs say planning can't be too exhaustive
By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/5/2012 12:01:00 AM
If there was any golden lesson to emerge in Sandy’s wake, it is that planning can’t be too exhaustive—lining up personnel, hotel rooms, satellite time, gas and food well in advance of the storm —and can’t be drilled too many times. Even then, have a backup plan for the plan, and be prepared to improvise.
“You have to say, what if the worst case scenario happens— hurricane, re, earthquake—and don’t wait until it happens to put a plan together,” says Peter Dunn, president of the CBS Television Stations. “You’re responsible for keeping viewers’ safety in mind, and you can’t do that without the right plan.”
Indeed, the best planning for Sandy came not when the storm was rolling out of the Caribbean, but months, or perhaps years, before that. For WBOC Salisbury (Md.), it meant arranging a condominium near the ocean in Lewes, Del. days before the storm to set up the station for some gripping live shots. With WCBS New York getting assists from CBS station siblings as far away as Sacramento, Los Angeles and Miami, it meant booking 50-70 hotel rooms in Manhattan before they went scarce.
Lew Leone, vice president and general manager of WNYW-WWOR New York, has learned from experience that when rooms are hard to come by, some of Manhattan’s more celebrated hotels have occupancy due to the tourists that never arrived. “Sometimes there are rooms available at a hotel you wouldn’t normally even think of,” he says.
Covering a storm that in some places made Irene look like a summer shower required way more resources than any station in Sandy’s path possessed. Stations took lessons learned about gathering user-generated content during Irene and applied them to Sandy. WNYW set up a Twitter hashtag, #SandyOnFox, that sent users’ tweets and images straight into the station’s feed.
WBOC got some jaw-dropping images from Chincoteague Island, which reporters could not enter, from people stuck on the island. “There were a lot of times where you couldn’t get to the news,” says GM Craig Jahelka. “The nature of citizen journalism has really changed.”
WBOC’s use of the increasingly popular video-overcellular LiveU packs was spotty around the DelMarva region, though Jahelka’s GM colleagues in the largest DMA said the mobile technology was a key element of their coverage. “Using microwave trucks, satellite trucks, during an actual hurricane, with the wind blowing and the rain, is difficult,” says Leone. But “the signal was great, even in a moving vehicle,” for WNYW’s LiveU backpacks, he adds. “We had more experience with them than during Irene.”
Stations used all available media, with much of their viewing base lacking electricity, such as news simulcasts on radio for WBOC, the CBS owned stations’ sister radio outlets in New York and Philadelphia and Boston, and stations’ smartphone and tablet apps. “Working closely with our Web team was essential in a storm like this,” said David Friend, senior VP of news at the CBS owned stations.
Even the best laid plans will require improvising, especially with a storm that was, in many ways, and by many accounts, unprecedented. Instinct and experience then kicks in for the local TV leaders. “I got some advice a long time ago: In times of crisis, ask yourself what a leader would do, and do it,” says Jahelka.
At times like this, he adds, the revenue side of the business does not come into play. Providing pinpoint information for viewers in a crisis will, in the long run, prove to be good business. “Budgets and concerns over revenue go out the window,” says Jahelka, who shelled out $13,000 in satellite time for WBOC. “Do what’s right, and I think viewers will reward you.”
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