To Dick Lewis And The United Radio Broadcasters Of New Orleans: “You Were Awesome!” (11/21/05)
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief
In the days following Hurricane Katrina's devastating landfall, a dedicated coalition of broadcasters illustrated radio's reciprocal bond with the local communities it serves. From helping to save families stranded in their homes, to providing accurate accounts of the devastation, to serving as a mouthpiece for government officials solving problems or lambasting others for their ineffectiveness, an ad hoc group of broadcasters formed to serve the people of southern Louisiana and outlying areas of the Gulf Coast.
Collectively known as the United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans, the group from Clear Channel and Entercom worked against great odds to broadcast news and information to a widespread audience that had lost just about everything - except hope. The makeshift signal provided the only communications link that many individuals - victims and first responders alike - had with the outside world. With electricity off, phones down, shortwave communications failing, and all other media dark - radio was up and running.
Central to this dedicated group of men and women - some of whom had lost their entire homes - was Dick Lewis, market manager for Clear Channel's Baton Rouge stations and regional vice president overseeing New Orleans, Shreveport, Alexandria, and Biloxi. “I have seen what strong, positive character is,” says Lewis of the people with whom he has worked side-by-side during the past few months. “I will never use the word 'awesome' in a trite fashion again. I now reserve that to make a very strong distinguishing remark. I have seen people perform at an awesome level, and I will always carry that with me.”
Lewis was more prepared than most to deal with a storm as destructive as Katrina. At age 8, he and his family were driving through northeast Oklahoma when they encountered a powerful tornado, up close and personal. “We were listening to WKY out of Oklahoma City, and they said there was a tornado in the area,” Lewis recalls. “All of a sudden, in the middle of the day, it got pitch black. We were in a heavy Mercury, and the car just started bouncing. Our only contact with reality as the tornado passed right overhead - it truly does sound like a freight train - was WKY, telling us what was going on, where the storm was, how fast it was moving, and how long we could expect it to be around. In the inky blackness, this voice coming out of the speaker in the car was the only sane thing going on. I remember thinking I would love to do that some day. Without even thinking about it, I was making a life choice.”
That choice was cemented just five years later when, at age 13, Lewis began his radio career as a disc jockey at KVLH in Pauls Valley, OK, the only station in town. After a few requisite geographical relocations, he moved to Baton Rouge in 1979 to work at WJBO/WFMF. During a brief hiatus in the 1980s he worked with another company, then returned to Baton Rouge, where he eventually was named president of Baton Rouge marketing and general sales manager of the stations. In 1999, he was appointed vice president/market manager of Clear Channel Radio in Amarillo, TX, but two years later returned to Baton Rouge as VP/GM/MM of Clear Channel Radio-Baton Rouge. In 2003, he was promoted to regional vice president, overseeing the Baton Rouge market, as well as New Orleans, Shreveport, Alexandria, and Biloxi.
While Lewis is featured on the cover of this magazine, he was not alone in his commitment and dedication to the people of southern Louisiana. Those who camped out at United Radio's studios in Baton Rouge to keep the signal up and running deserve to be recognized for their individual contributions to the greater New Orleans community during this period of great hardship. But because this issue of Radio Ink celebrates the best managers in the industry, it is fitting that we recognize the leadership Dick Lewis demonstrated before, during, and after one of the greatest natural disasters to hit this country in many years.
INK: We all saw the horrific flooding and wind damage that devastated New Orleans - but how did Baton Rouge fare during Hurricane Katrina?
LEWIS: We had a lot of tree limbs down and about 90 percent of the city lost power for some period of time, but we were spared any of the flooding. The focus for me was New Orleans. When it became apparent that New Orleans would be hit hard, we immediately began to think about how we could take care of our people and radio stations. Clear Channel has a history of being prepared, and our corporate checklist gets a little better each time - but we've never had to evacuate an entire facility. Our plans have always been predicated on having a studio. When we realized that in order to keep our people safe we would have to evacuate them and leave our building empty, all our preparedness plans went out the window. We had to start from scratch.
When did you know you would need to scrap your preparedness plans?
It was apparent prior to Katrina's landfall. I gave the evacuation order at 10 on Sunday morning, to send everybody in New Orleans to safety. The necessary on-air folks, engineers, and other personnel were sent to Baton Rouge, and the salespeople and office staff were told to go where they would be personally safe. We had people scattered from California to Tampa to Maine. The plan was to work out of here, and broadcast back to New Orleans. It was a great plan - until we turned it on.
What happened when you “flipped the switch”?
Things quit working. We had a system set up, but it didn't work. We had some engineering glitches with our Prophet system, because it hadn't been fully set up and tested. Here's a lesson learned from Katrina: Things you don't use regularly won't work when you need them. From here on, we will not rely on anything that is not routinely used.
What was the first indication that things were not working according to plan?
An engineer and I got into my Hummer and headed toward New Orleans at 3 p.m. on Sunday to make some changes to the system. As we got closer, we started feeling the feeder bands. The winds were gusting 50-80 miles an hour, and they moved the Hummer straight off the road. I turned to my chief engineer and said, “I think we're going to turn around.” And he said, “Chief, I was so afraid you weren't going to do that, and I was along for the ride. That's a good decision.”
At that point, you no longer had control of how many stations?
Two out of seven, and it was a hard decision to turn them off. Of course, we immediately tried to find ways to gain control of them without using the studio. After the flooding started I chartered a helicopter, because that was the only way we could get into the city. This is what makes Katrina different from Rita or Wilma: As a rule, the storm goes through, the sky brightens, and you start rebuilding and putting the pieces back together. But in New Orleans it got worse. When the levees broke and the floods came, it was like the apocalypse, and it got worse for days and days. The only way we could take the studios totally out of the picture was to realign the dishes, but in order to get a data stream to them - a programming line - we needed something we didn't have. We didn't know what it was, but we knew we didn't have it.
Still, you had a signal in New Orleans. How did that come about?
About 2 o'clock one morning, Troy Langham and I were talking. I said, “What about DirecTV? Those are small dishes. We could helicopter the dishes in and wire those into the transmitter. All we need is transponder space.” Troy responded, “I know a guy there, let's begin to work on that one.” So between 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. the next day, we got a whole new delivery system in place. Working with the DirecTV satellite guys, we had the downlink and we found a way to get an uplink feed to it to Cheyenne, WY, via Internet streaming. We were then programming our transmitters from Baton Rouge to Cheyenne up to DirecTV's satellite, then back down to the transmitter receiver. It's that sort of freewheeling thinking that allows you to look at all the bits and pieces and say, “What has never been used and what might be repurposed?” If we were well rested, I'm not sure we ever would have come up with that plan. We might have just thrown it out the window as too farfetched.
Just farfetched enough to work, right?
Exactly. We helicoptered in the engineers and pieces, and set them up long before we had the ability to have a data stream on them. We knew that was the direction to go, because those little satellite dishes were available locally and priced reasonably. Then we used the helicopter to ferry the Entercom people out of their studios, where they were trapped inside their building. Part of that was water, and part of it was the lawlessness that broke out in downtown New Orleans. It wasn't safe for them to leave any other way.
Was your signal the only means of communication available to the area?
Sure was. The city of New Orleans had absolutely no electricity. People talked about seeing stars they had never seen before, because there was no nighttime brightness in the sky. There was zero power. They had no television. Printing presses had been flooded. They couldn't access the Internet. No information was going into New Orleans other than what we provided on our radio stations. This also goes for the people in the field, the emergency first-responders. Most of their two-way equipment and repeaters were on towers and facilities that had no power. Once responders were put out in the field, there was no way to communicate with them. That's the value of radio, and why local radio will never be replaced: When the need is absolutely overpowering, only local radio can serve the community.
How did the plan to create the United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans come about?
It came together as though there had been a hundred-year plan and all the pieces had been worked out. There was a call between [Clear Channel VP/News Programming] Gabe Hobbs and [Entercom VP/News] Ken Beck, who were watching television and listening to the streaming, so they knew what was going on. All at once, WWL and Entercom had no studios. Our radio stations don't have a strong news department; we're primarily music-oriented. Entercom has a great news organization, but they had no way to broadcast. Meanwhile, we had dry studios in Baton Rouge. It was probably a 10-15 minute discussion, and everyone involved up and down the chain said, “We're dealing with life and death here; we have to do this.” Text messages went out to the Entercom people, telling them to go to the Clear Channel studios in Baton Rouge. Half of them had no idea where we were, but that was the only information they got.
It sounds as if you set up a giant communications triage unit.
This is where it really became interesting. Clear Channel rushed in engineers with tons of equipment, more equipment than you would need to start five radio stations. We had spares of everything you could think of, and we had spares for the spares. We're in a six-floor commercial building, and the parking lot at my radio station was taken up by 18-wheelers, supply vehicles, ATVs, and station vans. It truly was something out of a M*A*S*H episode. I had a studio for WJBO, which was our News/Talk station in Baton Rouge, and we were building a new studio and control room. The walls were up and some of the equipment was in place, but none of the wiring had been started. So from 5 in the evening until 3 the next morning, that whole studio was put together, and we had United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans. Not every piece worked, but we went on at 3 a.m. Wednesday morning.
How did you assemble the on-air broadcast teams?
We paired up an Entercom individual with a Clear Channel New Orleans person. It was extremely important that we have New Orleans people on that channel, not Baton Rouge people. The CNN reports would show a fire and the network would invariably mislabel it because they didn't have detailed information. They weren't local. Our people were local. We were the primary source. Anything that happened from the state of Louisiana on came through United Radio first, and was disseminated out of here.
Did you also work with local government officials to distribute vital information to listeners and government agencies?
The state police had a liaison officer here, and we became the communications link for south Louisiana. One woman called and said she was in her attic with her babies. She was stranded, the water was rising, and she didn't know what to do. 911 wasn't answering, and we were the only people she could talk to. That's where the liaison officer came in. We found out where she was located and passed the information on to the National Guard.
Sounds like that M*A*S*H episode you were talking about.
It was surreal. The on-air talent and other station personnel were performing a life-and-death mission. The engineers were going through nine kinds of hell to keep the stations on and working. And all of this was a combined effort of Clear Channel and Entercom.
And during it all, some staff members had no idea what had become of their homes?
Some people here still haven't seen their homes yet. They know they're destroyed, and they have determined to put our mission - if I may be so bold as to call it that - above their personal needs. They know there's nothing there for them in terms of possessions, and they will worry about that when time comes. The intensity has lessened dramatically, but the commitment to do the job - this is where radio people are just different.
Were you amazed that, facing such adversity, people went those extra lengths to make this happen?
When it comes to doing a job this important, people step up to it. On Wednesday after the hurricane we had a staff meeting with the department heads from Entercom, Clear Channel New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. As we began the meeting, I said, “There are two things I want us to do during this time. Most of us don't know each other, so the first mission is that we make friends. The second is that we make history - and the quality of our history will be determined by the quality of our friends.” People bought into that as an idea and a mission. We made hand-lettered signs that read “Make Friends, Make History,” and ran them off on the computer.
How long did you continue broadcasting as one United Radio entity before other stations went back online?
About two weeks in we began to peel radio stations off. Baton Rouge was the first. A few days later we started taking WYLD off. Part of this was technical, in that we had the ability to generate and carry individual program streams, and part of it was having the people and the capacity to do it. About three weeks in, we were down to one Entercom AM, a Clear Channel AM, and an FM station. Within about four weeks, the rest went back to something akin to their usual formats.
What led to this decision?
We knew that the people inside New Orleans needed some entertainment relief. As important as it is, you can't just have one news outlet 24/7; you need some relief. Our goal was to create some variety.
This endeavor had to run up some healthy expenses. How is that aspect of the relationship between Clear Channel and Entercom being handled?
There was no written agreement between Clear Channel and Entercom for United Radio. It was a handshake. At the end of this, we will report our operating expenses and our revenue from that period to corporate, and the companies will decide on a fair split. We determined not to do that at the local market level; that would take us away from our primary mission to serve our communities.
Obviously there was no call for advertising in the early days of United Radio, when the focus was on disseminating information. How did you handle ad sales and revenues when circumstances became appropriate?
For the first two weeks we had no advertising. There was too much information to disperse and too many social concerns to address. Neither company was interested in an ad dollar. We were serving the communities we are licensed to serve. That was absolutely the highest purpose for us.
The first elements of advertising were two-fold: We allowed some paid advertising so companies could communicate with people, and we put on as much PSA as paid advertising, primarily focusing on disaster-related information. In the past few weeks, we have gotten back to more normal retail advertising, although there's still very little of that. We're still into finding people and social services.
How will you sell in the future, when there are no trends or ratings book?
In New Orleans and Biloxi, there won't be a fall book. There's just no way to do it - phone numbers don't work, you can't find people, listening patterns have changed. Exactly when and how it will come back, no one knows. Arbitron is working on it; they have a plan and a methodology, but there hasn't been time for us to ask. Arbitron is aware it can't be business as usual, there isn't anything you can compare it to. So they suspended it.
What has been the most profound personal experience of this undertaking?
I have seen the difference between awesome and average. A rubber band that is stretched will never go back to its original shape. There is no need to run with the level of intensity that we had during the crisis situation, but the expectations will always be a little higher now. The speed of decision-making is faster, the quality of information will be higher, and the people have been stellar. There also is an understanding of the value of local radio. It became popular to dismiss local radio with the advent of the iPod, XM and Sirius, and all the new delivery sources, but Katrina has revalidated the value of what we do day-in and day-out.
How would you assess the contributions and commitment of the people from both Clear Channel and Entercom who worked on this endeavor?
The people who went through this have a sense of accomplishment and value. I see it in my sales staff, the receptionist, the engineer, and on-air talent. We've created talk hosts from people who used to be music jocks. An entire new skill set has been developed. We've created some stars who did not fully understand their talent capabilities. There isn't anyone who won't be different at the end of this. Everybody was stretched to his or her full ability and potential. Someone told me that “crisis does not make character, it reveals it.” I have seen what strong, positive character is, and I have seen what weak is. I will never use the word “awesome” in a trite fashion again. I now reserve that to make a very strong distinguishing remark. I have seen people perform at an awesome level, and I will always carry that with me.
Did everyone do what was expected of them?
No. Some people are no longer here because they chose not to play, or could not handle the stress and chose to move on. From those who have done well here, we've created a cadre of awesome broadcasters. Our standards and expectations will be higher.
What advice would you offer to managers who think they're prepared for a disaster?
Don't leave anything to chance. If you have a generator, run it. Run it under load. Just because it starts doesn't mean it works. If you have wiring issues in your station, fix them now while it's dry and the weather is fair. Any problem you allow to persist will be the weak point. There were a number of wiring issues we knew about and we didn't get around to fixing them, and those were the ones that tripped us up. If your gas tank is on empty, fill it up.
Also, it's critical to have a census of your people, and keep it updated. Go one layer deeper than name, address, and phone number - add an outside contact. In this evacuation, it was chilling not to be able to find your people, and not to have a way to follow up with them. Don't be overly confident about any plan that's on paper. Like the general says, “A battle plan is excellent until the first shot is fired.” The most important thing is to surround yourself with people who have the ability to think, and excel at whatever is thrown at them.
When life gets back to normal, what effect do you think this experience will have on you, personally?
This is a great time to be in radio. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to help save lives and lessen suffering, and to be a part of a company with that as the most critical aspect of our mission. And it's nice to finally sit back and think, “We were called on, and we were up to the task.” How cool is that?
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