During Hurricane Matthew earlier this fall, television crews were once again outfitted in heavy-weather gear, braving the storm to deliver valuable information to residents in its path and demonstrating the continued importance of broadcast TV in the face of a local emergency.
Dozens of local crews were dispatched along Florida’s coast, and stations broadcast news 24/7, according to a CNN Money article. Radio stations agreed to simulcast coverage and meteorologists went online to social media to answer questions from viewers.
It had been decades since the affected region had seen a Category 4 hurricane, and the local media wanted to make sure communities were prepared, Glenn Richards, chief meteorologist for Orlando’s WOFL, told CNN. Employees worked 12-hour shifts and station offices were made into places to sleep. “This is why local TV will be alive forever and ever—because this is how the information has to get out,” Richards said.
TV broadcasters have been first informers for more than 75 years, Robert Kenny, director of public affairs for TVfreedom.org, noted in a piece he wrote for The Hill. They have provided communities with sometimes lifesaving information about severe weather, school closings, and other emergency alerts and warnings, with crews sometimes putting themselves at higher risk while doing so.
In early 2015, for example, when parts of Maine and Massachusetts amassed more than 100 inches of snow in one month, TV reporters provided around-the-clock coverage, which was credited with letting viewers know what do to to ensure safety throughout the record-setting weather.
During Hurricane Matthew, national organizations focused on Florida. But when the governor of Georgia needed to know about the status of the Savannah River, which was in danger of flooding, he turned to Raycom CBS affiliate WTOC. It’s not just about access to viewers or attention to the “local” in local emergency, however—it’s also about trust.
Tom Wills, who has been an anchor at WJXT in Jacksonville for more than 40 years, took it upon himself to make an emotional plea for residents to evacuate. After spending more than two minutes reading the National Weather Service advisory from his phone, he went on to say, “I want to talk to you people for just a minute—not as Tom the newsman…It’s time to take precautions. It’s time to protect yourself…Get out of here,” according to Broadcasting & Cable.
Communications infrastructure also comes into play. Cable and cell-phone service is often disrupted during times of disaster, whether due to network failure or overwhelming use, Scott Flick, partner of Pillsbury Law Firm, explained for Comm Law Center.
Broadcast stations only need a tower or tall building for an antenna, generator fuel, and employee access. As a result, more than a dozen states have given broadcast personnel First Responder status, which allows them access to both emergency sites and scarce fuel. The other component to broadcast is a receiver, of which there are more than 600 million in the United States and which use replaceable batteries.
Local stations also are responsible for generating millions every year in fundraising for disaster victims. In 2014, NBC affiliates worked together to raise $218,000 after tornadoes hit the center of the state. “It is unlikely that cable networks could duplicate with any level of consistency or success what broadcast TV stations provide to viewers year round,” Kenny noted.