Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Joplin Call to Action (From Tim Moore)

Several years ago Radio Ink featured a cover picture of the Zimmer Radio brothers, with one of the twins carried horizontally under the caption, "He's not heavy...he's my brother." The article praised the family radio history, culture, and desirability as a career destination. Years have passed and the brothers still pursue excellence having formed separate companies spread through the heartland.

On that fateful Sunday ten days ago Joplin operations manager Chad Elliot was spending a typical weekend with one eye on the weather. James Zimmer's impressive cluster holds four regional and highly rated FM brands and two AM facilities. Among the latter, the "Four States" crown jewel of News-Talk KZRG houses its own advanced radar capability. Around 3:00 PM Elliot's cell accepted the first text alert from Kansas; far to the west yet potentially menacing. Elliot immediately went to the stations and looked at KZRG's long range radar. Here he saw a massive cell developing out over the Cherokee County plains of Kansas, replete with a low-hanging funnel. Elliot plotted its speed at 20 miles per hour and guessed it possibly an F-3. Time was passing; the storm was moving. The ominous potential of the beast grew and strengthened. Elliot summoned his News team.

At 4:30 KZRG went wall-to-wall emergency weather. As the storm lurched toward the confluence of Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri where just inside the Missouri border Joplin sits astride the corners of the "Four States," Elliot and his staff accepted the inevitable. Once one becomes skilled at reading radar over land or sea, it's relatively easy to plot the course and speed of anything...ships, planes, tornados. The gigantic Kansas cell was now spawning life threatening downspouts, traveling slowly but steadily on a course for Joplin. KZRG warned city officials, police agencies, fire and rescue that Joplin would likely get the full force of the monster storm. Thanks to KZRG's radar tracking, sirens actually began to sound 45 minutes ahead of the vanguard. 

One-inch hail was falling on parts of the city while the wind rose with rapier speed, screaming at all things in its path. As late afternoon approached the storm evolved from multi-vortex tornados to a single massive anvil striking the center of Joplin at 200 miles per hour. The world exploded into a cacophony of chaos and terror. Why some were spared when others weren't remains the unending mystery of crises. Zimmer Radio's facilities including its FM super-tower were spared. Equipped with diesel generators the transmitters and studio facilities roared into action and non-stop coverage was virtually uninterrupted. From 4:30 forward through the following days Zimmer stations did not play a song or a commercial, remaining on post as the only available radio coverage for the state's 4th largest metro area. Midst tragedy and triumph radio fought through the maelstrom and did what radio was designed to do in its purest form: serve the people and the region within which it operates.

Seven Zimmer staff members lost their homes including operations manager Chad Elliot, two program directors, two news staffers, a morning co-host and a creative services staffer. Contrary to generic TV network news accounts, Joplin is not a "small town." It boasts two major regional medical centers including St. John's, which was rendered nearly unserviceable. Saga owns a TV facility there and the market has been enjoying steady growth in population and commerce. It will again.

Chad Elliot and the Zimmer team are heroes in every sense. Elliot added that for those who don't believe radio needs to be embedded in cell phones, "Cell phones were useless for 48 hours. Had they contained radio thousands more could have benefitted from emergency coverage." Time will pass, days will eventually brighten for Joplin. But Zimmer Radio's coverage in the face of tragedy will remain a shining chapter in broadcast history.

Tim Moore
Managing Partner
Audience Development Group

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