Radio Reaches Rural Illinois During Disasters
By Les O’Dell
Families, sometimes two or three of them together, congregated on front porches and back yards. Young and old alike, they sat, leaned and stood around a battery-powered radio, trying to catch the latest weather report and to find out when electricity would be coming to their area.
Sounds like a scene from the 1930s, but this was a common occurrence in several southern Illinois counties last May, as a derechoe, called by many an inland hurricane, swept through the region causing millions of dollars of damage and knocking out power to more than 70,000 homes, some for more than a week.
Throughout the recovery, residents and power company officials relied on local radio stations to provide information on the availability of emergency supplies, the locations of stores and gas stations that were open and, most importantly, when the power would be restored.
“Radio was the only way we had to communicate. Especially in the first four or five days after the storm, there was no electricity for people in several counties,” said Bryce Cramer, Member Service Manager for Egyptian Electric Cooperative, which had some 10,000 members without power.
“We had no television and newspapers were very limited. Radio, battery-operated units and car radios, were all we had,” said Cramer.
Station Manager Steve Falat of River Radio of Illinois, which includes six southern Illinois stations, said immediately after the storm, the decision was made to simulcast the same broadcast on all of the company’s stations, and that programming would focus on the needs of the area.
“This is what we are here for,” Falat said. “We are to be the voice of comfort and reason and to provide information that people would be starved to hear.”
For more than 125 consecutive hours, the stations broadcast news and weather as well as updates on storm recovery efforts. Often, the broadcasts included first-person updates from area mayors, legislators, emergency officials, sheriffs and, of course, power company officials.
“We were on three to four times each day with updates about the progress our crews were making in restoring power,” Cramer added. “Radio was the only medium people had to gather information.”
Even in times of nice weather and normalcy, radio is still vital the people in rural parts of Illinois.
“Radio is the fiber of any community, large or small,” explained Dennis Lyle, president and CEO of the Illinois Broadcasters Association. “Especially in rural areas, radio is a major part of day-to-day life. It is our daily source of information and lets neighbors know what is going on in their areas.”
It is this support to the area that makes radio stations in rural areas different from their big-city, corporate cousins, according to B.J. Stone, general manager of WBYS-AM in Canton. Stone calls the difference “super serving” the area.
“I really believe that if it has to do with our county, it’s going to be on our news,” he said.
Stone said this often means offering programming not found on metropolitan stations.
“We read lost dog reports and cover high school sports. We do trading post shows and give obituaries,” he said. “If the guys in the big cities want to call it ‘hokey,’ we take it as a compliment. We do what our listeners want. We cater to our clients.”
Other stations include programming of particular interest to people involved in agriculture. Alan Jarand of RFD Radio Network can be heard daily on nearly 70 stations across the state. He said radio is vital to people who live in the country.
“I think radio in rural Illinois is more important than in urban areas. In rural areas, radio provides local news and information that just isn’t available from any other source,” he said.
Mike Hulvey, vice president of operations for Neuhoff Communications, which operates radio stations in Decatur, Springfield and Danville, agreed.
“Our role is to first, inform and second, to entertain. Most of the great rural radio stations are part of the local community,” he said.
Being a major part of the area that they serve is not a role that radio stations discount.
“Your station has to be very intertwined with the community,” said John Hoscheidt, owner and general manager of WRMJ-FM in Aledo. “Stations are learning that they have to invest in local people.”
Lyle calls it “backyard responsibility.”
“Stations and listeners have a very special relationship, but it is more than that, it is a responsibility. It means going above and beyond the call of duty and making sure that everything they do is serving their extended family of listeners,” he said.
To many rural broadcasters including Bruce Knopp of Salem’s WJBD, it is a multi-faceted responsibility.
“In many respects, our role is to be the lifeblood and pulse of the community as well as cheerleader for the area,” he said. “We become a part of everything that goes on.”
Rural audiences understand the importance of local stations.
“Our listeners tell us how important we are, and how much information they would be lacking if we weren’t on the air,” Hoscheidt said.
Lyle said that even with the growth in new media such as the Internet and cellular phones, there will always be a place for radio.
“It’s very easy for some people to cast aside traditional media such as local radio,” he said. “But at the end of the day when the Internet is not working, cable television is off, and when cell phones are down, good old, battery-operated radios keep people calm in very tough situations.”
Rural listeners are grateful to be kept informed and entertained by local radio stations, especially in times of severe weather or disasters, but that’s not why broadcasters take to the airwaves.
“We didn’t go on with storm coverage for the accolades and the ‘atta-boys,’ Falat said of River Radio’s post-storm efforts. “We did it because it was our job and it was the right thing to do, providing our listeners with as much accurate and immediate information as we can.”
Throughout rural Illinois, the same can be said for radio stations up and down the dial.
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