Earlier this week, minutes after midnight, with little warning, a very powerful tornado whipped through Nashville. When the sun came up the next day the damage and destruction was severe. 24 people were dead, property was destroyed, the community devastated.
A sudden weather event is much different than a hurricane or an epic snowstorm, when radio stations have time to plan coverage and prepare their teams. A tornado – like an earthquake – calls for quick execution of a plan that every radio station has on the shelf, just in case. This is what separates radio from every other form of media. And, in Nashville, we found the proof.
We reached out to two market managers in Nashville for details on how they turned on a dime to help their neighbors.
Allison Warren is the Nashville Market Manager for Cumulus and Dennis Gwiazdon is the Nashville Market Manager for Cromwell Media.
Radio Ink: When did the community first know what was going on and what is the warning system for residents?
Allison: Davidson County heard the tornado warning at 12:40 a.m. The tornado came through before 12:55 a.m. The county got an-all clear at 1 a.m. but the storm moved east into Wilson County and wreaked extensive damage to Mt. Juliet and then onto Putnam County and points east out of the metro area.
Dennis: This storm struck early Tuesday morning and took most of us by surprise. The weather reports earlier in the evening showed a track that was well north of Nashville so it caught everyone off guard. Tornado sirens went off, giving people a little time to take shelter. But in some instances that was only a few minutes.
Radio Ink: Tell us about the damage.
Allison: I am sure that you have seen the videos and photos of the extensive damage done to East Nashville and Germantown. Those are Nashville neighborhoods that have recently undergone a rebuilding. New homes and condos dot the area. The tornado hit East Nashville, traveled through North Nashville and traveled 20 miles east through Mt. Juliet. It covered 10 miles in Putnam Country. There are 24 confirmed dead and more than 100 reported damaged/destroyed structures along the two-mile path of destruction. Once the storm moved out of Davidson County it did more damage in surrounding counties.
Dennis: As you probably know by now the track of the tornado went through the northern parts of our city, hitting Germantown and East Nashville the hardest before it headed east cutting a swath of damage that spanned nearly 80 miles. The damage is significant in certain sections of our city and even more so for Putnam County and, specifically, the city of Cookeville to our east. 24 souls lost, hundreds injured and hundreds of structures destroyed. A very sad situation.
Radio Ink: Tell us about your coverage.
Allison: Our News Talk station (WWTN) was fully staffed at 2 a.m. with people out in the hardest-hit areas. We dropped all of our advertising on the air until 9 a.m. and went with a team of Brian Wilson, Dan Mandis, Chris Weber, Ken Weaver, Pamela Furr, and traffic reports from Jeff Womack all morning. The station had the mayor and the governor on live during the morning hours. They took calls all morning, directing people to avoid areas and to help those in need.
WSM-FM went live at 3 a.m. with Marty McFly giving updates and traffic information all morning. Again providing directions on how to get help. WQQK (Urban) began coverage at 5 a.m. and did reports directed primarily to Davidson County, the station’s primary target. Also, taking calls from the community to help others avoid issues.
WGFX (sports) suspended its format and went wall-to-wall “help” for the community. They too took calls and were a resource for those in immediate need. This programming continued all day on the station until 7 p.m. They also had guests on from Cookeville and other communities east that were impacted by the storms.
WKDF has a syndicated show in the morning but it is based here in Nashville, so it was all help, all morning. We interviewed city and county officials and took calls. The advantage of having the show based in Nashville.
Dennis: Early Tuesday morning, when most of the news broke, our overnight person on WBUZ immediately switched to our TV partner, Fox 17, for live coverage. They too lost power for a while but we resumed a full-time audio simulcast of their live coverage on all three of our music stations until about 9:30AM. Our sports talk station spent the majority of the day – beginning at 6AM – relating news and updates on what turned out to be an historic and tragic day for Nashville and Middle Tennessee. I was extremely proud of how our team handled a very challenging situation.
Radio Ink: How do you plan to cover the events moving forward?
Allison: The Cumulus Nashville cluster will be in full force, Friday. All five stations will be hosting an on-air “radiothon” from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. encouraging listeners to donate via Hands on Nashville. WGFX and WWTN will be live from an East Nashville location supporting the community, airing storyts from those impacted, and encouraging listeners to donate. WQQK will also be live from both North Nashville and the East Nashville location. WSM-FM and WKDF will also be onsite at the East Nashville location.
Our East Nashville location is near Edley’s BBQ. The building adjacent to Edley’s was demolished. The owner of Edley’s reached out to WGFX host, Jonathan Hutton, asking how we can help. Edley’s has been providing food to responders and families and will continue to do so through Friday. Together we brainstormed the cluster-wide radiothon and live shows from East Nashville. By being onsite we are able to to stories from the people who were directly affected, drive donations, and help the healing for those most impacted.
Monday we have a concert planned at Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row starring Mitchell Tenpenny, Hardy, Devin Dawson, and many more as a fundraiser. All of our efforts here will be shared by all of the stations because no other cluster can cover the entire community like Cumulus can. Country, News/Talk, Sports, and Urban.
Dennis: Using our stations and social media we’re branding ourselves as the “Local Donation Stations” by supporting ongoing efforts to raise money and much-needed supplies for those in need. Special on-air promos are running across the cluster with a “Nashville Strong” theme. And samples of some tweets we’ve posted are below. We’ve also reached out to key community leaders to offer our assistance over the air to let listeners know how they can help. As the flagship station for the Nashville Predators and Nashville SC our sports talk station, 102.5 The Game, will also be partnering with those organizations in their outreach programs. Given that this will be a long-term recovery we plan to be out in the community with our vehicles delivering refreshments and supplies as much as we can. We’ve also offered no charge commercials to our Key customers who want to send messages of support and compassion to our community.
102.5 The Game — 93.3 Classic Hits — 102.1 The Ville
Radio Ink: How did your team perform?
Allison: The Cumulus cluster’s performance was nothing short of best-in-class. Our on-air hosts and programmers understand the power of our stations and our purpose to serve our communities, especially in times of need or crisis. I could not be more proud of each station, host, and program director. Charlie Cook, Cumulus Nashville’s VP of Programming Operations, led our stations through an extremely long and emotional day. The entire programming team worked tirelessly to provide our community with information, resources, and a friendly voice on the other line — both a place to share and to heal. We are certainly Nashville strong!
Dennis: I couldn’t be more proud of what our entire team, across all of our stations, accomplished over the last 36 hours. And it’s not over. We are committed to staying on top of this recovery process which could take weeks, months or longer to complete. But we’ve been here before (think of the Great Flood of 2010) and, without question, Nashville is an amazingly resilient city. The untold numbers of volunteers, neighbors helping neighbors, who are showing up to help is evidence enough of our spirit.