The Missourinet was founded more than three decades ago by people who believed radio should be a vital part of every community’s heartbeat. It was a time before huge corporations decided radio was worthy of financial speculation, and public service was worth much less than it should be. It was an era when the voices on the radio were people living in the town. We even used to broadcast Little League baseball games, competed with other stations to see who could get election returns on the air first, and covered city council, school board, and county commission meetings. Radio was local. Radio was immediate.
Our paychecks came from the radio station but we worked for the public, for the people who turned to us to learn what was happening in their city that affected their lives. It was an era when radio was for the community, not for the corporation.
All of us know what too much radio is today. Commitments to community are much too often limited. Commitments to debt service and profit margins are much too often primary.
Radio lost too much of its soul when communities were turned into “markets;” when stations became “properties;” and when news reporters became “morning personalities” if they existed at all.
Today we want to talk about a couple of glaring exceptions to that dark and gloomy image..
For the last week and a half, people listening to the sixty-some Missourinet affiliated stations have heard the voices of the people of Joplin. They have shared in the city’s tragedy, its reconciliation with what had happened, its first turns toward stability, and now its first significant moves to recovery. The people of Missouri have been part of all of that because of the extraordinary work of the Zimmer Radio Group stations in Joplin.
There are about five of them. More than an hour before the tornado hit, Josh Marsh was on the air on KZRG doing coverage of the approaching storm. There was some courage involved as the storm neared Joplin and then swept through one-third of it. A map we have seen of the storm path shows the tornado’s southern track followed 32nd street, where KZRG’s building is, for several blocks before veering slightly north about four blocks west of the station. It missed the station by about two blocks or less to the north. We haven’t been able to talk to Josh to know if he and other staff members headed for the basement as that monstrous cloud ground its way toward them before making that slight turn. Had we been there, we are not sure we would have stayed at our post.
The station owner, James Zimmer, made an almost immediate decision for all of his stations to begin simulcasting storm coverage 24 hours a day. Yesterday was the first day since May 22 that the station started easing back to its normal program schedule.
The station utilized all of its capabilities to serve its community–the over the air signal as well as the “listen live” feature on its website, and social networking opportunities such as Facebook. We listened for hours every day to that coverage and lifted portions of interviews, press conferences, newscasts, and other segments of the broadcasts for our own newscasts and for our feeds of soundbites to our affiliates for them to use in their programs.
We listened as these stations became the voice from, to, and of Joplin. We listened as the community staggered through the confusion and pain of the tornado strike. We listened as the community and its leaders tried to grasp the enormity of the event. We listened to the assessments of the damage and to the reports of increasing numbers of fatalities. We listened when people began calling the station asking for information about missing friends, relatives, and pets. We heard others call the station to report they were okay, often describing their experiences. We listened to political leaders who went to Joplin to assure survivors that help was coming. We were listening when the school superintendent announced that there would be summer school because it would let children be in a place where they could be children again and teachers needed to return to the classroom where life for a few hours would be normal.
The Zimmer Radio Group took all of us to Joplin and because we were able to piggyback on their coverage we were able to take Joplin to all corners of Missouri.
There were times when we heard announcers’ voices crack and tremble. There were times when the microphones went silent when tears flowed for a few moments.
The people of KZRG had a heavy personal investment in what they were covering. Seven or eight of them lost their homes or apartments to the tornado. Sometimes we, too, shared their losses through their silences and their wavering voices.
It did not take long for the people at those stations to become voices for a staggered but undefeated community. They often spoke of the community’s strength and determination to recover and rebuild. They weren’t radio stations covering an event that had happened in Joplin; they were Joplin in all of its agony and eventually all of its hope and determination.
It was an extraordinary, exhaustive, exhausting commitment by a group of radio stations at a time when too many radio stations are incapable of serving their communities.
Radio can be the voice of a community at times of crisis. KZRG and its associated stations became examples of dedicated community service that other stations and groups should emulate. They have set a standard of commitment to community that is theirs to maintain now. We thank them for showing our industry what that standard can be and wish them well in serving that standard in the future.
Missouri radio is losing a good guy soon when Charlie Thomas leaves Sedalia and heads to a station in Princeton, West Virginia. Charlie has been a voice for Sedalia on affiliate KDRO for about five years. I suspect that there were times when Senator McCaskill was holding her weekly teleconference with reporters that Charlie went “live” during the teleconference and asked several questions. We just suspect that. Charlie wanted answers for his folks in Sedalia and this was a chance to get them.
But life away from the microphone has been important to Charlie, too. Charlie co-founded the Show Me Honor Flight program that takes World War Two veterans from Sedalia on trips to Washington, D. C., to visit the WWII memorial. Three times he has been embedded with Missouri troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Charlie will be a good fit at the new station which is owned by the Denver Foundation. That’s Bob Denver of Gilligan’s Island and Dobie Gillis (you have to be a certain age to appreciate the latter show) fame. He and his wife Dreama support families with autistic children. He’ll be doing a morning show with Dreama. And Charlie plans to establish an Honor Flight program there, too.
So we’re letting a good guy to a place to do more good.
Missouri radio is richer because of the people at KZRG and poorer because Charlie’s leaving KDRO. The Missourinet is better because we have worked with both.