When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans last month, desperate residents were dependent on their local radio station, WTIX, for information. The station's staff, including former WTIX talk show host and 2000 Emerson graduate Rob Hunter, continued to broadcast during the hurricane-even after all of the other stations were no longer operating-until their tower was knocked down by raging winds.
"It was our duty," Hunter said. "As a station, you have to inform the public."
Last Friday, Hunter participated in an alumni panel discussion about the state of the radio industry, hosted by Emerson's radio station WERS.
In addition to Hunter, six other Emerson alumni with careers in the broadcast business served on the panel. Ken Brady, general sales manager for Cox Communications; Dean Cappello, vice president for programming and operations at WNYC Public Radio; Gary Krantz, president of The Air America; Cherry Martinez, on-air personality at Power 105.1; Elroy Smith, program director of WGCI/WVAZ; and Steve "Animal" Zubrzycki, on-air personality at Z-Rock radio in Charleston, W. Va., all spoke at the event.
Although they discussed the excitement of the industry, many panelists expressed concern that there is a declining public interest in radio.
Hunter, who was brought to the panel not only to share his experience with Hurricane Katrina, but also because he is one of the youngest Emerson graduates working in a large radio market, disagreed. He said his experience showed just how important radio is.
Jack Casey, the general manager of WERS, said the panelists made an important point: radio is "still a thriving industry."
Paul O'Neil, a sophomore audio/radio major, said he was inspired by the panelists' enthusiasm for the radio business.
"There is a lot of future in radio and [I hope] to be a part of it," said O'Neil, who is currently the DJ for "Revolutions" and the coordinator of "Uncommon Rotation" at WERS.
Hunter drew upon his own experience during the hurricane to show that, despite the variety of other media outlets, radio is still vital to news and communication.
"During Katrina, for about nine hours, we were the only [media source]," Hunter said. "When the next hurricane comes along, and the TV doesn't work and you've only got batteries for a flashlight and a radio, radio is gonna be there."
For Hunter, who is now unemployed after his station was destroyed by the hurricane, the decision to continue broadcasting during Katrina was an easy one. He said he considered it WTIX's responsibility to help educate its listeners about the dangerous storm.
On Friday, Aug. 26, WTIX learned that the hurricane was heading straight for New Orleans. Reporters dropped all other planned interviews for the weekend and started storm coverage the next morning, Hunter said.
The station devoted the weekend to updates on the city's situation, complete with information from the government, Red Cross and meteorologists.
"We knew the biggest hurricane in the world was coming and we could only sit and wait," Hunter said.
That Sunday night, WTIX took calls from people who decided to remain at home and brave the storm, explaining what they were doing to prepare. Callers and listeners were given explanations of escape routes and were advised by Hunter and other WTIX personalities of the supplies needed to prepare themselves.
Later that night, Hunter watched the rainwater build up outside the building and the street lights go out, but all the WTIX members remained inside. It was the only radio station still delivering updates.
When the sun rose on Monday, Aug. 29, Hunter said the damage to the city was visible. "It was surreal, like a movie," he said. "You knew this one was gonna destroy the city."
WTIX continued to broadcast until the station's transmitter towers were knocked down by the hurricane. Hunter said the station members watched helplessly as signs blew down and buildings were destroyed.
Hunter recalled phone calls the station received from a woman whose house was flooding up to her neck with her and her children still inside. He said it was events like these that reminded station workers that they were not just broadcasters, but also New Orleans residents, suffering alongside the listeners they were trying to help.
"You try to inform the public," Hunter said. "But you try to be part of them as well, and that's what we [WTIX] did during Katrina."