New York broadcasters came through, stayed on air during Sandy


While significant parts of New York City and Long Island were without power, cable and phone service, New York’s broadcast stations remained on the air, providing life-saving information.  Broadcasters avoided the system-wide outages that plagued other communications services.  As one engineer noted, the only communications services that appear to be working in lower Manhattan are radio and off-air TV.

Warren Levinson of the Associated Press described the scene in an interview with Judy Woodruff of PBS: “I was over by the big substation that went out on East 14th Street this morning. And people didn’t have television. They didn’t have Internet. And somebody had taken his big portable radio and put it on the second floor in his window when the governor was giving a briefing. And you had a knot of people, like a semicircle of people, standing around it listening for what’s the latest information. It was, let’s go back to 1927 or something.”

In New York City, all the television stations remained on the air, providing life-saving information to the community from public safety officials. While other delivery systems faltered, New Yorkers continued to receive local TV coverage on battery operated television sets with an antenna.  Moreover, the audio portion of TV newscasts and storm coverage were simulcast on several FM radio stations, thereby reaching more New Yorkers.  Exhausted reporters, engineers and technicians provided complete coverage throughout the night and into the morning.

Radio becomes critically important during emergencies, as consumers switch to battery operated devices. The overwhelming majority of New York City radio stations remained on the air.  For example, even though power was turned off by Con-Ed in Manhattan, the Clear Channel stations remained on the air through the use of a generator.  In addition, many music formatted FM stations switched to all news formats during the storm.

Flooding at transmitter sites in the Meadowlands forced a number of AM stations off the air. WOR-710 AM was a notable exception, remaining on the air to provide critical information throughout the storm.   Other AM stations shifted their news and information to FM band stations. For example, WINS 1010, shifted its news operations to WCBS-FM 101.1 FM and later to WXRK-FM 92.3. Public Radio WNYC-AM 820 shifted its programming to WNYC-FM 93.9.  Other radio stations partnered with local TV stations to provide news.  WEPN (1050 AM) and WEPN-FM (98.7) simulcast storm coverage provided by WABC-TV.  WOR broadcast news and information from WNBC-TV, before returning to its own programming.

Stations were returning to the air by Tuesday.  For example, WINS 1010 AM was back on the air while its programming continued to be simulcast on WXRK-FM.  Univision’s WADO was off the air temporarily, and was up and running by Tuesday.

On Long Island, nearly all radio stations remained on the air.  WALK was required by the county to evacuate its facilities, but continued to operate from the Suffolk County Emergency Management Center.  While WALK 97.5 FM appeared to be off the air, WALK (1370 AM) remained operational.  After evacuating its facilities, WLNG 92.1, was back on the air on Tuesday.

In addition, several Long Island stations shifted to all news formats during the storm.  For example, Connoisseur Media of Long Island broadcast News Channel 12 on all four of its radio stations.

Noted David Donovan, President of the New York State Broadcasters Association (NYSBA): “There is no doubt that the New York broadcast system continued to function and provide life-saving information during Hurricane Sandy.   In many areas it was the only service available to connect the community with first responders.

Once again, local radio and television broadcasting proved to be the most secure, robust and important information service during a natural disaster.   Unlike other services, which rely on limited life batteries, local broadcasters can continue to operate throughout a storm and its aftermath due in large part to back up generators.  In addition, broadcasting’s one-to- many (point to multi-point) architecture is the most efficient way to simultaneously transmit public safety information to millions of consumers.  Unlike cellular telephone architecture, the broadcast system does not become overwhelmed and shut down.

The FCC estimated that 25 percent of the cell phone towers in 10 states were knocked out by the storm.  Importantly, when cellphone and cable systems go out, consumers lose access to these services. This is not the case with local broadcasting. Even if several stations go off their air, as we saw with some AM stations in New York, the news content from these stations is transferred to other stations.  Radio stations, that generally provided music and entertainment, become all news stations.  Television stations, which can still be seen by citizens with an antenna and portable TV, make arrangements with local radio stations to simulcast the audio of the station’s storm coverage.   Both radio and television stations switch from entertainment formats to 24 hour coverage of the storm.

Finally, the use of back-up generators by local broadcast stations allows local broadcasters to remain on the air for long periods of time.   So long as fuel is provided, studios and transmitters can broadcast life-saving information to the public.

Serving the public during Hurricane Sandy ultimately depends on people.  It is the reporter who covers the story from flood ravaged lower Manhattan, Staten Island, or the fires in Queens.  It is the technician who makes sure the remote signal from live on- the-street reports reaches back to the studio.  It is the engineer who spends all night making sure the transmitter and back-up generator continues to work while flood waters rise.   Serving our local communities is in our DNA.  It separates broadcasters from other communications services and that makes all the difference.

Throughout the storm, New York’s broadcasters provided news and information to their communities.  They are to be congratulated for their herculean efforts to keep the public informed.”

RBR-TVBR observation: And it continues. All area broadcasters are relaying vital information around the clock, tying together citizens, government and public service providers to keep everyone informed and on the same page. Many national headquarters for cable and broadcast are located in Manhattan—most of us across the country didn’t miss a beat, due to their proper planning for such an emergency and their dedication to the job. Needless to say, the citizens of that great city are a breed apart—strong, resilient, resourceful and dedicated. Everyone’s thoughts and respect are with them as they dry out, clean up and reconnect.