Monday, October 04, 2010

It was 23 years ago today

It was a Sunday and I wasn't supposed to work. I was the program manager of WSBS in Great Barrington, still in the infant stages of trying to upgrade the role the station had in the community. I hadn't yet learned -- or proven -- that I make a lousy manager. I can do. I don't know how to make others do.

The leaves were just turning in the Berkshires, and the snow was just starting to fall. Snow on October 4th?

Like most small-market radio stations, we had a skeleton staff on duty on a Sunday morning. And by skeleton, I mean 1 person who wasn't a newsperson. So I went to work.

The snow got heavier, and soon, two other people, who lived just up the street, made it in to work to help out.

Then the branches started snapping, and the power went out all over the Berkshires, except at a small 1,000 watt daytime station. By now, I was on the air, using a model we'd used at WHDH in Boston years earlier. Open the phones and talk to people.

I recall one person who had a baby on a respirator,only the power was out. She called the radio station. Everyone was getting on the air. She told her story, a few minutes later, we had someone with a 4x4 and a generator on the phone, too.

At one point, Gene Shalit, then the NBC Today Show film reviewer, called from his home in Stockbridge. He had no other point, really, than anyone else who was calling. They were without power, trees were falling, and he wanted someone to talk to .

We continued into the night. When the sun went down, I kept the power up even though we were supposed to sign off at sunset. Nobody else was on the air. Eventually, I compromised and flipped on a smaller transmitter -- 3.9 watts, which -- because everyone was without power except for us -- boomed throughout the Berkshires.

It was radio the way it was meant to be, and the way it can never be again. It was the best day I ever spent in the radio business. It's why I still fume when the occasional public radio snob mockingly says "commercial radio."

My family -- Carolie and two-year old Sean (Carolie had yet to give birth to Patrick) -- were somewhere, but I didn't know where. Carolie is the daughter of a radio guy; she knew I had a job to do and she'd figure out how to survive. They huddled with some neighbors who had a wood stove.

It was 10 or 11 O'clock at night and the Berkshires were scared. And then, a power company truck came by the state highway out front, then another, and another, and another. They kept coming. The rest of Massachusetts had sent us some help. So I told southern Berkshire County that help was here.

As midnight approached, people were still calling. When they weren't, I pulled out the Old Farmer's Almanac and began reading stories. Finally, around 1 a.m., the Berkshires were asleep, and I signed the station off the air.

The next morning, I showed up at work, and there were flowers in the lobby from people, and I think people dropped baked goods by. They were still calling to say "thank you" to a small group of people who didn't let them down.

A newspaper in Pittsfield ran this commentary a few days later (written by Clarence Fanto):

Radio tends to be taken for granted by most listeners; they use it for hours every day but video usually occupies the spotlight.

Over the last few days, however, appreciation for public service provided by radio during an emergency has reached new heights in Berkshire County. For many residents on the day of the Great October Blizzard, the area's radio stations provided a lifeline for some, and the only link to the outside world for others isolated and marooned by the devastating storm.

With power out, phone service disrupted, TV sets disabled, those with the foresight to keep their portable radios powered with fresh batteries were able to gain reassurance from the knowledge that thousands of others share dtheir plight and, in many cases, were even worse off.

The surprise storm hit the region at a time (Sunday morning) when most radio stations are minimally staffed and are offering pre-taped syndicated, religious or ethnic programming.

Although most of Pittsfield's stations eventually rose to the occasion, Berkshire Broadcating Co. (WSBS in Great Barrington and WMNB in North Adams) deserves special recognition for quickly recognizing the severity of the storm and suspending normal programming in favor of continuous storm coverage.

As heard in an isolated South County cabin, WSBS provided what amounted to an emergency command post, taking calls from listeners who needed special help, interviewing utility officials, police, and others involved in the crisis, and providing invaluable updates on highway conditions, road closings, power failures and phone problems.

Although the Barrington station focused, and rightly so, on South County, it also offered information on North County via reports from its sister station WMNB and on the Pittsfield-Dalton area from its news director, Tom Jay, who happened to be in Dalton that morning.

The WSBS on-air team -- program director Bob Collins, Dick Lindsay, Tony Betros, Liz Chaffee, Nick Diller -- combined authoritative news gathering with just the right amount of folksiness and sorely needed comic relief. There were several phone calls from stranded New Yorkers who insisted they just had to reach the Taconic State Parkway Sunday afternoon. Collins and company gently coaxed them into the realization that any kind of highway travel would be folly.

Those who complain about Berkshire radio -- too many commercial, "conservative" music programming, an overly homespun approach -- must now realize that without the outstanding service provided by the county's station's since Sunday, more lives might have been lost, panic could have developed, and the sense of isolation experienced by many storm victims would have been genuinely overwhelming.

Stephen Fay, a reporter for the Berkshire Eagle, wrote this story:

Great Barrington -- Bob Collins was as blown away as anybody by the big snow, Oct. 4, which is a little odd since he had known it was coming and had planned for it six months ago.

Last May, in his capacity as program manager for radio station WSBS, he compiled a policy handbook, what he calls a "storm package," that established programming formats designed to serve listeners tuning in during any of four levels of meteorological disturbances ranging from rain-swollen rivers to, as he put it, "total paralysis."

Total paralysis is as good a description as any for the impact of the Oct. 4 blizzard. And through it all, from early morning to late at night, Collins' storm package (and voice) provided listeners in South and Central Berkshire County with information, weather updates, help, tips and, as the grateful Great Barrington Civil Defense director put it, comfort.

As a result of the station's fast and facile assumption of the role of storm-information center, it has become a candidate for canonization among the many listeners who lacked power, lights, phone, transportation and heat. It's not just that he station was broadcasting -- it was broadcasting valuable information in the form of itnerviews with utilities' spokesmen, current weather reports, cancellations, and sources of help and shelter.

"It may sound like nobility," Collins said, "but it was part of a plan."

Collins, 33, said he is no fan of what he calls "stream-of-consciousness radio." he likes to plan ahead and organize the station's day. When he first came on board last April, the station's music policy was DJ's choice.

"Lawrence Welk would be followed by Whitney Hosuton and then some old song by Walter Brennan," he recalled.

He worked at rationalizing the music menu, allocating so much time for oldies, so much time for contemporary. He weeded out some strange records ("the Ballad of the Green Berets" was an early casualty) and threw away all the elevator music.

Beyond that, he said, he has tried to make the station a part of the life of the community. Fundraisers for sick children, such as Jared's Jamboree and HUSTLE, the SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) auction, and the effort to raise money to bring a Spanish boy to the Berkshires received the station's cooperation in the form of live broadcasts and plenty of on-air promotions and public service announcements.

The news coverage got a little broader and more ambitious under Collins' direction. he's not exactly taking bows for that advance, because Collins, who gets his feelings hurt when criticized, has gotten his feelings hurt a lot by angry selectmen, irritated listeners and aggravated advertisers.

Interestingly, he's not all that comfortable with praise. The praise from many quarters that's been coming in since last Sunday ought to be shared with his colleagues, he said, and really should go to the electric company and telephone crews who worked without rest to restore service.

"We were just sitting in a warm room passing on information," he said.

His journey to that warm room at WSBS has been long and bumpy. Born in Fitchburg, the youngest of five children of an insurance agent father and housewife mother, he developed an interest in radio early on. He used to record records on a reel-to-reel tape recorder and then play the DFJ -- announcing the hits and providing patter between platters.

He earned a bachelor of science degree in mass communications from Boston's Emerson College and landing his first radio job right after graduation in 1972, selling advertising for a little station in Marlboro. He didn't like ad sales and wasn't any good at it, either. He lasted a week. He got a DJ job at a station in Southbridge -- a 90-mile round trip commute from Fitchburg -- working six days a week for $110 a week. Then he got a better offer from the Fitchburg station, WFGL, and had his baptism under snow during the big blizzard of 1978 when he was one of the only staff members to make it to the station. He learned the value of making the station accessible to listeners, he said, as he took calls and did what he could do to let people know what was going on.

That year, he took a newsman's job at WBEC in Pittsfield, covering City Council meetings and other events. It was a good period, he said, for he liked working with Bob Cudmore, George Bulgarelli and others associated with the station at that time.

But WBEC changed hands and job security became a questiion, he said, so he bailed out and landed at WUPE, another rewarding interval darkened only by the time he forgot to throw a switch while making a personal phone call, drowning out a Zayre's commercial with language that was somewhat unfortunate.

Opportunity, in the form of WHDH in Boston, knocked in 1981, and there he worked until WCVB-TV in Boston hired him to write TV news copy. He said he didn't mind the anonymity of the news writer -- "I've always been content to be Joe Nobody" -- but the caste system of the anchorman and on-air "news personalities" turned him off. He went on to New York City to work for RKO Broadcasting until his father-in-law, Donald Thurston, owner of Berkshire Broadcasting, called in August of 1985 and asked if he would like to bring his wife, Carolie, and 2-year-old son, Sean, back to the Berkshires. Thurston wanted Colling to try the new position of program manager at WSBS.

He took over last spring and, judging from the response to his "storm package," he's been doing OK. But there have been many tough moments -- an on-air retraction over a mix-up in the coverage of the covered-bridge hassle in Sheffield and complaints from listeners who say there's too much rock-and-roll, too many changes.

He takes the criticism the way he takes his responsibilities: to heart. Does he ever think about giving up and getting out?

"Yeah, all the time."

I sent the article to my mother. Her reaction? "You called me a housewife," she fumed.


GML4 said...

A fun read Bob... thanks for sharing your story!

Ryan said...

Loved this story.

Regarding Radio "the way it was meant to be, and the way it can never be again," I would say that the radio stations in Bush Alaska keep much of this spirit alive.

Between Birthday Call-In shows, reading programs, announcement shows, and other local programming, these stations really embrace their role in bringing the community together. It's a really interesting contrast to radio across most of the rest of the nation.

Not exactly the same as a snowstorm emergency station...but close.


winner said...

Like your blog'S style!! Please keep on working hard. ^^

Beth said...

Simply Amazing! Makes me thing of the early days when my dad would sit quietly in the kitchen listening to the little black transistor radio...the radio that never quit!