After this week’s unprecedented Texas freeze slammed Houston Sunday night, country radio morning-show host George Lindsey lost power at his home and moved into the offices of his station, 100.3 The Bull. At first, he and his wife, Deanna, were the only people in the studio, so while he talked on the air, she pitched in to research critical news about power outages, line up interviews with public officials and take phone calls from listeners. “We had calls everywhere — north, south, east, west — ‘Can you tell me about this?’ ‘My mom and dad live 25 miles away, can you tell me if they have power?’” Lindsey recalls. “It was heart-breaking. It was gut-wrenching. You kind of let people talk.”
As Texas suffered through five days of cold and snow that burst frozen pipes, took out the electrical supply and left millions in dangerously frigid temperatures, radio staffers struggled to remain on the air while having to provide listeners with emergency content. Lindsey and 10 other employees at the Entercom-owned station moved couches and tables and lived together at the station offices from Monday morning to Thursday night. Gavin Spittle, brand manager for 105.3 The Fan in Dallas, had to frantically relocate studio equipment in order to hook into power generators on different floors of the station building. And Entercom’s four stations in Austin, including Majic 95.5 and Mix 94.7, endured power outages leading to five or six 30-second bursts of dead air due to transmitters losing power and switching to backup generators.
“It was a scramble. We did not expect it to last as long as it did,” says Johnny Chiang, operations director for Cox Media Group’s four stations in Houston, including country 93Q and classic-rock stations 106.9 and 107.5 The Eagle. “We had almost the entire staff at the hotel across the street.”
The three-person morning show for Austin pop station Mix 94.7 mostly maintained power but struggled on other fronts: One of the hosts, Sara Osburn, was stranded in Florida after traveling for an event and had to rent a car; another, Alex Franco, lost power at his home and had to intermittently keep his family warm in a car in their driveway. Because co-host Brad Booker was able to travel to the station, the show could broadcast without interruption — shifting focus from its typical entertainment news to how listeners could access local emergency services.
“Our show is very entertainment-based, very relationship-driven. We reined back quite a few segments and focused more on what was happening,” Booker says. “Radio is still the No. 1 way of getting content.”
Adds Sean Pendergast, a morning-show co-host for Entercom’s Sports Radio 610 in Houston: “We’re a sports station, so we want to be escapism for people, but when stuff is so dire, you want to remind people of things they should be doing or can be doing.”
While Sports Radio 610 did not lose power in Houston, most employees were marooned at home and unable to report to work. Pendergast was one of the exceptions, digging out an old ski coat from his time in Colorado to walk the 2.5 mile-commute from his high-rise apartment. “My producer, who normally would be looking at me through the window, was at his house controlling the board through the internet,” he says. “I’m doing this without being able to see my producer and I’m only seeing my co-host on Zoom.”
At 100.3 The Bull in Houston, engineers were mostly prepared. They had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on hand to keep the generators going. Crammed together in the studio, George Lindsey and the other 10 on-site employees were able to maintain COVID-19 safety protocols by checking in via a company temperature-and-vital-signs app. For his show, Lindsey interviewed local emergency experts, like reps from CultureMap Houston, which provides information about free meals and other emergency services.
“For a while, the cell towers down here were malfunctioning due to the freezing rain,” Lindsey says. “We got people saying, ‘I’m sitting in my car to get information.’ It was sobering to think people were sitting in their car just to get caught up on what’s going on.”