The recent passing of Hurricane Irene reminds me of similarhurricane warnings along the northeast coast in the fall of 1985 for a stormcalled Gloria. I was the News Director for WMVY FM, a 3,000 watt radio stationout of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Our audience was Cape Cod and the islandsof Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
WMVY was a small station. It was the type of astation where you knew a lot of your listeners. It was the type of a stationwhere the subject of a story might call up because a friend of his, who I alsoknew, had heard the story I’d just done about him and he’d ask me to run itduring my next report so he could hear it himself and I would. I should pointout that in 1985 we did not archive things online. As a matter of fact, therewas no online. There was no internet.
In addition to having no internet, I had no wireservice. By wire service, I don’t mean Wi-Fi. I mean Reuters or A.P. This meantall the copy I said on air, I had to write. I had a person who covered anafternoon drive position who also covered some local meetings from which she’dcreate pieces I could plug into my broadcasts and I had some stringers. We werealso part of the Mutual Radio Network, which meant that in addition to anhourly report, I could run their coverage of any national story. I could notinteract with the network, which meant I was really only set up to cover localstories.
For example, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded,it was such a big story, I had to interrupt programming and lead every report withit. After the initial explosion when the Challenger fell from the sky,but before they started assessing the cause, the next story was going to bewhen the astronauts were officially pronounced dead. You couldn’t say they weredead before they said they were dead even though everybody was sayingthey were dead. And they were dead. Everybody knew they were dead. But youcouldn’t say it—until they said it.
Anews conference was scheduled at exactly the same time as I was scheduled to goon the air and I knew they were going to announce that the astronauts weredead. The only way I could follow the story was to have a television in thebooth turned down very low with Dan Rather covering the press conference, whileI read the other news. You go about your business, Dan. I’ll go about mine. It was like having an earpiece in my ear, onlymuch bigger. You might say Dan was an unpaid stringer. And sure enough, as soonas Dan Rather announced that the astronauts were dead, so did I. What a scoop!
Sowhen Hurricane Gloria showed up as a category 4 storm, it was a big story. Itwas a big national story. My connections with the local selectmen probablywouldn’t do me much good. It was definitely the type of story where, in thosedays, you needed a wire service if you wanted to know what was going on, soyou’d have something to say on air. At one point we hooked up the WeatherChannel, but its coverage was national and not specific to Cape Cod and theIslands. And who watches that station, anyway? Not me.
Onthe morning of the storm I received a telephone call from some LA TV newsproducer for a Ken and Barbie type noon news show, who summered on theVineyard, and he thought it would be neat and keen to call me during thebroadcast to get an update on the storm from the Vineyard. Say, that did soundlike a good idea. Good luck. The only way I could really tell what was going onwith the storm on the Vineyard was to look out the window. And even then, thestation was surrounded by trees, so you never really got a great look at thesky. I said, “Sure!”
Thiswas in the days before graphics took over news shows, but they were juststarting, calling Gloria “Stormwatch ’85!” I felt like I was getting in on theground floor. And I was. “The world willend at ten. Film at eleven.”
The thing about this storm is that it nevermaterialized. I mean, there was some rain, but not much. It didn’t live up tothe hype. In preparation for the storm, hatches got battened, windows weretaped and vehicles were prohibited from being on the road unless you werepolice, fire or press. That’s right. I got to be out in the storm. Thatcertainly would have been one way to report about it, but not for what they paidme. I stayed indoors and looked out the window or watched the Weather Channel.
So when the producer from the Ken and Barbie LA noonTV news show called up, I was ill prepared. What did I care? They weren’tpaying me. This wasn’t my big break. When I heard the phone ring I looked outthe widow. “Yup,” I said to myself. “It’s dark out there. It looks like it’sgonna rain. “It ain’t a fit [day] out for man or beast.”
So it turned out this was a big story in L.A. Rainin L.A. was a big story. They were gonna lead their noon news with thehurricane. “They’re gonna throw to you, James Tripp, to find out what’s goingon in the eye of the storm.”
“Sounds, like a good idea,” I assured him, althoughit sounded like a horrible idea. I didn’t know what was going on. The windowwas starting to steam up.
This producer did less prep with me than a segmentproducer from the Tonight Show. A Tonight Show segment producer would belike, “Okay, so what other storms have you done? How can Ken and Barbie set upyour lead? What’s your closing bit? Do you have any storm dates in the future?”If he asked just one question, “What’s your closing bit?” He would have foundout I didn’t have an opening bit. He wasn’t smart enough to ask. What could youexpect from an off-islander who just summered on the Vineyard?
So I could hear on the phone their noon news themestarting and a roll call of all the Ken and Barbies on the show and the firststory is Gloria “We now go,” says Ken, “To WMVY News Director James Tripp, whois on Martha’s Vineyard in the heart of the storm. Welcome James.”
“Thanks Ken. It’s good to be here with you andBarbie.”
“James, can you tell us what it’s like back there?”
“Well, it’s really not so bad, Ken. We’re still kindof waiting for the storm to hit, but nothing’s happened so far.”
I could tell Ken and Barbie were a little put off. Clearly,they had access to information I did not. “But James,” said Barbie, “Accordingto our Accuweather Satellite map, the storm has already passed over yourregion.”
“Oh, really?” I said. “I guess it wasn’t so bad.”
Clearly, this was not what Barbie or Ken wanted tohear. I felt bad for them. At this exact moment, we lost power at the station.And in my best Ted Baxter voice I said, “Ken, we’ve just lost power in thestation, and I can only imagine it’s off all over the island.”
At this point Ken said, “We’re going to go to acommercial. We’ll be right back.” And they were but I wasn’t. Oh well. Iwondered if that segment producer would ever be able to summer on the Vineyardagain. Not my problem.
The only thing that could have made that leadsegment worse was a version of Van Morrison’s Gloria, which everyone seemed to be playing that week includingWMVY. It’s a good thing James Taylor or Carly Simon hadn’t recorded a versionof that platter or it would have been in a constant rotation.
So I had destroyed Ken and Barbie’s noon broadcast.My work was done. I had finished my own broadcasts for the day. My afternoonperson was on air for the rest of the day. I stuck around and filed a storythat I had run on WMVY with the Mutual Network, which they failed to buy. Itwas a story about a bunch of people at one of the island shelters throwing aHurricane Party. A Mutual Radio Network editor deemed it “unprofessional.” Thestorm was not a party. The storm was a disaster.
When the County Commissioners declared that thedisaster was over, I announced it over the air and my day was done. I drove thedeserted streets of the island. There were no other police, fire or pressvehicles. I thought about the day and Ithought about Ken and Barbie. Poor Ken and Barbie. It was pretty funny.
Still, I felt a little bad. Their noon broadcast,Pacific Standard Time, seemed important to them. It was not so important to me.Maybe being a reporter wasn’t for me. Maybe I should be a stand-up comedian.