By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
“This award is very humbling. It really is,” said Chris Slaughter, assistant news director for CBS’s New Orleans affiliate, WWL-TV, speaking of his station’s receiving a 2005 George Foster Peabody Award. “We didn’t expect it. Nowhere along the line did we think, ‘Wow, we’ve done a good job covering the storm. We could win all kinds of awards.'”
WWL earned the Peabody in recognition of its detailed master plan, an operation that was so comprehensive and effective that the station was able to remain on the air all through Katrina and its aftermath. It was the only New Orleans station that was able to continue broadcasting, and its service to the community was invaluable.
“WWL has always been a real community-oriented station,” Mr. Slaughter said. “From the top down, a lot of the people who work here are longtime New Orleanians. One of the things that we did well from a station point of view was that we did the right things. We made sure the community knew that we knew that this was really about them.”
With that in mind, WWL invested time, money and brainpower in preparations. What would be the best way to cover a disaster like a Category 5 storm? “The station embarked several years ago on a very detailed hurricane plan,” Mr. Slaughter said. “It’s multilayered, triggered by certain events. We have refined and we continue to refine it.” When the time came to implement the plan in August 2005, WWL staff and crew knew their roles and were ready to respond.
“Our WWL team demonstrated their commitment to providing vital local news and information by staying on the air continuously during the Hurricane Katrina crisis,” said Dunia Shive, president of media operations for station owner Belo. “We are extremely proud of WWL’s extraordinary efforts, and this Peabody Award is truly well deserved. Belo’s WWL employees overcame tremendous operational obstacles through advance planning and a fierce determination to get their jobs done.”
That commitment to the job began on day one for every employee. “We have a standard procedure when you come to work here; you bring three days’ worth of clothes,” Mr. Slaughter said. “Some of our people were left with nothing but those three days’ worth of clothes after Katrina. I’m talking about a significant number. … Heck, I’m still not back in my house. We have several people who’ve lost everything. It was a challenge to cover the storm that had wiped you out personally. Our staff focused on what we had to do.”
The work was especially difficult given the loss of life all around them and the devastation of the city they love, but WWL staffers remained vigilant.
How were they able to focus on the job at hand? “That harkens back to the two most important words: the plan,” Mr. Slaughter said. “The plan didn’t involve just us. The plan was corporatewide. They had provisions there for the corporation to get crews from other Belo stations, to send it supplies, to deliver diesel fuel. The plan was layer upon layer upon layer of details. After the storm hit, we had this influx of technicians, reporters, cameramen, HR people. … There were so many things that you just wouldn’t think about that you have to take care of. Food! We had to feed the staff, three meals a day, every day.”
Mr. Slaughter said credit for the Peabody win probably starts with his bosses. “Years ago, [when] we had to build a new transmitter facility, the corporate engineers from Belo said, ‘We want to build a new one and we want to build it right.’ They took a lot of input from people. Withstanding a hurricane was high on their list of requirements. The tower was tested to stand through high winds and the building itself was put up 14 feet above sea level on concrete piers. It’s a bunker, a cement building with real thick walls. It had a huge diesel tank inside the building to generate heavy-duty power. You could exist in that building for a very long time on your own.”
Attention to its responsibilities and following the plan served the WWL team well; it succeeded where other stations didn’t. “The other [stations] had their own plans,” Mr. Slaughter said. “I don’t know if they were as extensive as ours. I know in one or two instances there was no plan for after the storm. Employees weren’t clear on what was expected of them. Another station’s plan was to fall back, to cover the story from abroad. Only time will tell whether it worked for them or not in a competitive landscape. We think our plan was very good and hope that the viewers liked what we did. We provided a service and we hope they’ll stay with us.”
WWL’s commitment to service reached new heights during and, especially, after the hurricane. “Much of the population couldn’t see our air signal, so we streamed on our Web page, and one day alone we had 15 million hits.” he said. “We had forums set up where people could find family members. You could post, ‘Does anybody know about the Smiths from Belle Chasse?’ That really worked. For us, the Internet came of age in this particular instance. We truly became a multiplatform content provider. We were on the air, on cable, on direct satellite, radio stations were carrying us, other Belo stations were carrying us on their digital channels and we were online.”
Before Aug. 29, 2005, the city of New Orleans was synonymous with good times, happy people and joyful parties. When Katrina struck, the image of the city and region was forever altered. As the storm wrecked homes and buildings, the levees broke and water from the Gulf, Lake Pontchartrain and the skies overhead inundated New Orleans. Some observers wondered how much the devastation and loss of life might have been lessened had the government had a better plan in place-if New Orleans as a whole had been as prepared as WWL.
“The city’s plan was a mess,” Mr. Slaughter said. “Last year at this time, before hurricane season, we asked city officials if they could get the people out if they don’t have cars or transportation, or if they wait too long. They said yes, they had a plan. Well, that obviously failed and it cost people their lives. Somebody dropped the ball in a big way, and that’s not confined to city government. There’s enough blame to go around the government on all levels a couple of times over.”