BOB GARFIELD: When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, radio stations in the area were devastated along with everything else. But an unprecedented collaboration emerged from the wreckage. Within hours of the storm, rival radio conglomerates, Clear Channel and Entercom, had formed the United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans, 75 miles from the Big Easy in Baton Rouge. It's been going 24/7 ever since. KERA's Bill Zeeble reports.
BILL ZEEBLE: In New Orleans, 50,000 watt WWL 870 AM is the designated station for emergency information. It's a top rated broadcaster in the Crescent City, with conservative talk stars like Rush Limbaugh and a local team of reporters. Dave Cohen is the News Director, who's worked at the Entercom powerhouse for eight years.
DAVE COHEN: We stayed on the air throughout the storm. Of our six Entercom stations, at all times at least four were on the air.
BILL ZEEBLE: Eventually though, they had to evacuate. Katrina threshed every broadcaster in town, but Clear Channel, with its seven New Orleans stations and deep corporate pockets, had options. Dick Lewis, Clear Channel's regional vice president, evacuated personnel to the company's Baton Rouge office. He hired a helicopter to fly technicians into New Orleans to fix a transmitter.
DICK LEWIS: - and then used the helicopter to ferry people out, and then the, the flooding broke out, and the civil disobedience. My fear was that we would have people dead, did everything we that we could possibly do to get them out, and we got everybody out.
BILL ZEEBLE: By then, says Lewis, Clear Channel and Entercom executives had decided the only way to keep broadcasting vital emergency information was to work together. Entercom's WWL had the New Orleans news operation. Clear Channel, with only music stations in the Crescent City, had studios in Baton Rouge. The competitors turned partners in a mission that became intensely personal.
DICK LEWIS: It's one of the more unusual things, where in television they want to be the exclusive reporter; radio, we're different. This is about the lady who called in the middle of the night and said, "I couldn't get 911 to answer. I'm in the attic with my babies. The water's rising. Can you get me help?" We had the Louisiana State Police stationed in our building, and we carried that information and that address to them. They took it to the National Guard. We don't know that the lady was saved or not, but we know that we were the place that she turned to for help, and we did all that we knew how to do.
BILL ZEEBLE: The partnership now airs on WWL, with other Entercom and Clear Channel stations simulcasting some of the information.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans, a service of the big 870, WWL. FM 98.5., WYLD, Entercom Communications. And Clear Channel Radio -
MONICA PIERRE: I'm not feeling anyone saying, "All right, you do music, we do news, let us take the lead."
BILL ZEEBLE: Monica St. Pierre works at WQUE in New Orleans, Clear Channel's hip hop and R&B station. She says the partnership is working.
MONICA PIERRE: And I've seen people who were music jocks rise to the occasion. I've seen people who weren't talk show hosts get from behind the scenes and get on the air and rise to the occasion. So there are times when it's bigger than any one person. You know what you have to do.
JEFF MAUMUS: It's beyond a job. It's beyond a job.
BILL ZEEBLE: Jeff Maumus is WWL's Executive Producer.
JEFF MAUMUS: People tell you from everywhere, from the politicians to the police, to your listeners who say, "You saved us."
BILL ZEEBLE: Maumus was producing when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called the show.
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: Every day that we delay, people are dying. This is ridiculous. [OVERTALK]
JEFF MAUMUS: You don't have to, you don't [OVERLAPPING VOICES]
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: And I don't want to see anybody do any more goddamn press conferences.
JEFF MAUMUS: We don't - [OVERTALK]
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: Don't do another press conference until the resources are in this city. Don't tell me 40,000 people are coming here! They're not here.
BILL ZEEBLE: Clear Channel's Dick Lewis thinks numerous rebroadcasts of Nagin's appearance is part of the reason President Bush has been to the Crescent City more than half a dozen times. In the weeks since Katrina, United Broadcasters has continued taking calls from hurricane victims, hosting numerous officials and running public service announcements, from insurance information to job opportunities. Lewis is also convinced none of this would have happened without FCC rule changes a decade ago that let one company own many stations in a market.
DICK LEWIS: It's because of the consolidation that Clear Channel and Entercom have the resources to do this. If it were as it was prior to consolidation and we were all small independent companies, we'd be off the air. We'd be bankrupt. We'd be gone.
DAVE COHEN: There are valid criticisms and debates to be had over allowing one company to own so many radio stations.
BILL ZEEBLE: Again, WWL news director Dave Cohen.
DAVE COHEN: But in this case, there's no way this could have happened, no way, had we not had two big media companies that owned this many radio stations.
BILL ZEEBLE: Clear Channel's Dick Lewis expects the cost of United Broadcasters to reach into the millions once the accountants go over the books. Three hundred people now crowd the Baton Rouge office that used to hold a hundred. And mobile homes in the field next door house displaced New Orleans staff. Meanwhile, revenue has dropped to zero since most ads have been replaced by public service announcements. But despite the mounting costs, Lewis says there's no talk of pulling the plug on United Broadcasters.
DICK LEWIS: There is no clock. There is no calendar. Serve the public, save the people.
BILL ZEEBLE: In recent years, big radio conglomerates have come under fire on Capitol Hill. Clear Channel especially had become almost a poster child for the perils of media consolidation. WWL's Dave Cohen applauds the public spirit exhibited by Entercom and Clear Channel, which acted so quickly to provide a crucial service. But he also notes that those companies surely would have factored in all that priceless goodwill and the likelihood that generosity now will pay big dividends later. For On the Media, I am Bill Zeeble. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the networks give up on Saturday nights. And in the Middle East, Ramadan means a month of must see TV.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR. (FUNDING CREDITS)