The recent passing of Hurricane Irene reminds me of similar hurricane warnings along the northeast coast in the fall of 1985 for a storm called Gloria. I was the News Director for WMVY FM, a 3,000 watt radio station out of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Our audience was Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
WMVY was a small station. It was the type of a station where you knew a lot of your listeners. It was the type of a station where the subject of a story might call up because a friend of his, who I also knew, had heard the story I’d just done about him and he’d ask me to run it during my next report so he could hear it himself and I would. I should point out that in 1985 we did not archive things online. As a matter of fact, there was no online. There was no internet.
In addition to having no internet, I had no wire service. By wire service, I don’t mean Wi-Fi. I mean Reuters or A.P. This meant all the copy I said on air, I had to write. I had a person who covered an afternoon drive position who also covered some local meetings from which she’d create pieces I could plug into my broadcasts and I had some stringers. We were also part of the Mutual Radio Network, which meant that in addition to an hourly report, I could run their coverage of any national story. I could not interact with the network, which meant I was really only set up to cover local stories.
For example, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, it was such a big story, I had to interrupt programming and lead every report with it. After the initial explosion when the Challenger fell from the sky, but before they started assessing the cause, the next story was going to be when the astronauts were officially pronounced dead. You couldn’t say they were dead before they said they were dead even though everybody was saying they were dead. And they were dead. Everybody knew they were dead. But you couldn’t say it---until they said it.
A news conference was scheduled at exactly the same time as I was scheduled to go on the air and I knew they were going to announce that the astronauts were dead. The only way I could follow the story was to have a television in the booth turned down very low with Dan Rather covering the press conference, while I read the other news. You go about your business, Dan. I’ll go about mine. It was like having an earpiece in my ear, only much bigger. You might say Dan was an unpaid stringer. And sure enough, as soon as Dan Rather announced that the astronauts were dead, so did I. What a scoop!
So when Hurricane Gloria showed up as a category 4 storm, it was a big story. It was a big national story. My connections with the local selectmen probably wouldn’t do me much good. It was definitely the type of story where, in those days, you needed a wire service if you wanted to know what was going on, so you’d have something to say on air. At one point we hooked up the Weather Channel, but its coverage was national and not specific to Cape Cod and the Islands. And who watches that station, anyway? Not me.
On the morning of the storm I received a telephone call from some LA TV news producer for a Ken and Barbie type noon news show, who summered on the Vineyard, and he thought it would be neat and keen to call me during the broadcast to get an update on the storm from the Vineyard. Say, that did sound like a good idea. Good luck. The only way I could really tell what was going on with the storm on the Vineyard was to look out the window. And even then, the station was surrounded by trees, so you never really got a great look at the sky. I said, “Sure!”
This was in the days before graphics took over news shows, but they were just starting, calling Gloria “Stormwatch ’85!” I felt like I was getting in on the ground floor. And I was. “The world will end at ten. Film at eleven.”
The thing about this storm is that it never materialized. I mean, there was some rain, but not much. It didn’t live up to the hype. In preparation for the storm, hatches got battened, windows were taped and vehicles were prohibited from being on the road unless you were police, fire or press. That’s right. I got to be out in the storm. That certainly would have been one way to report about it, but not for what they paid me. I stayed indoors and looked out the window or watched the Weather Channel.
So when the producer from the Ken and Barbie LA noon TV news show called up, I was ill prepared. What did I care? They weren’t paying me. This wasn’t my big break. When I heard the phone ring I looked out the widow. “Yup,” I said to myself. “It’s dark out there. It looks like it’s gonna rain. “It ain’t a fit [day] out for man or beast.”
So it turned out this was a big story in L.A. Rain in L.A. was a big story. They were gonna lead their noon news with the hurricane. “They’re gonna throw to you, James Tripp, to find out what’s going on in the eye of the storm.”
“Sounds, like a good idea,” I assured him, although it sounded like a horrible idea. I didn’t know what was going on. The window was starting to steam up.
This producer did less prep with me than a segment producer from the Tonight Show. A Tonight Show segment producer would be like, “Okay, so what other storms have you done? How can Ken and Barbie set up your 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 found out I didn’t have an opening bit. He wasn’t smart enough to ask. What could you expect from an off-islander who just summered on the Vineyard?
So I could hear on the phone their noon news theme starting and a roll call of all the Ken and Barbies on the show and the first story is Gloria “We now go,” says Ken, “To WMVY News Director James Tripp, who is on Martha’s Vineyard in the heart of the storm. Welcome James.”
“Thanks Ken. It’s good to be here with you and Barbie.”
“James, can you tell us what it’s like back there?”
“Well, it’s really not so bad, Ken. We’re still kind of 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, “According to our Accuweather Satellite map, the storm has already passed over your region.”
“Oh, really?” I said. “I guess it wasn’t so bad.”
Clearly, this was not what Barbie or Ken wanted to hear. 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 the station, and I can only imagine it’s off all over the island.”
At this point Ken said, “We’re going to go to a commercial. We’ll be right back.” And they were but I wasn’t. Oh well. I wondered if that segment producer would ever be able to summer on the Vineyard again. Not my problem.
The only thing that could have made that lead segment worse was a version of Van Morrison’s Gloria, which everyone seemed to be playing that week including WMVY. It’s a good thing James Taylor or Carly Simon hadn’t recorded a version of 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 afternoon person was on air for the rest of the day. I stuck around and filed a story that I had run on WMVY with the Mutual Network, which they failed to buy. It was a story about a bunch of people at one of the island shelters throwing a Hurricane Party. A Mutual Radio Network editor deemed it “unprofessional.” The storm was not a party. The storm was a disaster.
When the County Commissioners declared that the disaster was over, I announced it over the air and my day was done. I drove the deserted streets of the island. There were no other police, fire or press vehicles. I thought about the day and I thought 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.