When wildfires hit California, how did local broadcasters respond?
Local news is important for many reasons, but it's often said that local broadcasters are at their finest when disaster strikes. We've seen this time and again, whether it was the hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico, and Houston, or other crises that impacted communities across the country. And we saw it when wild fires and mud slides hit California. So, what role did broadcasting play in public safety and the response to these months-long disasters? What sort of coordination happened between TV and radio stations and first responders? For the first time, the FCC podcast hits the road as Evan is joined by Mark Danielson, general manager of the News Press Gazette Company, which owns Santa Barbara's KEYT, where this episode was recorded. (Disclaimer)
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Welcome to More Than Seven Dirty Words, the official FCC Podcast. I'm Evan Swarztrauber.
Local news is important for many reasons, but it's often said that local broadcasters are at their finest when disaster strikes. We've seen this time and again, whether it was the recent hurricanes in Florida or Puerto Rico or Houston or other crises that impacted communities across the country. And we saw in December of last year when wild fires and mud slides hit California. So, what role did broadcasting play in public safety and the response to these months long disasters? To find out I went to the source.
We're recording this episode in Santa Barbara at KEYT, better known here at News Channel 3, one of the TV stations closely involved in covering these disasters.
Joining me is Mark Danielson, General Manager of NPG, the News Press Gazette Company which owns this station.
Mark, thanks for joining.
MR. DANIELSON: Glad to be here Evan, sure appreciate it.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So, Mark, according to a cursory search of your LinkedIn page this isn't your first job in the broadcast business. So, in a few words how did you get to be the General Manager of NSPG?
MR. DANIELSON: Well, I've actually been in the business for like 30 years which is kind of hard to believe. Started in a small market in Twins Falls, Idaho, but became a General Manager in Idaho Falls working for News Press Gazette Company back in 2007. So, approaching 11 years as General Manager and move here in 2012 when we acquired the stations from another company.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: All right. So, from Idaho to Santa Barbara. Not the most typical journey but I'm sure you're enjoying the weather just like I am.
So, in December of 2017 the Thomas Fire hit Ventura County. First, what did this fire do to Ventura County and what was News Channel 3's reaction initially?
MR. DANIELSON: It was just devastating. But, of course, in December 4th when that first fire broke out it was around 8:00 in the evening when the first word and images started coming from Santa Palo where the fire started. That's when our news operation first broke in I believe on our website and at that time it was covered like a typical breaking news story. So, nobody could have imaged what was going to become of the Thomas Fire and how it was going to grow over what became 66 days of coverage. So, the fire hit. We went on the air about 9:00 p.m. Pacific Time and continued our coverage through midnight and didn't restart our coverage until the next day. And that's when started to realize what had happened to another area, the Garden Villa in Ventura which really burned to the ground. It was just devastating what happened.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So, of course, you did cover the press conferences from, you know, law enforcement officials. What sort of coordination happens between, you know, a television station and the entities that are responding to the fire, whether it's the fire department or EMS or police or FEMA. I man, what sort of conversations and information sharing goes on between a TV station and those entities?
MR. DANIELSON: Unfortunately, being in this part of the country and this part of California we're really used to covering wild fires. I mean, it's just part of -- almost a part of our DNA now. But because of that we have a really strong relationship with the first responders. They understand our role in it and really we consider each other, we are all part of the first responders. And this is what we do as an organization.
So, you know, it started out with the local PIOs making sure that we were informed, we were covering their news conferences, getting the information directly and reporting it live to all of our viewers. But as that fire started to escalate then more and more resources started coming in from CAL Fire and the organization of the first responders started to become more massive and actually more coordinated with the town hall meetings, sometimes hourly, sometimes, you know, every few hours they would be briefing. We would start covering those events live on all of our platforms, traditional legacy broads, meaning the television station. But also on our digital platforms which this really became, you know, a global story at that time because the viewers and customers were watching what was happening from all parts of the globe.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. And this being the Internet age if you're to in this market and you don't receive those over the air signals you can still follow it. Your reporters were using Facebook Live. Apparently, you also built a website in the wake of this disaster which might not be the most typical thing for a television station but obviously new means of communication. People are relying, you know, more and more on the Internet to get their information. To the extent that they had Internet access, I'm sure a lot of, you know, cell towers and others things were implicated by the fire. But tell us about this website that you guys put up.
MR. DANIELSON: There's so much information that happens during times of disasters. I mean, the information is massive and part of what our role is is to kind of gather that information and put it in a form that a customer or user can find and make it useful in their lives.
One of our most successful things, Oscar put together what we call the Mapper. And really it's as simple as that but it became like a lifeline to so many people wanting to know, okay. Where is the fire at this moment? Where are the evacuation area? And if you live here it's -- if you don't live here it's almost hard to understand about how important that is to get it right. Because, where is the fire at this moment and watching hour by hour as it may be changing or maybe not changing. But where those evacuation areas are or maybe where those evacuations are going to hit next. That became one of the most useful tools that we built that Oscar Flores really built for us on our website. In fact, the customers and our users kept asking for it by, you know, have you updated the map room? Where is the map room? It really became one of the most vital tools out of everything we did. You know, videos, important stories, but knowing where the fire is and where those evacuation lines are became such an important part of what our coverage and content was.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes. I mean, there's a reason that people often say that the information they get from broadcasters can be life or death in situations like this and that's literally true. And, you know, this website provided information about power outages and school closures and air quality and all sorts of different things.
Now, of course, when the fire started spreading towards Santa Barbara that changes things for you. Now it's in our backyard. You're not covering something that's a little bit further away that's still in your market but it's now really starting to get serious. I mean, how did that change the way the station was covering the fire and, you know, what did that mean for you guys given that it was starting to get closer and closer to home?
MR. DANIELSON: Since the fire began on December 4th we were in a mode of being on the air with updates really every hour of the day. But about December 10th, which was a Sunday as the fire started to approach Santa Barbara and Carpinteria then it became an even more major issue as we were getting ready to consider evacuation of parts of Carpinteria. So, our news station went on the air continuously beginning at 4:00 a.m. on that Sunday for about 13-1/2 hours nonstop taking a brief 2 hour break at 6:00 p.m. and then continuing all the way onto the next morning for another 17-1/2 hours ending at 11:30 that day.
When you're in that kind of a mode what we understood is that we had to be there for our customers. Even if at the moment things were calm just being there gave the community a sense of, okay. We know they're watching. We know they're there for us so even in the middle of the night at 2:00 a.m. the viewer ship levels were peaking at levels we had never seen before. Really, I think because we were that security blanket for everybody. And we understood that we had to be there.
Even when the serious danger at that moment passed going into Monday and we ceased our continuous coverage we still knew we had to be there every hour with live updates. When I mean every hour I mean all night long just to be that security blanket for our customers. So that was happening on our legacy property, the television station, but we were continuing to supply content, updating that map room on our digital platforms as well.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And when there's a disaster like this I've heard that, you know, broadcasters kind of set aside their competitive pressures and the day-to-day battle for ads and things like that and really start to cooperate whether it's a radio station or it's a fellow television station, it really seems to be an all hands on deck situation. Was that your experience with the wild fires and the mud slides and what sort of cooperation went on with other entities in the broadcast space?
MR. DANIELSON: What the community started to realize is that in times of a disaster and emergency they had only one place to turn and that's their local broadcaster for news and information because all the other media outlets all over the country they don't have people that live and work and understand the market.
We knew that this is really our home. And it doesn't matter how you're getting the information when life and property are literally at risk. So, what did we do? It didn't matter the cost. We were on continuously. In fact, we were on generator power most of the time. These are the little things that a lot of the community doesn't realize. But just to keep everything on. We were on generator most of the time for sometimes days and days and days. We also reached out to all the broadcast radio stations in the market and we did in a very simple way. On the air was said if you are a radio station please take our signal, you know. You have our permission. A few of them called us personally and said, are you sure? Do you mean it? Absolutely. Because at this point it doesn't matter where they're getting the information from. They just need to get it from. It's not about competitive or call letters or branding at that point. We got to be there for everybody because the community really is depending on us. And, you know, you saw that. You saw, you know, the amount of gratitude and love in the community because, you know, we didn't think twice about it. It wasn't -- I wish I could tell you it was a calculated well-thought out plan, but we knew the community just needed it because some people didn't have power. Some people didn't have cable. Some people couldn't see the television station. Maybe they didn't have Internet. You have to think about in times of disaster those things that we take for granted like Internet access, cellular communication, it may not work. And sometimes the old fashioned legacy broadcast is what work meaning radio and television. People had a way to get those whether they're in their car or even maybe on their other device, an old fashioned radio because they do have those. And they relied on those things. And it was a really powerful thing.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Now, of course, the devastation in terms of the sheer numbers is probably fairly compelling and feel free to share those numbers as well, but, you know, in times of disaster there's often some stories that stick with folks that were involved whether it's from your reporters or others who were on the ground respond. Is there a story or something, you know, from the fires or mud slides that really sticks to you and helps, you know, crystallize the relationship between broadcasters, first responders, the communities they're serving?
MR. DANIELSON: What happened here nobody could have predicted it. We couldn't have prepared really for the kind of catastrophic damage and the tragedy of loss of life. Twenty-three lives were lost as the fires evolved to that happened is the mud slide in Montecito and two people as of today have still not been recovered yet.
But, you know, people rediscovered, you know, the importance of local broadcasts and local news and information. Again, because I think people realize that you can't get that important content information from any other source because it's the local broadcasters. We live here. We work here. These are our families. It's our community, too, and that's what we look at and that's how we felt about it.
Everybody at this organization, you know, I'm so proud of everybody. Everybody rose to the occasion. If you think about working 66 days of coverage that means everybody on staff worked 12-hour shifts for 66 days. Sometimes their own homes were -- they were out of their own homes. We had people -- we had all the hotel rooms we could acquire. I mean, if you can imagine that, a city, people were evacuated. We had out own staff in hotel rooms, sharing rooms because they couldn't get to their home in some cases.
There's a new sense of community. This has always been a tight community but I think the sense of community is stronger than it really has ever been where people -- we need to know who our neighbors are because we're out here to help each other. And that's the kind of feeling that you have today and that's what the felling was like then but it still continues and that effect continues on every moment. Even when I walk down the street today because it's a small town. People will say, Mark, I just want to thank you again for what and your station and everybody did for us during the most horrific time. And how important it was just knowing that you were there. Even at 2:00 or 4:00 in the morning when they turned their TV on we were there.
But, you know, this really impacted, you know, the lives of everybody here. A lot of those victims we knew them. People who worked here for 20, 30, 40 years they were part of not our direct family but friends. There's nothing harder to see what is happening to your community when their homes are literally wiped off their foundation. Children of the community, gone after a moment and something that is so horrific, you know, it forever changed us. I mean, I can't tell it didn't. But just really proud of what our organization has done and how everybody kind of, you know, came together and there's still that sense of community that is stronger than it's every, ever been.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes, and this was a bit of a long slog, I mean. Sometimes with disasters, you know, they're very quick, very deadly and then after a few days the coverage switches to the healing and rebuilding process. But in this case it was, you know, a combination of that but also this went on for 66 days. It was a bit of a slow burn the way that the fires led to mud slides.
And, of course, there are all sorts of lessons learned, you know, whether it's things we could have done better or things we did really well that need to be replicated for the future. But one thing that is particularly interesting about this station is that the next generation of television is on its way and Santa Barbara is one of the first towns to have the 3.0 NextGen TV up and running. Of course, it hasn't been adopted by consumers yet. It's still in a testing phase. But, you know, in addition to 4K and Ultra HD and some of the, you know, fancy shiny aspects of the technology there is a potential for improvements to public safety and better targeting of information. Is that something that comes to mind when you think about the wild fires and the mud slides and, you know, you said it itself. I mean, this is not the last time that communities in California are going to have to deal with these problems unfortunately. But is there a hope that this new generation of television will be able to improve the things that you guys do best which is keeping the community informed of when disaster strikes?
MR. DANIELSON: The 3.0 decision and why we push really hard to make it happen in this market one of the reasons really is because of the disaster that we went through. Because we see some incredible potential, of course, it's going to have lots of things that customers on a daily basis are getting excited about the technology. But in times of disaster being able to alert people in specific zones that technology is real and it can make a difference. But I also see applications where our main broadcast is covering whatever event. Most likely it's going to be a fire again. But at the same time that combination of broadcast and the broadband technology together will allow our users to see all of our different live feeds wherever they may be.
During the Thomas Fire we had five, six live feeds up simultaneously. Our crews were covering the area in addition to what was on the air, the viewers will have access to that if they have a specific need. The future is pretty powerful in what it can provide for disasters and emergency coverage.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Of course, one feature in particular the ability to wake up a sleeping device, that could become particularly important because I know you've talked about how sometimes these disasters strike in the middle of the night and those are precious hours that are potentially being wasted if people are asleep. So, under the new generation of television standard you would in theory be able to wake up every device whether it's a phone, a telephone, an IPAD, etcetera, and start getting that information out immediately.
You know, where do things stand a year later? I know you mentioned there's still two outstanding victims which is obviously terrible. You know, in terms of rebuilding and healing, any thoughts on that and then things you've learned, best practices to share with, you know, listeners who might not live here but things that are generally applicable anywhere when disaster strikes?
MR. DANIELSON: First, the loss of life was certainly tragic and Jack and Lydia are two victims which have not been recovered yet. And I know we're hoping and doing everything they can to continue to find them. But looking at things, looking forward, you know. If I were asked what could another broadcaster do to kind of help prepare or make their coverage, be ready if they can in times of disaster? Relationships with the first responders. Maybe it's the type of community we are. In my 30 years I've never been anywhere that had such a tight relationship with the first responders. Maybe it's because we're not strangers to disasters. We get fires. We get wild fires. But having that relationship with the first responders allows us to get access to information, get it quickly. They trust us. Again, we know them. My kids go to school with them. I mean, it's a family. But you've got to build that relationship. It's got to be more than just an email you send to somebody. Relationships matter.
Another thing that's really important I can offer to broadcasters is make sure all your equipment works. Well, you might thing, well, of course, you would. Well, think about that a little deeper. In times of disaster we -- if this operation and we keep three modes of gathering live content operational. There's many companies out there but we use a bonded cellular service. Live View and Dejaro are probably the two biggest. And they work great day to day. But in times of disaster one of the things that may fail and did and does and has time and time again sometimes those cell towers are wiped out and gone. And that technology which we relied on to cover the Thomas Fire during the mud slide it made it very challenging in Montecito because the towers were in some cases destroyed and that technology didn't work.
We keep two, I'll call them legacy again. Legacy ENG vehicles operational. It uses I'll call it old-fashioned microwave technology. You've got to keep those things running and operational because in those cases of disasters some of the things that you rely on day to day like the Internet it's not always there. So, you got to keep all those things functioning. So, I have ENG. I use bonded cellular technology and I also use -- I had one satellite truck. So, making sure in a small market that the staff knows how to work them, operate those things if they don't do it every day. We have a policy that multiple times a month they got to use the ENG equipment just to make sure it operates correctly and that the technicians understand how to use it. And the same with the satellite.
And the News Department. You know, we have a culture of handling breaking news here because we handle fires it's an unfortunate part of where we live. But relationship with the first responders, keep your equipment running and a news department that has a culture of understanding and handling breaking news. And if you're not in a market that is used to it maybe you need to come up with a breaking news plan or have exercises that test you during times of crisis because you don't want to find out that you're prepared or don't have the infrastructure when your community, your viewers need you the most.
So, those are the things that I recommend people do.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Well, listeners, in case you were wondering I did not fly 3,000 miles just to record a Podcast. I was in Santa Barbara anyway for a wedding. But Mark and I were emailing back and forth about potentially doing one and fortunately this was on my list of places to go anyway. So, it was really great to come visit the station and I'm sure you've received other awards in your career. But I can congratulate you on being the first non-FCC employee that had to interviewed for the Podcast. And also the first non-DC recording of the Podcast. I'm sure that those are very exciting honors for you to add to our wall of plaques.
But that's it for today's show. My guest has been Mark Danielson, General Manager of NPG, the News Press Gazette Company which owns KEYT, the station where we are recording.
Mark, thanks so much for joining.
MR. DANIELSON: Thanks, Evan. It's a pleasure.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: You can find this Podcast in iTunes, Google Play or wherever you get you get your Podcasts. Please leave us a review because it will help others find the show.
Thanks for listening.