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Joplin radio stations become lifeline for tornado-stricken residents

The staffs of six radio stations, based in a one-story building in Joplin, are providing nonstop disaster coverage. Broadcasters are turning into unofficial public information officers as callers ask for information on loved ones or make offers of assistance.

May 25, 2011|By Matt Pearce, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Kimmy Lankford walks with her son Jack, 5, through their neighborhood in Joplin, Mo. A massive tornado passed through the town on Sunday, killing at least 122 people.
Kimmy Lankford walks with her son Jack, 5, through their neighborhood in… (Getty Images )

Reporting from Joplin, Mo. — Radio host Rob Meyer — homeless and haggard since a tornado destroyed his house Sunday — had another shift coming up soon. He had slept for only five of the previous 48 hours, filling the rest with coffee and soda. And talk.

Hours and hours of talk, in fact, many with the confused and enterprising residents of Joplin. Callers' voices broke as they asked if anyone had heard news about their daughters, friends and nephews who had disappeared during the storm or its aftermath. Others asked seemingly unanswerable self-help questions, such as: If the bank is destroyed, how can I get my safe-deposit box?

And in call after call, many wanted to help — offering to patch damaged roofs, find lost pets, pass out food and water.

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin, Mo.

"We've just been answering phones live and seeing what people have to say," Meyer said.

In a town where Internet and mobile connections have become scarcities after an Old Testament-style disaster crippled new media, Zimmer Radio's untouched towers have made its six stations essential listening.

The stations, based in a one-story building in Joplin, have transformed their staffs into impromptu public health experts and unofficial public information officers, consolidating multiple broadcasts into a single feed of nonstop disaster coverage under the call letters KZRG.

Classic-rock jocks and news talk-show hosts have become on-air first responders.

"All of a sudden, it turned into people looking for loved ones," said Meyer, assistant operations manager. "And we just let it grow."

On late Tuesday night and early Wednesday, questions on the show focused on logistics. Where do I get a permit to enter damaged areas? How do I make a FEMA claim? Callers also passed along the latest survivor tips or staked righteous attempts at fighting misinformation, including one woman who called to say that she and her family were not dead — as had apparently been rumored on Facebook.

Spontaneous charity was rampant. A McDonald's employee called host Randy Brooks, 40, to take an on-air order: three Quarter Pounders for the hosts and a Happy Meal for Brooks' daughter. Another caller offered to bring clothes.

"We feel like we're in the center of a hub with spokes shooting out in every direction," Brooks said. "Information is constantly coming in. The phones never stop ringing."

But a bounty of information has also brought an unaccustomed need for sensitivity.

Meyer, a country music host, is jocular and digressive in person, with a broadcaster's uncanny knack for never leaving a silent space in conversation. His normal reaction to problems, he said, is to make jokes; now, he can't. Some listeners have lost everything, including family members.

"We may be jackasses and funny guys from Monday to Friday, but now we've got to do this," Meyer said.

As he wandered through the station, Chris Hayes, a classic-rock DJ, and Brett James, a country music DJ, were handling the evening's calls about the disaster. Since Sunday, Zimmer radio hosts have been working nonstop in two-person teams, interviewing public officials, insurance executives and at least one lawyer, asking practical questions such as: If your apartment was destroyed in the storm, do you still have to pay rent?

Meyer was broadcasting live Sunday when the twister hit. When he got word that St. John's Regional Medical Center had been struck, he ran outside to a news van to report live from the scene — not knowing that the tornado was still crashing through town.

He said seven members of the radio staff lost their houses. He was one of them.

"We turned north on 26th Street, and it was like we had been zapped into another dimension," he said of the damage. When he reached his house, he saw that the top had been sheared off. Three of his four daughters and his dog, Husker, were home and survived the storm. His girlfriend had been hurt at Wal-Mart, but not critically. He spent much of the night at the hospital before heading back to the station, which would become his de facto home.

"I've been here about 19 hours this stretch," he said Tuesday evening, images of another approaching storm hovering ominously on a TV screen.

Two residents, Gene Thompson and Steve Montgomery, walked up and introduced themselves. They were with the Joplin Family Worship Center; they had 44 spare tarps available, first-come, first-served, over on 7th Street; and, well, could the station make an announcement about it?

"Sure," Meyer said. He paused. "Actually, can you wait a few minutes? Let's have you do it on the air."

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin, Mo.

Pearce is a special correspondent.

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