Satellite radio can pull in just about any brand of music to tickle one’s fancy these days.
Facebook and other social networks enable one to chat with friends anywhere across the globe in a nano-second and converse almost as if they were seated around the same table.
Yet, when the chips are down, in a real crisis that engulfs a huge area, when the computers fall silent and the network radio providers suddenly vanish, as in the major power outage in late June and early July, local radio came through in a big way to save the day.
Such was the case for station WQAZ, a family-run facility in this small community of Fayette County, thrown almost entirely in the dark when a derecho roared through southern West Virginia counties with a vengeance June 29.
“People told us they were sitting with neighbors listening to the radio like the old days,” says former state Sen. Shirley Love, D-Fayette, who got his start as a broadcaster in his native Oak Hill at a small radio station decades ago.
“It was a return to radio at its roots.”
For more than a week, listeners bombarded WQAZ with pleas for help, and owner Tom Syner, aided by wife Shari, Love and others, among them Eugene “Doc” Wallace, obliged with constant updates about gas stations that were up and running momentarily, and where to buy ice to keep food from spoilage, or critical insulin for diabetics safe from the heat.
“People helping people,” Love said.
“It was just good, old-fashioned community taking care of community.”
When the power dried up, throwing the region in the dark, Syner quickly drove to a gas station at Tamarack, near the Beckley exit of the West Virginia Turnpike, and filled up four, five-gallon gas cans to feed a generator to get WQAZ back on the air the next morning.
At the outset, Syner issued his personal cell phone number so outage victims could begin calling in information to share with his listeners, not only in Fayette County, but adjoining Raleigh, since WQAZ has a transmitter in Beckley, making it accessible there at 101.5 FM.
“There were a lot of frightened people,” Syner said.
Then Frontier Communications swung into action, using one of its generators to feed a land line telephone into the radio station, and from that point on, WQAZ became a conduit for a steady stream of tips called in by listeners on where to get gas, ice, food and other necessities.
“We counted 722 calls in one day,” Syner said. “That’s about as much as I could talk.”
To maintain his voice in the eight-day ordeal, Syner downed cup after cup of hot tea.
“One elderly lady was in tears, and crying,” he said. “She and her husband couldn’t get out.”
But the husband was creative, converting his auto battery into a temporary means of feeding electricity into the house.
Even with that innovation, Syner was concerned about the woman’s health, given temperatures that slipped past 90 degrees for several days, so the Rev. Clarence Grigsby, pastor of Landmark Baptist Church, upon hearing of her plight, drove to the house with food and ice.
Before long, many were caught up in the massive rescue effort, including Sheriff Steve Kessler and his fellow Fayette County deputies, using squad cars to deliver ice and food to the marooned.
“It took a crisis for me to really see how people care about other people,” Syner said. “It was amazing.”
WQAZ debuted at 98.5 FM on Bridge Day in 2004 and its federal license stipulates it as a community service station. The power outage demonstrated just how a small, 100-watt station, operated in the Syners’ home, could be used for just that purpose.
Frontier’s director of operations in Fayette County, Greg Bailey, teamed with his crew to keep a generator running that allowed WQAZ to maintain its telephone line and keep the communications open for an audience caught up in the wake of the damaging derecho.
And the listeners in both counties showed their gratitude to the station.
“People came over with cards and letters, saying, ‘We would be lost without you,’” Syner said. “That was very humbling.”
If any one statistic told the tale of the storm, noted Syner, it came in the sale of 400 generators within one hour at Lowe’s in Fayetteville.
Love’s voice fueled interest among listeners who remembered his days at the old “Saturday Night Wrestlin’” show at WOAY-TV in Oak Hill, and when he began talking, the audience increased, Syner noted.
Once during the ordeal, Love’s successor in the Senate, Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, joined the effort via cell phone and arranged for Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to join in. It just happened Manchin was tuned in to WQAZ at the time.
“I don’t care what anybody says about big companies and their lack of caring, Frontier Communications was right there with us every step of the way,” Love said.
“They knew how important it was to be hearing from neighbors and helping neighbors help each other. Greg (Bailey) was Frontier for us and you couldn’t have picked a better guy to represent Frontier Communications.”
In its infancy, radio meant one thing — families clustered around the huge, wooden, table models, listening to stories and sharing information.
“You know, nowadays a lot of people don’t even realize they have local radio stations still going,” Love said.
“With satellite radio, you can pick and choose what you want to listen to, but in a disaster, it’s not much help listening to the rock ‘n’ roll ‘70s station or a spa music station,” he said.
On occasion, the emergency crew at Syner’s station heard from a small fry, 9 or 10.
“I think for them it was a good way to let them know it was going to be okay, not to be scared or worried, and they got a thrill from hearing themselves as well,” Love said.
“Finding the bright spot of a child’s laughter was a really good thing in the mess of this disaster.”
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