Stations get creative to aid N.O. diaspora

When the thousands of New Orleans evacuees living in Reunion Arena in Dallas look up at the Jumbotron, they see the familiar faces of their hometown newscasters Karen Swensen and Dennis Woltering.

They’re in Dallas but watching local news about New Orleans due to a special arrangement between Belo Corp.’s WWL-TV and a local cable channel the company owns in Dallas.

WWL, the CBS affiliate in New Orleans, was the only station to broadcast continually through the storm and its aftermath.

But in the weeks after the storm, WWL faces the same challenge all the other local affiliates face as they work to rebuild their businesses: how to reach a community that has scattered across the Southwest and beyond.

Local television is a lifeline to the communities affected by the disaster. While the national cable and broadcast nets focus on the overall picture, local TV provides more focused information: Is my neighborhood still under water? What identification do I need to get into the city? Where are services being provided?

Initially, WWL’s signal was available to the blessed few on high ground with a generator or a battery-powered TV. As Katrina approached, the staff relocated to Baton Rouge and now broadcasts news out of a public television station there, KLPB.

But with New Orleans’ population dispersed, stations devised clever ways to reach their audiences.

WWL put out a request to NAB members to carry their signal on cable or satellite as a digital multicast; 30 stations took them up on it. Many more people are watching on the Web.

Hearst-Argyle’s NBC affiliate WDSU survived the hurricane but was wiped out by the flood and went dark for a week. Now it produces news programs out of Hearst-Argyle stations in Orlando, Fla., and Jackson, Miss., and runs a news operation in downtown New Orleans with a 15,000-gallon diesel generator.

WDSU’s signal is being carried in New Orleans by a Paxson station; in Jackson and Monroe, La., via Time Warner Cable; and in Baton Rouge through a deal with a local independent station.

“We have listened closely to where the evacuees were moving and set up distribution agreements in Houston, Jackson and Baton Rouge to carry WDSU’s news,” said Hearst-Argyle Television exec VP Terry Mackin. “Those were the three cities where a disproportionate number of the refugees were housed.”

Many displaced viewers are watching WDSU’s signal over the Web, where traffic spiked from its daily average of 200,000 to 4.1 million as the storm rolled through. Site has averaged 800,000 daily visitors since then.

Emmis’ New Orleans Fox affiliate WVUE was back on the air as of Monday and broadcasting at 10% of its licensed power. Station is being carried by DirecTV, and the staff is working from Emmis-owned WALA in Mobile, Ala., to produce 15-minute newscasts updated every few hours.

Ads return

The effort to reach the New Orleans diaspora will have renewed importance this week as stations start airing advertisements for the first time since the hurricane.

“There are companies that have called to ask when they can get on the air,” Mackin said. “Some want to communicate with their employees or just let them know their business is back up and running.”

As for when to resume sales, Mackin said, “We decided to listen to the market and make the decision when the time seemed right.”

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