Share this article

print logo

Sean Kirst: A WNY voice guides N.C. listeners through Florence

The sense of companionship helped draw Eric Medler into radio.

As a high school student in Brockport, long before mobile phones or the internet, he used to flip the dial to radio station WCMF, out of Rochester. Medler would settle back in his room and listen to Dave Kane, a rock ’n’ roll personality who is still going strong on-air with WCMF, decades later.

For the teenager, Kane turned into a familiar presence, his voice triggering a kind of radio intimacy that can sometimes seem lost amid the overwhelming deluge of digital sounds and messages we live with today.

Yet Medler is part of a fierce and necessary revival of that feeling at WWQQ, "The Double Q 101," a country station in Wilmington, N.C. Over the past few days, he has witnessed the way a voice crackling from a radio can again become intensely immediate – at least when that voice brings you what you need in the aftermath of a hurricane.

“The more severe the storm,” Medler said, “the more relevant the old technology becomes.”

He and 14 or 15 other staff members have basically stayed at the station since Saturday, sleeping on air mattresses and living out of duffel bags. Tuesday, Medler was hoping he would get his first shower in more than three days once he finished his next shift on the air.

Medler and his on-air partner, Sandra McClammy, have been going three hours live and six hours off, a 24/7 routine shared by a team of broadcasters, all driven by the idea that their station is a lifeline of comfort and information.

Around them, the wind and drenching rains of Hurricane Florence flooded roads, lifted rivers and tore down power lines throughout the Carolinas. For those who have not been able to evacuate, everyday life is often an exercise in paralysis. Medler, even before he started describing the day-to-day routine at the station, offered this proviso:

His vigil is nothing, he said, compared to what so many have endured in the storm. People have been killed, including a mother and child in Wilmington who died when a tree fell at their home. His thoughts are with those families, with stranded residents, with anyone at risk.

A single tower, voices of comfort for a region: WWQQ in Wilmington keeps broadcasting in aftermath of Hurricane Florence. (Photo courtesy of Eric Medler)

The heroes, Medler emphasized, are first responders fighting their way to people isolated by the damage, or utility workers attempting to bring power back to a wounded region, or everyday families doing their best to cope amid loss and suffering. The station, he said, has been urging anyone who wants to help to visit www.rebuild.nc.gov.

At WWQQ, Medler sends his voice across Hanover County and a little beyond via the one 600-watt tower the station still has in action after the storm, a tower standing beyond the parking lot. On Monday morning, Medler said one of the station engineers made it to a hardware store, found a part he desperately needed and used it to ramp up the power and extend the broadcast range, just a bit.

At this point, just a bit matters.

It matters, say, if you’re in a line waiting to fill your gasoline tank outside a Costco, and that line stretches forward until it comes to a vanishing point, and nothing seems to be moving. Finally, you call the Double Q from your car and you ask live, on the air: Do you know anything about this? Are they still pumping gas up there, or are we just waiting for nothing?

A guy from the front of the line hears you on the radio, and he calls in and says, yes, they’re doing some work up here right now on the pumps, but there’s still gas and the line will be moving again soon.

So you hang in there and get your gas, only because a voice you trust has answered your question.

That is, to put it mildly, throwback stuff.

"Information," Medler said, "is the enemy of fear."

He has been at this for a long time, but it is fair to say that never in his career has he felt such a sense of purpose.

The calls, he said, continue throughout the day.

We need gas. We need ice. We need a pharmacy.

Is this road open? Is there any way to get through? How high have the rivers climbed?

There are also specific worries, such as a call about an elderly woman in a Wilmington apartment complex, a woman with respiratory problems. Could someone find a way to check on her? Is she OK?

That request is heard by a neighbor, who goes to help.

To Medler, the Blizzard of '77 in Western New York is the only event he remembers that is even remotely similar. He grew up in Brockport, where he worked for his high school radio station before attending Central Wyoming College for broadcasting.

As a young man he worked in radio in Missouri, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, but he missed his family in Western New York, and he came home to follow an entirely different career. For a decade, he sold cars and worked in automobile financing in Olean, until he encountered the tumult of the Great Recession.

Medler decided to take another chance. He moved to North Carolina and opened a little voiceover studio, looking for anyone who was “willing to pay me to say words,” as he puts it.

You might have heard Medler and not realized it. He was the voice, he said, on early "Shake Weight" commercials. That is also his voice coming from the PA system every November at the annual “Christmas in the Country” event at the Fairgrounds in Hamburg, the voice that lets the crowd know what is going on.

The Bills Backers at the Lazy Pirate for the season opener, near Wilmington. (Photo courtesy of Eric Medler)

As part of that work, he did some business with WWQQ, where it was not lost on anyone that Medler walked in with a radio voice. Before long he was handling a regular show, built around music, trivia and conversation.

Beyond the studio, he cemented his Western New York connections. He began watching Bills games every Sunday with a couple of friends at a bar called the Lazy Pirate, and a classic Buffalo phenomenon occurred: In the South, Bills fans seem to multiply from nowhere.

They soon had a Carolina Beach chapter of the Bills Backers, maybe 60 people or so who show up every Sunday to collectively dream the Bills might someday manage to turn this thing around.

Last weekend, everything took on broader perspective. This was one Sunday when Medler was not preoccupied with the Bills, even if he did happen to wear team gear. His priority was letting people know where they could find gas for their generators, or which stores were still selling ice, or how to help diabetics worried about supplies of insulin.

In North Carolina, Medler said, people have learned through a lifetime of experience that being prepared for hurricanes involves making sure you have a radio around. The nights amid a storm can be harsh and frightening, especially for the elderly or vulnerable.

When it is humid, utterly dark and a hurricane rain is pounding on the roof, Medler said it is easy to feel totally alone.

At that moment, as a kid discovered long ago in Brockport, the one comfort in the solitude might be a radio.

“Your heart just goes out to all these people,” said Medler, who hopes they feel it as much as they hear his voice.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

Story topics: /

There are no comments - be the first to comment