< Apres le Deluge, Media


Friday, April 28, 2006

From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last weekend, OTM producer Jamie York and I took a quick trip down to New Orleans because we heard that the floods had washed away much of the old media, and in the process of rebuilding, an extraordinary transformation was underway. When we arrived, the city was holding its much-delayed elections, ending in a runoff to be held next month between the current mayor, Ray Nagin, and Louisiana Lieutenant Governor, Mitch Landrieu. There were 23 mayoral candidates ranging from the serious to the ridiculous.

DAVID MEEKS: My favorite of the minor candidates is Manny "Chevrolet" Bruno, whose campaign slogan is "A troubled man for troubled times." [LAUGHTER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Meeks, city editor of The Times-Picayune, sits on a stoop just outside the French Quarter. His editorial board endorsed Ron Foreman, a favorite of many in the White middle class � not a popular choice in most of the city. But the paper is more popular now than it's ever been, because the Big Easy ain't easy any more, and neither is its newspaper.

DAVID MEEKS: We're scrappy. We're aggressive. We realize the future of the city is at stake, and we wonder how long will it be before the first Times-Picayune comes off the press without the word "Katrina" in it? And the answer might be never.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Before the hurricane, David Meeks was the sports editor. You might ask why would the paper entrust this crisis to a sports editor? Basically because while the staff was evacuating, Meeks saw that the streets were still drivable. He volunteered to ferry reporters around town in one of the paper's delivery trucks and he convinced his editor, Jim Amoss, to let him stay. Then he asked for volunteers. A couple of city desk reporters stepped forward � also the pop music critic, the art critic, the religion writer and editorial writer --

DAVID MEEKS: We had a couple of other reporters who were in the city. One had been stranded at the Emergency Operations Center. And then a few days later, we had our New Orleans Saints beat writer and one of the sports copy editors come down and join us.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that was the team that won this year's Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. [BACKGROUND VOICES]

TREMAYNE LEE: You know, it's been the middle of the night where I wake up � I'm like what am I doing here? How did I get here?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's Tremayne Lee, the 27-year-old now Pulitzer Prize-winning cub reporter, the one who was stranded when the levees broke. He's in the newsroom as staffers cluster around TVs and computers, watching the election returns. Lee moved to the city from Trenton, New Jersey only four months ahead of the storm, but that was plenty of time to feel the rampant skepticism directed at his paper in the precincts he covered.

TREMAYNE LEE: Very skeptical. And they say, �Oh, we were The Picayune.� I mean, mind you, you're in like, you know, one of the worst neighborhoods, and I'm really trying to talk to you and say, �Look, you know, I want to make sure it's more than just a name and just another young brother that's just shot dead in the streets.� You know, but I remember the time when it was me, Meeks and Perlstein were out at the Convention Center and they were scrambling for these papers, and they were like, Picayune � you know, they were really coming at it. So I realized that it was a lifeline. But now I think they feel that we're on their side, but we'll see what happens once the dust really settles.

DAVID LEE SIMMONS: You know, look at this. You just can't imagine. It's like something out of "The Wizard of Oz" where like a house falls on a car and it becomes normal down here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Lee Simmons, managing editor of the alternative weekly, The Gambit, is taking us on a tour of the devastated Ninth Ward. As we pass through streets of wreckage, he marvels at the newfound pugnacity of The Times-Picayune.

DAVID LEE SIMMONS: One of our former freelancers, in one of his first e-mails, he said [LAUGHS] how does it feel to compete with the daily newspaper when the daily newspaper is acting like an alternative news weekly? And I thought it did speak to a kind of reenergizing that was going on at The Times-Picayune after the storm. I mean, I think that the challenge for them is to maintain that level of energy, and it's going to be interesting to see how they do that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That energy is currently so intense, it's a wonder the city hasn't gone up in a blaze of media, in print, online and on the airwaves.

MASON GRANGER: We didn't have an hour of news at noon before the hurricane, and we now have two hours of morning news on Saturdays and three hours of morning news on Sundays, plus the evening newscast that we normally provide.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mason Granger, president and general manager of WDSU, NBC's affiliate in New Orleans.

MASON GRANGER: And probably most significantly, in the evenings, Monday through Friday, we have a half hour of news at 10 o'clock, which is normal, but we also do a local program from 10:30 to 11 every night, Monday through Friday, which is geared specifically to Hurricane Katrina-related information and issues.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: To accommodate that added half hour, WDSU actually pushed back the start of �The Tonight Show," and they have the advertisers to support it. As to whether they have viewers, who knows? Right now, there are no ratings. Nielsen has packed up its books and left town.

MASON GRANGER: As of the last rating book that we had, which was back in May, we were the second-rated station in the market. I don't know where we stand now and we won't know until [LAUGHING] next February. So -

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Likewise, at WWL, the CBS affiliate that was number one back when there were ratings, innovation is in the air. Now it's added a web-only news show hosted by its broadcast anchors to reach the New Orleans diaspora, which extends from Baton Rouge to Bedminster, New Jersey and beyond.

DAVID WALKER: You know, the current absence of ratings for both radio and TV means that you don't get a report card the next day on your experiment.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Walker, Times-Picayune TV critic, says that right now, broadcasting in New Orleans is like a jump-ball. For instance, whether news will prevail on radio, as it has for the moment on television, is still up in the air. The winning format may well be music.

DAVID WALKER: Salsa is sort of the sound of the city now because of the roofers and the people working on houses. There was a crew working right out my backyard, and I think it was probably the first time I'd ever heard that beat in my neighborhood. [SALSA MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That beat rocks a shopping strip parking lot in the largely Hispanic suburb of Kenner, courtesy of KGLA-AM, Radio Tropical. Ernesto Schweikert owns KGLA, which serves an exploding population of Hondurans, Guatemalans and, since Katrina, Mexicans who are working to rebuild the city. He lived in the station's trailer during the storm, powering his broadcasts with a gasoline-fueled generator with the help from media monoliths like Clear Channel. [DISHES CLATTERING] Sitting in the restaurant he owns nearby, Schweikert's quick to praise his bad-weather friends.

ERNESTO SCHWEIKERT: They gave me permission every day - in English � but we were translating, translating, and translating. And the community was very happy that we were on the air because they wanted to know where they had food, where there was water, where the Red Cross was.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Clear Channel was providing that information for free, right?

ERNESTO SCHWEIKERT: Yes. All Clear Channel, they even came to give us gasoline.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clear Channel opened its doors but city and suburban officials never did.

ERNESTO SCHWEIKERT: I was traveling to the different city halls, asking for help � avoiding us completely. I mean, I felt so little.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Schweikert says now big corporate advertisers are calling him, and that the African-American and Anglo communities can no longer afford to ignore the Hispanics in their midst. He's currently in the process of buying the city's only other Spanish-language station, currently for sale, to keep it Spanish, and he's preparing to build the city's first Spanish-language TV station, which will be digital. In a city where tens of thousands are in the market for new TVs, most of which will be digital-ready, that means instant market penetration.

ERNESTO SCHWEIKERT: I can't wait for that because with the D.T., the digital TV, high-definition, now on one TV station you can have three sub-carriers. So on one station, like mine will be 42, so if you go to 42 you can watch, let's say, Telemundo, on 42.1 � Telefutura, 42.2 - Univision, 42.3 - Central America TV. [LAUGHTER/OVERTALK] Yeah, whatever, you know? [OFF-MIKE COMMENTS] And I think that now with the TV station, I think even the politicians are going to start having a little bit more respect for us.

GREG MEFFERT: You know, we have a scenario now where we can sit there and say we're like a laboratory for everything new, because whatever you're doing, I don't want leading edge, I want bleeding-edge.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Meffert is the city's Chief Technology Officer, a position created by Nagin. And if the city is a lab, call him Oppenheimer, because he sees his mission as vital to the survival of a city that is fighting a war with nature. So while the state of emergency is still in place, he's defying state law in a rush to make basic wireless Internet service as widely available as possible � for free.

GREG MEFFERT: What we went through with the storm and with the communications breakdown, I can't take that chance again. I just can't. You had all these private telecom providers and all these networks went down, and at the time when it got really crazy, they said, �Well, our company can't afford to send somebody in there. I hear snipers are shooting at vendors. I'm not going to go fix this switch.� And they didn't. But we were still here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meffert says his job will be dissolved if Mayor Nagin doesn't win the runoff, but he doubts that will end the project, even in the political swamp of New Orleans.

GREG MEFFERT: You'd have to really just sit there and say, �I'm going to have to find a good reason to tell all you thousands of people that are using this right now for your businesses, I've got to turn this off because some telecom lobbyist knows my daddy.� You know, if you can get away with that, good luck, but I don't see it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So far, he's got four square miles wired. He is shooting for twenty.

GREG MEFFERT: There's a lot of things that we love that got thrown in that lake, but, you know, there's a lot of things that we didn't love that I think got thrown in there too. You really do have a situation now where this city is very conscious that it's fighting for itself and that it's, in the end, even beyond all the fed this and state that, the only people that really want New Orleans back big is New Orleans.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's the principal finding to emerge from the media lab that is New Orleans - access to high-quality information equals survival, and damn the bottom line. For wi-fi geeks and news managers, that means supplying information by any means necessary. For news consumers, that means taking personal responsibility to stay informed. For reporters, that means looking out for their audiences, even at the risk of losing them. In truth, The Times-Picayune has bored readers for years with headlines about such dry topics as the wetlands.

LOLIS ELI: Long story short, if we had more of these wetlands protecting us, by the time the hurricanes got to the city, they'd be weaker and less dangerous.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Times-Picayune columnist, Lolis Eli.

LOLIS ELI: You may not be thinking about that because you're trying to figure out what you're going to do to rebuild your grandmother's house, because that's the last thing she wants in this world. She wants to be back in her house. You're trying to figure that out. You ain't worried about no wetland loss. You ain't worrying about the ducks that ain't coming no more. You ain't worrying about the tourists. You're worrying about rebuilding that house. So part of our job, not unlike that of a physician, is to give you information that you may need, even if you don't understand that you need it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: New Orleanians know all too well that their city is ailing and they consume barrels of information supplied by a reinvented media like a tonic, even if it's bitter, even if it's about wetlands - or racism. The flood made that happen. But it didn't wash across America, not really. This experiment in media and the news consumers who love them seems to end at the water's edge. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] This is On the Media from NPR.