TV/radio stations give hotels plenty of business during Snowmageddon 2011

By RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com, filed January 13, 2011

Since  Sunday night, TV and radio employees have been hunkering down in hotel rooms, air mattresses and sleeping bags in conference rooms so they could cover  the snow and ice mess in metro Atlanta. (We here at the AJC have put a few folks up at hotels as well.)

With roads becoming more navigable Wednesday, many saw their homes for the first time in three days.

"I can't wait to see my family again," said Kevin Avery, co-morning host at Christian pop station 104.7/The Fish, who was driving home early Wednesday afternoon. He had been staying at a Staybridge Suites Atlanta near the Fish's offices in Buckhead since Sunday night subsisting on cans of soup, energy drinks and protein bars at the radio studio.

"We have a joke that we've developed a monetary system based on food products," Avery said. "I'll trade you a can of soup for two protein bars!"

Rick  Mack, general manager at Star 94 nearby in Buckhead, also struggled to get food for his sequestered staff Monday since everything nearby was closed. "Yesterday, we found a local Jimmy Johns sandwich shop that was delivering," he said. "That raised everybody's spirits."

The staffs at V-103, Dave FM and WAOK-AM, based in Colony Square in Midtown, have been holed up at the W  Hotel there for three nights and many will do so again tonight as a precaution. For some, it was a bonding experience. They even held a "bring your own  bottle" party on Monday night for the BCS game in one of the suites.

V-103 morning host Frank Ski has been lucky enough to go home in his four-wheel drive Jeep Wrangler a few hours each day but has been back at Colony Square before  sundown when the roads get icy again. "At night," he said, "it's like '28 Days Later.' Nobody s in Midtown!

Jimmy Baron has also been able to sneak home every day for at least part of the day. His Dave FM co-host Yvonne Monet lives 40 miles away in Newnan. She hasn't been so lucky.

Dave FM/V-103 traffic reporter Christopher "Crash" Clark was also feeling a little homesick while wandering Colony Square early Wednesday afternoon. "I don't want to go back to my hotel room," he said by phone. "It was all fun and games the first couple of nights but now we're ready to kill each other!"  He took some of his frustration out this morning on Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on air, wondering why so many of the major roads have not been cleared more than two days later.

"I was all fired up," Clark admitted. "I was speaking on behalf of all the Southerners as a former Northerner. It just boiled over."

Spiff Carner, morning co-host at Atlanta's Greatest Hits, said when he packed Sunday for a stay in a Marriott Hotel near his studios, he figured he'd be there one, maybe two nights. But just in case, he packed for three nights. He was lucky.  "Otherwise," he said, "I'd be turning my underwear inside out."

Sports host Chuck Oliver was getting ready for his noon show Wednesday on 680/The Fan when I reached him. He was off Monday and Tuesday. "I could have come in yesterday," he said, "but we didn't have a board operator" The station ran syndicated ESPN shows instead.

TV stations, including CNN, planned ahead and made sure crucial personnel were nearby starting Sunday. Nancy Grace drove in treacherous conditions to get to CNN Center to do her show Monday night.

WAGA-TV had people at the Marriott off  North Druid Hills the past few nights. "I took a chance and drove home at 11:15 last night," wrote Russ Spencer, anchor at Fox 5. "I wanted to see the family and sleep in my own bed. It was slippery and took about twice as long as normal, but the ride in today was a breeze. Amazing how the sun works on the roads even when it's below freezing."

A few folks didn't even get the benefit a hotel room. Some employees at NBC affiliate WXIA-TV news offices, where people are pulling double shifts,  have been sleeping on air mattresses. Jason Pullman, morning co-host  at country station 94.9/The Bull, has been camping out in a conference room in sleeping bags with producer  Stan Fisher and co-host Kristen Gates. Clear Channel Atlanta brought in food from Whole Foods and a pile of snacks. "We've been eating Cheetos and Ruffles and Lance crackers," he said. "At night, they've brought us beer and pizzas."

There are no shower facilities in the building, Pullman noted, but he hasn't had to rely on sponge baths.  He's been driving to a friend's home nearby to clean up. And he's gotten to bond with Gates and Fisher in ways he otherwise would never have.  "Kristen has the cutest pajamas - matching flannel top and bottom- with huge penguin slipper," he noted. "And she had a suitcase packed with three weeks worth of clothes!"

Pullman had just arrived home Wednesday afternoon. He said he got maybe eight hours of sleep over three days and was ready to take a nap. Plus, a trainer was coming over at 3:30 p.m. "I haven't worked out in four days. I'm feeling sluggish!"

WXIA-TV's Jeff Hullinger, for one, is enjoying the work. On Monday, he anchored for eight straight hours. "It's been an endless loop of fascinating stories," he said.  "The city is not doing business. It's unprecedented in its impact!"

Added WXIA anchor Brenda Wood, "We're all tired, but with big stories like this, as you know, it gets our adrenaline flowing, and that's pretty much what we're going on now."

John Deushane, general manager at WXIA, worked the cameras on the help desk yesterday. "I just did my work and hung out there," he said. "There's something great about live television. This is why we got into the business." He slept on the floor in his office the first two nights but hit the Hyatt in Buckhead  last night. "The bed," he said, "felt a little better than the floor."

RedState.com blogger and CNN commentator Erick Erickson started his new evening show on AM 750 and now 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB Monday night and has barely left the WSB building, save for a few hours to sleep at a Midtown hotel. He has not been able to see his family in Macon since Sunday and may not be able to do so until this Saturday. He lived the first day on vending machine food, then used room service. "Now the roads are at least passable," he said. "I'm going to venture out and find some place to eat."

Dan Kearney, vice president and market manager at Cox Radio, said the station in preparation for the storm nabbed as many hotel rooms as they could on Thursday and Friday. But with a gift show downtown, it was a challenge. "We've had to shuffle people to different hotels," he said. The first night, they had more than 30 people in 18 hotel rooms to cover all four radio stations.

The Channel 2 Action News crew has had more than 20 people "embedded" in hotels, said General Manager Bill Hoffman. "We've also used WSB as a hotel," he said. "We recruited a bunch of four-wheel drive vehicles for people who needed to get home." The station has been shuttling people to and from work, when need be. Hoffman said with everybody home, ratings have doubled.

The AJC has had the extra challenge of delivering papers in dangerous conditions. Mike Joseph, the publisher said readers "have been extremely supportive and understanding of some of the delivery challenges we've experienced. We are out there delivering the newspaper and will continue to do so while making the safety of our carriers and others on the roads our priority."

In the meantime, ajc.com "has seen some of the highest viewership ever and we've reached out to our subscribers offering them free and immediate access to our 'e-edition,' a digital replica of the printed newspaper," Joseph added.

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By Rodney Ho, rho@ajc.com, AJCRadioTV blog