Brian Lehrer broadcasts through disaster, ‘providing comfort to people’

As Brian Lehrer hosted WNYC‘s coverage of Hurricane Sandy Monday night in New York City, what stood out, he says by phone, were “the eye-popping, outsized numbers that were coming in that I could hardly believe and had to do a double take before putting them on the air.” Such as the 100 mile-per-hour gusts closing the Triborough Bridge — “that’s not a figure you hear with respect to wind in New York City,” Lehrer says.

Lehrer, 60, has hosted a show on WNYC since 1989. Since Sunday he’s been camping out in Lower Manhattan near the station’s studio. His usual two-hour morning show was extended to three hours Monday, and he co-anchored the station’s special coverage during the storm Monday night. Tuesday morning he was back on for three hours; he’s looking forward to getting back to his house at Manhattan’s northern tip this afternoon. WNYC’s offices — which also house classical station WQXR and New Jersey Public Radio — are operating on generator power now.

Anyone who lived in New York during the 9/11 attacks may remember how reassuring Lehrer’s voice was then. The elements of a successful show during a disaster, he says, are the same as during regular times: “solid information, analysis of the news, an open forum and community building.” The latter, he says, involves “providing comfort to people who are going through something scary — connection, maybe that’s the best word. Connecting with other people in the community.” (Tuesday’s show featured Elmo talking to kids about how they got through Sandy.)

The show took lots of calls from listeners about what they were seeing in their neighborhoods, with an eye, Lehrer says, to WNYC’s wide listening area, which extends far beyond skyscrapers in Manhattan to coastal areas in Long Island, Connecticut and the Jersey Shore. “We use our listeners as crowdsourced reporters,” Lehrer says, employing them “not just for window dressing or for opinion” but as a “central resource.”

“We got a couple calls from teenagers last night, and I don’t know if their parents put them up to it,” he says. One call was from a 14-year old who said he and his family were playing Scrabble as the storm raged. (Lehrer has a child the same age.) “His mother had put down the word ‘relax’ as kind of a message to the family, to chill out and not be anxious about the storm all night,” Lehrer says. “I think something like that resonates pretty broadly.”

Judging by Twitter, he seems to be correct:

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