December 15, 2021

Her real name is Carla, but a big city radio boss said she “looked like a Tess,” so from that moment on her name on the radio was Tess.

Other than her name, Tess Cowan keeps it real. Every morning, the people around Princeton, Kentucky, wake up to her voice on 250-watt WPKY-AM radio. Around noon, she drives 19 miles to do an afternoon show in the next town over, on WKDZ in Cadiz.

Her audience needs her warm voice right now. Three people died here in Caldwell County, Kentucky, when tornadoes tore through the Mid-South Friday night.

The community she adores knows that every morning, anybody can walk into the studio and announce whatever local people need to know. Over the last couple of days, the mayor showed up to tell Cowan’s audience how they could help their neighbors who had lost everything in the Friday night storm that flattened part of town. Mayor Kota Young was still wearing his volunteer firefighter turnout gear because he had been busy overnight pulling storm victims from the debris. The coroner stopped by, too, as did relief workers for the Southern Baptist Convention, the county judge executive and Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner.

“Brother Harold Riley is here from HR Ministries,” Cowan told her audience. He said he was in a hurry. “Well let ‘er rip, tater chip,” Cowan chirped. Brother Riley said he wanted to tell folks that his relief team needed some helpers to put blue tarps on houses that lost their roofs.

“It is gonna rain Thursday,” he said. “We have got to get them sealed up.”

He told Cowan’s listeners that a local church was open for people to take hot showers and asked people not to drop off any more clothes. But they sure could use some plastic storage tubs, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be in the old high school parking lot today to start helping people.

Cowan started her radio career at WPKY in 1995 but left Princeton to try big-city radio in Indiana and Texas.

“I had three kids, one with special needs, and I needed to come home,” she said. She moved back to Farmersville, just up the road. “The radio station said they needed someone to do mornings, and I was home. This is home and these are my neighbors that I am talking to. Two people who work for the station lost their homes.”

When the storm blasted through Western Kentucky, it knocked electricity out for miles. When the winds died down, Cowan emerged from a shelter with her three kids and five others. Her first instinct was not to go check on her home.

“I have to get to the radio station,” Cowan said was her first thought. Power lines and tree limbs blocked the roads. “The whole town was pitch black and I took back roads into town.”

The Dec. 10 tornado destroyed dozens of homes around Princeton, Kentucky. The same line of tornadoes claimed more than 70 lives around Kentucky and Tennessee. (Al Tompkins/Poynter)

Station owner Beth Mann is known for the phrase, “Green light, go.” Cowan translates that to mean, “She is always asking how can we get it done?”

In the dark of night, Mann said, “We have got to get back on the air. The community needs us.” Cowan took off in her pickup truck, loaded a generator in the back and drove to the radio station with the intent to put it back on the air with just the generator and extension cords.

“Just as we were about to fire up,” she said, “the power flicked back on. We were back on the air.”

Mann says local radio will be the bedrock for the country communities that the tornadoes wrecked. “When everyone else is gone, we are still here,” she told me. “We are community stewards. It is our job to connect the dots for people, to help them find the help they will need. And we will be key to building back the economic base of this town. It will be more important than ever for us to stress that we all have to support our local businesses.”

WPKY has become the town hub for tornado recovery in Princeton, Kentucky. (Al Tompkins/Poynter)

WPKY cut in with a newsbreak where a state agriculture official said Kentucky farmers needed fence posts right away to fix blown-out fencerows. The state’s first lady asked Kentuckians to donate unwrapped Christmas gifts to salvage Christmas for children who lost their homes. Her husband’s family is from Dawson Springs, one town to the east of WPKY’s radio signal. Many families in this rural part of American have no insurance.

The station updated its website to say that the drop-off center needs baby wipes, diapers and bottled water for storm victims. The website offers this bit of rural common-sense advice, too, with exactly the tone of voice that you would imagine Cowan telling her listeners in a soft, country twang: “However, I would like to remind the community that our recovery from the storm is a marathon, not a sprint. Donation needs will continue for some time yet and will change as the process proceeds. While never discouraging generosity, I would encourage you to consider spacing out your generosity throughout the recovery process. We don’t want to burn out within the first few days.”

Cowan said since the pandemic began, she thought it would be a good idea to establish routines that people could count on. So, every morning at 8 a.m., she has an elementary school class recite the Pledge of Allegiance on the air. The Princeton Optimist Club brought her an American flag. “I am going to put it right here on the wall of the control room,” she said.

At 8 a.m., everyone in the studio stands, faces the flag and puts their hand over their heart. Then, for the next hour, anybody who wants to can come in sit down at the microphone and talk on the radio with Cowan.

“If they need something, if they are having a bake sale, we are here to help,” she said.

At 9 a.m., a local pastor comes on the air to pray for everyone.

“We are community stewards,” Mann said. “We will connect the dots for people. We will help the government agencies tell people what is going on and we will help people find what they need to rebuild.

“In times like these,” Mann said, “a local radio station can bring a community together.”

“Radio is the love of my life,” Cowan said. “I love living in a place where my kids can see their mayor in a fire truck. People know whether you genuinely love them or not, and I do.”

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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  • Great story. It truly captures what local radio is all about. I hope the iHeart’s and other giant companies realize that this is what is wrong with their radio stations. We need local radio. Great job WPKY! The industry is proud of you!