“I just want to tell you, the first thing I heard was your voices the next morning,” said a caller, her own voice wavering. “Oh shoot. And it made me cry, the comfort of hearing your voices.”
David Jones and Meredith Michaels are not breaking news reporters. They didn’t file stories from the businesses or homes hit last week by Hurricane Ian. They won’t spend the coming months interrogating evacuation orders or recovery efforts.
But last week, they were there for listeners in ways they’ve always been and in ways they’ve never had to be before.
Jones and Michaels are the hosts of “Jones and Company,” a morning show from Sarasota’s WSRZ, part of the iHeartMedia network. Normally, their work includes playing music, taking calls and brightening up listeners’ mornings.
Last Friday, after Hurricane Ian shifted south and devastated southwest Florida, the two stayed on the air for 12 hours talking with callers, finding answers and crowdsourcing information.
What roads were closed?
Where could people find gas?
Who had ice?
On Monday, their show ran for six hours.
Jones’ voice has been part of Florida’s Manatee and Sarasota Counties for 35 years. In the ’90s, he had a TV show in Tampa Bay. Being a morning show host is a lot of fun, he said. But last week was a wake-up call.
Living in a place, knowing the streets, the landscape, the history and the people — and being known as part of the community — is also a critical part of the job.
The two heard from a woman stuck on the second floor of her flooded home with no power. They heard from a veteran who’d lost his home and just wanted to hear familiar voices.
“Radio is that medium, we are a companion medium,” Michaels said. “We’re in the empty seat next to them every morning on their way to work.”
And when that routine got dangerously disrupted last week, Jones and Michaels and commercial radio hosts like them were still there.
“During the storm, we were able to be on the air and we got information and updates and also were kind of a comfort to people,” Soeder said.
“I think we take a lot of responsibility in the after,” Johnson said. “We still have almost 100,000 people in the two counties that still don’t have power. The only way they’re getting information is through a radio.”
The stations are also available through an iHeart app, and many people listened in and called in through their phones. Regardless of the device, radio is free, easy and all around you, said Frank Harris, iHeartMedia Sarasota’s senior vice president of programming.
“You just turn it on and it’s there.”
In December, Poynter’s Al Tompkins visited Kentucky after it was hit by tornadoes to report on how journalists there were covering the story. Tompkins wrote about Tess Cowan, an AM radio host who offered information and comfort to her listeners.
“We are community stewards,” station owner Beth Mann told Tompkins. “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, a local radio station can bring a community together.”
In Florida, Harris, Johnson and Jones all remember 2004’s Hurricane Charley, which devastated Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda. They know there’s long work ahead for the places hardest hit last week. That work, for the morning show hosts, will include sharing the stories of people helping each other, offering resources and celebrating each time a listener’s power comes back.
Jones and Michaels even have a snippet of music ready to play for those celebrations — Snap’s “I’ve got the power.”
“You guys, thanks for being on the air,” another caller told the duo. “It’s nice to hear a voice we know.”
This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists