Battling Irene with Facebook and Skype

When Hurricane Irene began to roar ashore the east coast of North Carolina last weekend, it marked the culmination of planning and preparation by the staff at WNCT in Greenville. As Irene barreled through the Atlantic it became apparent the Greenville market was destined to be ground zero for landfall sometime Saturday morning.

Marty Van Housen, Director of Content for WNCT, had spent the better part of a week planning for the storm. He placed crews strategically along the coast, assigned his SNG and ENG resources and waited for Irene’s approach. But this hurricane season was a little different. This year he supplemented his coverage with social media and Skype, adopting mobile as a critical news gathering platform.

Marty quickly learned the value of Skype and social media as Irene moved onshore, blocking satellite signals and disabling his microwave receive dishes. Any other time WNCT would have been dead in the water, but with the power of social media and Skype WNCT’s coverage excelled, he explains.

“We had three Skype setups for the hurricane, designed as a fallback position if our ENG and SNG efforts failed or were unusable at the height of the storm, Sure enough they failed. We were set up with a camera wired into Skype on the balcony of our hotel room at Kill Devil Hills. The first shots ahead of the storm the reporter was in front of the camera. As the storm intensified, he reported from the room as the Skype shot looked out on the heavy surf and wind”, said Van Housen.

WNCT also put into action mobile phones from their digital journalists, when using laptops just didn’t make sense. “We used the Skype live video and he reported over his cell phone from North Topsail Beach, where at one point our reporter was in 70 mile per hour winds. We shot him using an iPhone4. The storm was too powerful at that point for either an ENG or SNG shot, but the Skype signal held steady, with only occasional video freezes.

Probably one of the best examples of the power of Skype was driving through the storm, a live perspective rarely seen in local television news.
Van Housen explains, “We taped a web cam to the windshield of one of our live trucks and using a wireless broadband card kept a strong Skype video picture up as we drove through the storm. It was similar to what we did chasing tornadoes in April. The video provided an eerie, ominous feeling of being in the storm as it moved in. The truck operator drove, as our reporter detailed what conditions were like driving between New Bern and Morehead City. They arrived at their location in Morehead City, where all power was out and continued Skype reporting using the generator off the live truck to keep everything powered up.”

Obviously, WNCT’s use of Skype gave them a huge competitive advantage covering this deadly storm, but as Van Housen tells me they took it a step further and called their entire Facebook fan base into action, delivering critical information and crowd sharing important pictures and video.

“We used Facebook in a very big way. At one point, when all ENG and SNG shots were down, we did about three hours of hurricane coverage using just Skype, social media, and emergency response phoners. Facebook once again became a network of people providing and seeking information, and we once again receive tons of photos on the air in just a matter of minutes. We also received about a dozen great viewer videos of the hurricane raging through their neighborhoods. We streamed our live coverage on Facebook, which turned out to be the key source of information for many of our viewers who had lost their cable, or power, but could still monitor us through Facebook online.

The outpouring of help and calls for assistance still crowd the WNCT Facebook page today. They increased their Facebook population by 7,000 people since before the storm and that number continues to climb.

WNCT’s example of use of social media and Skype should be a lesson to all those that follow. Marty VanHousen and his team realized it was the information that was important and channeled that content directly to the people of eastern North Carolina.

Well done!

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 30th, 2011 at 9:14 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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