How a young woman with a contralto voice and Rhode Island moxie became one of the most popular radio personalities in South Florida

Kevin Kitchens Jennifer Ross(This is an excerpt from Chapter 25 of Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting. It picks up where Russ Morley, program director of WRMF-FM in West Palm Beach in the 1980-1990s, was describing Jennifer Ross’s unusual path to radio stardom.)

“If you said ‘Kevin Kitchens’ in Palm Beach and Broward counties in the late-1980s and ’90s, people would probably respond with, ‘and Jennifer Ross.’ That was not part of the carefully honed plan. Morley sensed something special when Elena LaFazia showed up at his office for a job interview in the early ’80s. ‘She had moxie,’ a contralto voice from years of smoking, and Rhode Island street smarts. But first the name had to change. For no specific reason, ‘Jennifer Ross’ was chosen. Her first job was as the field reporter for a public service segment called ’60 Seconds,’ a knock-off of the famous CBS television news magazine. Ross would come up with a Question of the Day and go out into the community to record comments from the public, editing them into a one-minute package that aired several times a day. ‘What do you think about the killings in Libya, that sort of thing,’ said Morley. ‘Well, I think it’s awful what they’re doing in Libya.’ That evolved over time to co-anchoring the morning news on WRMF, a three-minute segment. ‘She started hanging around the studio after the newscast. She had such a perky personality—she didn’t seem to fear anyone or anything.’ Kitchens and Ross hit it off, but not in the typical morning team mutual admiration society. ‘Theirs was a love-hate, brother-sister relationship whose genuineness kept them No. 1 in the morning drive slot,’ wrote [The Palm Beach Post‘s Tim] O’Meilia, who referred to them as a ‘Tracy-Hepburn match.’
“(Interestingly, in the ten years Ross was teamed with Kitchens, she never received star billing or compensation. It was always the Kevin Kitchens Show. ‘You know how it is,’ said Morley. ‘Sometimes you have to leave to change the way you are viewed. [At WRMF] she was viewed as the newsgirl who comments outside the newscast.’ It wasn’t until Ross and Kitchens moved to WEAT-FM in 1995 that she got co-billing and became the second-highest paid radio talent in the market. Kitchens was number one.)”

The WRMF story includes a fictitious woman known as “The Mercedes Lady,” a musical format so tight that they even engineered out a guitar riff in “Easy Like Sunday Morning,” and a list of dos and don’ts that often infuriated the sales staff. Read all about it starting on page 458. Click here to buy the book.

“Can’t you just shoot the touchdowns?”

In the days before videotape, television news and sports reporters and photographers relied on 16mm, no sound, black and white film cameras to bring the action to viewers at home. Once a reel of film was exposed, it was finished, couldn’t be reused.
Managing use of film wasn’t too difficult for most stories, but when it came to covering live sporting events it became a challenge.
That was the dilemma facing WPTV Channel 5’s flamboyant sports director, Buck Kinnaird, especially when the Miami Dolphins started playing in the Orange Bowl in 1966. The film used by the West Palm Beach station’s news and sports departments was charged to the engineering department, managed at the time by a cost conscious chief engineer named Lew Evenden.
They budgeted 800 feet of film for a football game, but when they started covering Dolphins games from the press box, Kinnaird said they were using 1,000 feet or more. One Monday Evenden called Kinnaird into his office and told him they were using too much film. “Well,” Kinnaird said, “you know, it’s football. And Lew said—this is the honest-to-God truth—he said, ‘Well, can’t you just shoot the touchdowns?’”
With a straight face Kinnaird replied, “Lew, I’ll tell you what. I’m going down to the Dolphins’ practice Tuesday and I’ll ask Don Shula to let us know when the team is about to score a touchdown. And Lew said, ‘I’d really appreciate that. We’re spending too much money on film.’”

This is one of many great stories Buck told me a few years before his death in 2008. The stories are in chapter 20 of Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, along with others from Florida sports figures including Bernie Rosen (WTVJ Miami), Jim Gallagher (WPEC West Palm Beach), and Dick Stratton (WJXT Jacksonville).
Click here to buy your copy of the paperback or e-book.

From “Wonderful Days And Evenings” to “Why Stay Up North”: Call Letters and their Slogans

Since the early days of broadcasting, stations have been known by slogans associated with their call letters.

Bryan Norcross is known across the nation for his work as an award-winning meteorologist (Hurricane Andrew and many more, on Florida stations, national networks NBC and CBS, The Weather Channel), but what you may not know is that he got his start in broadcasting as a rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey in Melbourne and Tallahassee. You can learn more about his career in my book.

Bryan is also a broadcasting history buff, and that led to a conversation one day about call letters and their slogans. “A misnomer is that very early stations’ call letters meant anything,” Bryan explained. “When they first went to 4-letter call signs as the number of stations increased in 1922, the format east of the Mississippi started with W_A_. So WDAE and WQAM were simply in sequence – as were WCAN and WDAL. Sometime in the mid-1920s apparently call letters could be requested. This made WIOD possible.”

Bryan has done a lot more research into this, but the bottom line is most stations’ call letters were simply assigned. That didn’t stop promotionally oriented managers from crafting their own meaning to the call letters. Sometimes they asked listeners and viewers to come up with their own suggestions.

Here is a partial list of call letters and slogans I came across during my twelve years of work on Towers in the Sand. Remember, stations changed call letters often, so the cities are my best guesses. I thought this might be fun. I’m going to put the list on the book’s Facebook page, @towersinthesand. I hope you will add to it.

Station City of License Slogan
WAUC (Wachula) WACHula
WBFS (Miami) Broadcasting from Florida’s South
WBIL (Leesburg) We’re Big In Leesburg
WBUS (Miami Beach) Magic BUS
WCKR (Miami) Cox-Knight Radio (newspaper companies)
WCMQ (Miami) CMQ (call sign for popular Havana station)
WCOA (Pensacola) Wonderful City of Advantages
WCVU (Naples) CVU = Sea View
WDAE (Tampa) Wonderful Days And Evenings (during The Great Depression changed by announcers to We Don’t Always Eat)
WDBO (Orlando) Originally Daytona Beach Orlando, but later Way Down By Orlando
WDLP (Panama City) John Perry’s wife Dorthea Lindstrom Perry. AKA by the locals, “We Drink Liquor Publicly”
WDSR (Lake City) Deep South Radio
WDVH (Gainesville) Partners Toby Dowdy, Buster Vaughn, Tom Hanssen
WFBO (Flagler Beach) Flagler’s Blizzard of Oldies
WFFG (Marathon) World’s Finest Fishing Grounds
WFHH (Tampa) Fort Harrison Hotel
WFLA (Tampa) West FLoridA
WFLX (West Palm Beach) FLX = flicks (as in movies)
WFOY (St. Augustine) Wonderful Fountain Of Youth
WFTM (Fort Myers) FT. Myers
WFTV (Orlando) Wonderful Florida TeleVision
WGBS (Miami) George B. Storer (Storer Broadcasting)
WGGG (Gainesville) Watch Greater Gainesville Grow (also, from the boys who worked at the station, “Where Good Girls Grow”)
WGTO (Cypress Gardens) Gulf To Ocean, later Good Times Oldies
WHLG (Stuart) Harvey L Glascock
WIOD (Miami) Wonderful Isle Of Dreams
WIPC (Lake Wales) Imperial Polk County
WIZD (Fort Pierce) WIZard
WJAX (Jacksonville) JAX = Jacksonville
WJBS (DeLand) Stetson University founder John B. Stetson
WJXR (Maclenny) JaXonville Radio
WKAT (Miami) Frank L. KATzentine
WKKO (Cocoa Beach) KKO = Cocoa
WKMG (Orlando) Katharine M. Graham
WKTK (Crystal River) Koast To Koast
WLBE (Eustis) LeesBurg Eustis
WLBF (Leesburg) LeesBurg Florida
WLIZ (Lake Worth) eLIZabeth Taylor
WLOD (Pompano Beach) Wonderful Land of Dreams
WLOF (Orlando) We Love Orlando Florida, later Wonderful Land Of Fun
WLVS (Lake Worth) LVS = Elvis – named by station owner Sam Phillips who first recorded Elvis
WMEG (Melbourne) Melbourne-Eau Gallie
WMUM (West Palm Beach) Mother Radio
WNTM (Orlando) Naomi T. Murrell (pres of Central Fla Broadcasting)
WNTO (Orlando) News-Talk Orlando
WNWS (Miami) NeWS
WOCN (Miami) OCN = ocean
WPBF (West Palm Beach) West Palm Beach Florida
WPBR (Palm Beach) Palm Beach Radio
WPBT (Miami) We’re Public Broadcast Television
WPEC (West Palm Beach) Photo Electronics Corporation
WPIO (Titusville) We Pass It On
WPLG (Miami) Phillip L. Graham
WPOM (Riviera Beach) POM = Palm (as in Palm Beach)
WPTV (West Palm Beach) West Palm TeleVision
WQAM (Miami) World’s Quickest Ascending Metropolis
WQBA (Miami) QBA = Cuba
WQOP (Jacksonville) Queen of Peace (licensee name)
WRBD (Pompano Beach) Rockin’ Big Daddy
WRBQ (Tampa) Ralph Beavers (chief engineer)
WRKT (Cocoa Beach) RKT = rocket (Cape Canaveral)
WRMF (West Palm Beach) Richard M. Fairbanks (owner)
WRUF (Gainesville) Radio University of Florida
WSBB (New Smyrna) World’s Safest Bathing Beach
WSEC (Miami) Second Educational Channel
WSFR (Sanford) Sanford Florida Radio
WSHE (Fort Lauderdale) SHEs only rock ‘n’ roll
WSLC (Clermont) W-South Lake County
WSRF (Fort Lauderdale) SuRF
WSRQ (Sarasota) SRQ = airline code for Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport
WSUN (Tampa) Why Stay Up North?
WTHS (Miami) Technical High School
WTIR (Winter Garden) Traveller Information Radiotime, later Traffic and Information Radio
WTLN (Orlando) Named for owner’s family Tom, Linda, Nancy Moffit
WTLV (Jacksonville) TeLeVision
WTMC (Ocala) Welcome To Marion County, later The Music Connection
WTRL (Bradenton) TRaiL Broadcasting (near the Tamiami Trail)
WTRR (Sanford) First owner, James Rivers son, Tolliver R. Rivers
WTSP (St. Petersburg) Welcome To Saint Petersburg
WTVT (Tampa) Walter Tison Virginia Tison (founder and wife)
WVCG (Coral Gables) Winning Voice of Coral Gables
WVGT (Bithlo) Voice of the Golden Triangle
WVOJ (Jacksonville) Voice of Jacksonville, Wonderful Voice Of Jesus
WVUM (Coral Gables) Voice of the University of Miami
WWOS (West Palm Beach) Wonderful World Of Stereo
WWPF (Palatka) Welcome to Palatka Florida
WWSB (Sarasota) Wide Water touches Sarasota and Bradenton
WXLT (Sarasota) XL Television (40 in Roman numerals)
WYNF (Tampa) You Now Found (and) Ninety Five
WZST (Leesburg) Zest Radio, The Cleanest Spot On The Dial

How a young Richard Lobo ‘ambushed’ Fidel Castro and helped Miami’s WCKT Channel 7 earn a Peabody

Florida native Dick Lobo’s interest in broadcasting began as a child in Tampa, the grandson of Cuban immigrants who came to the United States to work in Ybor City’s cigar factories.
As he explained in Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, “I was an only child without siblings to play with after dinner, and we didn’t have a great deal of money, so my entertainment was our radio. I fell in love with the medium–it transported me away from some of the hard times we were experiencing. I could escape.”
While in high school he got is first bicycle “and permission to ride it downtown . . . I used to hang around radio stations–WDAE was one of them, WFLA was another. There were some nice people there who saw I was interested.” As broadcasters generally did, they encouraged Lobo, asking him to help by putting away ETs (electrical transcriptions, the predecessor to records) and pulling wire copy from news services. “I’d roll up long rolls . . . and take them home. Sometimes in the privacy of my room, using a hairbrush as a microphone, I would read wire copy as if I were an announcer reading a newscast. I really loved doing that. Not only did I love the medium, I loved the news part of it.”
Lobo’s interest in news continued at University of Miami where, through its strong relationships with the fledgling television industry, he had opportunities to train at several local stations. “My professor was Ralph Renick. He was iconic in Florida.” That relationship led to a part-time job as a reporter/photographer for WTVJ Channel 4.
After graduation and a stint in the army, Lobo returned to Miami and joined WCKT Channel 7 as a photographer. While there he was sent to Cuba, right after the revolution, where the bold young journalist, fluent in Spanish, got an exclusive interview with the new Cuban president, Fidel Castro. “I ambushed him coming out of a meeting outside Havana. It aired on the Today show and Huntley-Brinkley.” The interview and the rest of WCKT’s coverage earned the station a Peabody Award.
That was just the beginning of Lobo’s broadcasting career, which included his leadership over a sea change in local television that would reshape the network-affiliate relationship and change much of the business of broadcasting forever.
Read more about Dick Lobo’s broadcasting career and many others in Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, available now at by clicking here.

“Booze, Broads and Bribes” convention sparks Payola investigation


Former Palm Beach Post columnist Thom Smith, now writing for The Coastal Star, wrote a nice piece on Towers in the Sand this month. In addition to general comments about some of the people featured in the book, including Katie Couric, Roy Firestone, Red Barber, Steve Kroft, and Bryan Norcross, Thom focused on the 1959 Radio Programming Seminar and Pop Music Disc Jockey Convention, held in Miami and headlined in The Miami Herald as “Booze, Broads and Bribes.” The convention’s excesses helped launch a Congressional investigation into payola.

Click here to read the story.

Also, check out Thom’s sidebar piece about how “Days of our Lives” star Deidre Hall got her start on “all-girl” radio station WLIZ-AM in Lake Worth.

Please click here for more information about Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting. Click here to buy the book in paperback ($29.99) or e-book ($8.99) formats.

Seventy-eight years ago tonight, Orson Welles terrifies Tampa Bay and the nation

In the spirit of “trick or treat,” I thought you would enjoy this excerpt from Chapter 7 of Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting.

On the eve of Halloween 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air played a giant trick on an estimated thirty-two million radio listeners across the nation when it interrupted what seemed to be a regular entertainment program with a special bulletin.
“Salty Sol” Fleischman was the announcer on duty at WDAE that Sunday night. As Tampa’s CBS affiliate, WDAE was carrying the broadcast live when the network announcer said, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. From the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza in New York City, we bring you the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra. With a touch of the Spanish, Ramón Raquello leads off with ‘La Cumparsita.’” Just after the band started, Fleischman and the rest of the nation heard the music stop and another announcer urgently say:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity. Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell’s observation, and describes the phenomenon as (quote) like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun (unquote). We now return you to the music of Ramón Raquello . . .”
Thus began a series of bulletins, each with more urgency, interrupting the dance music in Tampa and around the nation:
“8:50 p.m., a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey . . .”
“9:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Seismograph registered shock of almost earthquake intensity occurring with a radius of twenty miles of Princeton . . .”
“This is Carl Phillips again, at the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey . . . that’s the thing, directly in front of me, half buried in a vast pit. Must have struck with terrific force . . . the object doesn’t look very much like a meteor . . . it looks more like a huge cylinder.”
“Hundreds of cars are parked in a field in back of us . . . headlights throw an enormous spot on the pit where the object’s half buried. Some of the more daring souls are now venturing near the edge, their silhouettes stand out against the metal sheen.”
“Here’s something I haven’t mentioned in all this excitement, but now it’s become more distinct. Perhaps you’ve caught it already on your radio. Listen . . . do you hear it? It’s a curious humming sound that seems to come from inside the object.”
“Just a minute! Something’s happening! Ladies and gentlemen, this is terrific . . . the top is beginning to rotate like a screw!”
“She’s off! The top’s loose. Look out there! Stand back!”
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed . . . Wait a minute! Someone . . . or something . . . is crawling out of the hollow top.”
“Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather . . . The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate . . . the thing’s raising up . . .”
Back in Tampa, Sol Fleischman said WDAE’s phone began ringing off the hook. “I tried to tell everybody that it was only Orson Welles, and then I got panicky and I thought, ‘Well, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is real.’”
Fleischman told of a man driving down Florida Avenue in Tampa, listening to WDAE on his car radio, when he heard the bulletins: “He was right in front of the First Methodist Church . . . he jumped out of the car right there and they were having a prayer meeting . . . He rushed into [the church] and there the late Bishop Branscomb was conducting the services. He rushed up to the pulpit . . . and the Bishop turned around as if what in the world is going on and the man said, ‘Dr. Branscomb, something terrible is happening in New Jersey. There are little men coming out all over and the army and navy is mobilized, the country is going to the devil and we’re liable to be killed any minute.’ And Dr. Branscomb immediately stopped the services and announced for everybody to please bow their heads and pray for this terrible catastrophe out in New Jersey so it won’t get to Florida.”
Also in Tampa, Fleischman recalled, residents of apartment buildings around Plant Park “got panicky and they grabbed furniture and belongings,” putting them in the field at Plant Park because “somebody had said on this broadcast . . . to take your belongings there because it’d be safer than a home that might be devastated by fire.”
Across the nation, panic ensued. On the fictitious broadcast the Martians were invading Chicago, St. Louis, and New York City, where a “reporter” breathlessly told of citizens “falling like flies” from the toxic black smoke spewed by the aliens. “Now the smoke’s crossing Sixth Avenue . . . Fifth Avenue . . . one hundred yards away . . . it’s fifty feet . . . [BODY FALLS].” A ham radio operator tries the reach the city: “2X2L calling CQ . . . 2X2L calling CQ . . . 2X2L calling CQ . . . New York. Isn’t there anyone of the air? Isn’t there anyone . . . 2X2L.”
Once the fictional smoke cleared, CBS and the radio industry in general received threats of lawsuits, condemnation by the newspaper industry, tongue-lashings by politicians, and reprimands by the FCC (but no sanctions). However, the public was quick to forgive, and soon became focused on very real threats from Asia and Europe.

Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting is available now in paperback and e-book formats. Purchase your copy by clicking the Buy the Book tab.


Today I attended the funeral of a great guy and superb broadcaster named Murray Green. Murray was general manager of WFLX Channel 29, originally a pure independent station then later the FOX affiliate in West Palm Beach. At that time I was working my way up the ladder at WPEC Channel 12, a CBS affiliate. Murray was a classy competitor and a broadcaster down to his bones. He was also a great salesman, a skill learned through hard knocks in big city radio.

I interviewed Murray for my book in 2005. Some of the stories he told me about the early days of WFLX are in the book, but as always, some fell to the cutting room floor. I was reminded of one of those stories at the funeral today.

The story is from his first radio job after serving in the US Army Air Corps during the war. He was a rookie radio salesman for a Syracuse station managed by Bert Lebhar. Here, in Murray’s own words from the 2005 interview, is


“Lebhar sent me to the Hat Corporation of America, which made Knox Hats and Dobbs Hats, which were the big hats of the day, at a time when everybody wore hats. We had New York Giants football. We had a quarter left [to sell] in the games. I called on this man named ‘Park’ or ‘Parks.’ This was 1949. I had no agencies. The rookie salesman always got direct business, and there was no direct business in New York.

“I called on this guy, I went in and told him we had New York Giants football. He said, ‘I want that.’ It wasn’t a case of me selling it—it was a case of him wanting it. He was a Giants fan. I wrote up the contract.

“As I got up to leave he said, ‘Don’t forget your hat.’ I said, ‘I didn’t wear a hat.’
He said, ‘Give me the contract,’ and he ripped it up.

“It was probably 10 blocks back to the office, and I was sure by the time I got to the office and told Lebhar about this, I was out. I had been working there three months, hadn’t made a nickel. My salary, incidentally, was 50-bucks a week. We survived because my wife was making 85! The commission on that sale was over $5,000.

“By the time I got to the office there was, on my desk, a small, miniature hatbox. I opened up the hatbox, and inside was a gift certificate. On it was a note that said, ‘You wear shoes when you call on the shoemaker.’

“The end of the story is that I called him up and thanked him for the gift certificate for the hat, and he said to me, “It was a good move that you called on me. Bring me back the contract.” And I did, and he signed it, and he also gave me a hat.”

“Bringing call letters to life,” The Palm Beach Post reviews Towers in the Sand


Caption: Bill Gordon in the WPTV Channel 5 “Action News” car 1960

The Palm Beach Post published its review of Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting.

Longtime staff writer and presentation editor Jan Tuckwood really captured the spirit of the book, “sprinkling funny anecdotes about crazy characters and gimmicks,” with serious stuff, like ”The industry .  . . has survived dramatic change — from analog to digital, from charismatic solo owners to corporate giants, from networks to cable … and now internet streaming services like Roku and Hulu. But none of the new technology can replace free, over-the-air news when a big hurricane hits and wireless fails.”

Click here to read the online edition.

Towers in the Sand is available now in paperback ($29.99) and e-book ($8.99) editions. Click here to order.

Fla broadcasters prep for hurricane threat, as they have since 1926

September 30, 2016: With Hurricane Matthew intensifying and a forecast right turn bringing the cone of probabilities dangerously close to Florida’s east coast, broadcasters across the state are dusting off hurricane plans largely left dormant since the last major storms struck the state in 2005. Broadcasters on the state’s Gulf Coast and Panhandle had a refresher when Hurricane Hermine came ashore as a Cat 1 storm early this month. As reported in Inside Radio (September 6, 2016), “radio was ready to provide needed information and to comfort listeners with constant updates.”

Coverage of hurricanes and other natural and manmade disasters has been a cornerstone of broadcasting since the industry’s early days. And while radio and television have undergone dramatic changes and consolidation in the past few decades, most owners and managers still hold true to the admonition to serve “in the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

Broadcasters have provided lifesaving news and information about hurricanes since Florida’s first stations were licensed in 1922. The new book, Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, chronicles every storm to strike the state and the efforts of radio and television stations to keep their audiences safe. The book is available now in paperback and e-book formats at

Following is an excerpt from Towers in the Sand about The Great Miami and Pensacola Hurricane. (The author gratefully acknowledges the book Florida’s Hurricane History by Jay Barnes © 1998 University of North Carolina Press, which served as a constant source of hurricane information.)

1926-hurricane-mia-newsThe US Weather Bureau described the September 1926 storm as “probably the most destructive hurricane ever to strike the United States,” entering one of Florida’s most populous areas—the southeast coastal cities of Fort Lauderdale, Dania, Hollywood, Hallandale, and Miami before crossing the state and the Gulf of Mexico to continue its destruction in Pensacola.

Florida historian Stuart McIver, writing for Ft. Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel, set the stage: “It had not been a good year for South Florida. A wild real-estate boom had collapsed. Millionaires at the end of 1925 had become poor folks by the middle of 1926. Solid citizens skipped monthly payments and tax bills—and lost their homes. Businesses failed. The sun still shown, but its rays bounced off the bleaching skeletons of unfinished buildings. Where had the good times of the Roaring ’20s gone? Oh, well, thought battered Floridians, things couldn’t get worse. And then they did, on September 18, 1926. ”

The storm that would become known as the Great Miami and Pensacola Hurricane received little attention from local newspapers. The day before it struck, the Miami Herald ran a short story on page one, but said it wasn’t expected to hit Florida. That afternoon, the Miami News said “destructive winds” were expected by late evening. “The word ‘hurricane’ was not used in the story, and the citizens of Miami ended their Friday with no concept of the turmoil that was about to overtake them,” wrote Jay Barnes.

WQAM in Miami had the foresight to install a dedicated telephone line to the US Weather Bureau office on Northeast First Street and First Avenue—claiming to be the only station in the country to be so prepared. The phone line was in place well before the storm but provided little advantage since the science of predicting hurricanes was so primitive. Richard W. Gray, the official in charge of the Miami office, received only sketchy information from the national weather office in Washington. According to McIver’s report, the Weather Bureau issued an advisory at 10:00 a.m. September 17 about “‘a very severe storm’ that would pass through Nassau early Friday evening in a direction that would push it onto the Florida coast.” Barnes said that Gray didn’t raise the red and black hurricane flags until “the storm’s first squalls raked the Florida coast at 11:30 p.m.” Even so, WQAM’s storm warnings were later credited with saving thousands of lives as the hurricane smashed into Dade and Broward counties.

WQAM went off the air when the station lost power at some point during the storm, but perhaps not before playing a lifesaving role as the hurricane’s eye passed over Miami about six thirty Saturday morning, September 18. “Battered Floridians rejoiced at the brief lull the eye brought,” McIver wrote. “Many ventured out, kissed the ground and gave thanks they had been spared. Others piled into cars and tried to drive back to the mainland over coastal causeways and bridges. A horrified Richard Gray left his Miami Weather Bureau . . . and cried out: ‘The storm’s not over! We’re in the lull! Get back to safety! The worst is yet to come!’” The backside of the eye came ashore with winds of 140 mph from the opposite direction. Many of the one hundred deaths in Miami were attributed to people leaving safety during the lull of the eye.

As the storm swept out of Miami on a northwesterly course, it is hoped but not documented that WQAM’s powerful signal gave some warning to the residents around Lake Okeechobee. But there, as is often the case with hurricanes, it was the water, not the wind, that was the killer. As Barnes wrote: “In the years prior to the hurricane’s arrival, the state had undertaken a massive reclamation project to drain the Everglades’ vast grasslands for farming. Heavy rains in 1922 and 1924 had caused the lake’s level to rise, and the citizens of Moore Haven [on the southwestern shore of the lake] had built a muck dike to protect themselves from future floods. But the state of Florida and the people of Moore Haven had underestimated the awesome impact a major hurricane could have on the waters of Okeechobee.”

The hurricane whipped up the lake waters, and the counterclockwise flow piled the water on the southern shore. The dikes failed, and a massive liquid wall demolished homes and flooded the town with fifteen feet of muddy water. The death toll was estimated at 150–300.

WDBO in Orlando, owned by Rollins College, was on the fringe of the worst weather, and after WQAM was silenced became the only voice for the southern half of the state. “It operated for 84 successive hours, giving a graphic story of the catastrophe and detailed news bulletins,” said a wire service report carried nationwide.

Exiting the Lower Peninsula near Naples, the massive hurricane regained strength in the warm Gulf waters. Pensacola newspapers reported the death and destruction in South Florida as the beast took aim at the Northwest Gulf Coast September 19. Storm flags flew atop the American National Bank—the tallest building in Pensacola. “By sunrise on September 20, the hurricane’s eye was just south of Florida’s westernmost city, and the storm was slowing down. Its gradual turn toward the west just before landfall took it inland near Gulf Shores, Alabama, around mid-morning. But its slow movement along the coast delivered prolonged devastation to the region around Pensacola,” wrote Barnes.

The city-owned radio station, WCOA, had signed on just seven months earlier. Originally intended to be a promotional arm of the city and its chamber of commerce, touting the virtues of the Wonderful City Of Advantages, the station was now facing uncharted waters as the only instantaneous source of critical information needed to survive the storm.

WCOA’s storm coverage was being monitored by WSM-AM, a radio station in Nashville on the desirable frequency of 650, which extended its coverage to much of the eastern United States, especially at night. As the storm approached, WSM and WCOA were in two-way communication, and that dialogue was picked-up by WDBO in Orlando. The cooperative effort of the three stations, as well as others across the nation, provides a compelling story of the storm: “Throughout Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday [September 20–22] WDBO continued to keep schedule with stations all over the country, supplying the latest news and aiding its listeners as best it could. Many sad scenes were enacted in the offices of WDBO. Fathers and mothers having daughters and sons in the storm area came to see the list of dead and injured being compiled by the station.
“One of the most interesting features of the radio storm broadcast was the tracing of the path of the storm as it continued its ravaging course across the state. Both WMBF and WIOD, Miami’s two stations, were wrecked. The passing of WCOA at Pensacola, as carried by WDBO’s operator, James Yarborough, provides a thrilling incident which came at the height of the storm . . . the [WCOA] operator reported that the wind was then blowing at 40 miles an hour . . . that conditions were becoming alarming and that the wind was rising rapidly in velocity. At 3 in the morning the velocity was placed at 75 miles an hour and WCOA reported conditions were becoming worse . . . Yarborough heard WCOA state the wind had reached a velocity of 100 miles an hour and it was doubtful if the station could hold out much longer. The towers were swaying badly.
“The master thrill came shortly before 4, says Yarborough. ‘The Pensacola station was attempting to outline the conditions there and within a minute after it reported its towers were swaying and things were about to go out, WCOA’s sentence was abruptly broken. A sudden howl wrenched the air, and all was silent. I listened and immediately I heard WSM call: WCOA, are you there? WCOA, are you there? WCOA, what has happened? There was no response—just silence.’”

. . .

According to Florida’s Hurricane History, “The Weather Bureau recorded winds of hurricane force for more than twenty consecutive hours; winds of over 100 mph were recorded for five hours . . . Almost every pier, wharf, boat, and warehouse on Pensacola Bay was destroyed. The storm tide reached a peak of 9.4 feet above normal at Pensacola, 10.4 feet at Fort Pickens, and 14 feet at Bagdad. Large vessels were cast into the streets . . . No deaths were directly attributed to the hurricane in the Pensacola area, but the number of deaths from malaria and pneumonia increased significantly in the months after the storm. The total damages in the city were estimated at $4.3 million.”
. . . From all accounts WCOA’s manager and chief announcer, John E. Frenkel Sr., performed admirably before, during, and after the hurricane struck the city. The Pensacola News said WCOA “is literally swamped with cards, letters and notations commending the station for its excellent work in scattering warnings previous to the hurricane of a week ago.” Typical was a letter from Richard Joseph Scott of Montrose, Alabama, who wrote: “Our first thought, now that communication is established between us and the outside world, is to congratulate you on the excellent service rendered forecasting the path of the hurricane which did so much damage through Florida and our section. Our particular situation is such that the service was invaluable to our peace of mind and comfort. Montrose is situated on the Eastern shore of Mobile Bay, having lines of communication only through telephone and boat service to Mobile . . . The boats went out of service Sunday [September 26] and we lost our telephone wires Sunday midnight, leaving us in touch with the storm’s progress only through medium of radio. ”

WCOA’s storm warnings were also credited with saving at least two commercial fishing boats. Captain J. H. Laird and Horace Coburger of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Company, and Captain Van Lark of the Bay City Fisheries fleet “called at the city hall to extend their thanks for invaluable aid received,” reported the Pensacola Daily News. “Captain Van Lark has a Crosley 5-tube set aboard his boat and daily takes time from the WCOA bulletins. Last Thursday [September 23] on the Campeche banks he tuned in to hear Pensacola predicting the coming storm. At subsequent periods he heard the warning repeated and mapped his course to steer clear of the hurricane. ‘My course originally would have thrown me through the storm, but by means of the warnings, I came through without the least damage . . . the hurricane warning saved the lives of ten of my men and myself’ . . . Mr. Coburger, a former resident of Pensacola, said that warnings from WCOA were picked up by Captain Roy Ecker 100 miles offshore aboard the smack Hazen C. causing [him] to return to port, saving the boat and the lives of his crew . . . ‘I am going to order radio sets for each of the boats which my company operates.’”
On a lighter note, Captain Van Lark referred to WCOA as his best friend. “You don’t know how we enjoy the programs at sea, and have no trouble in getting the Pensacola station while on fishing banks . . . just think how many more sailors and fishermen are given pleasure on the lone watches of the sea.”
After the storm, WDBO in Orlando produced an early version of a telethon “which swept the country and was taken up by more than 15 stations” to raise money for storm relief.