- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Hurricane Isabel is expected to pound the mid-Atlantic region with heavy rain and wind this week, but it is nothing compared with the pounding Washingtonians are taking from television and radio stations tracking the storm.

The local news has become all Isabel, all the time.

The story has led most local newscasts since Sunday. Stations have sent reporters to the eastern shores of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Footage of residents stocking up on bottled water, batteries and bathroom tissue is airing on a consistent loop. Satellite images of the storm lurk ominously over news anchors’ shoulders.

Inside local newsrooms, managers, reporters and producers have debated the same question: How much Isabel is too much?

The answer is this: A lot isn’t enough.

“At this point, I don’t think you can do too much. Basically, this is the one story that is on everyone’s mind. There is a thirst for information,” said Bill Lord, senior vice president of news for ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7) and its sister cable network, NewsChannel 8.

The storm is not expected to reach the Washington area until tomorrow night at the earliest. In the meantime, stations are filling their airtime with chatter about preparing for Isabel.

Washington’s main forecasters — Doug Hill, Sue Palka, Bob Ryan and Topper Shutt — are answering the same kinds of questions they do during winter storms: When will Isabel arrive? How big will it be? Where can we hide from it?

Weather forecasters aren’t the only ones covering Isabel.

On the 5 p.m. newscast on WRC-TV (Channel 4) yesterday, consumer reporter Liz Crenshaw devoted a portion of her popular “Ask Liz” segment to answering viewers’ questions about bottling tap water in preparation for the storm. Earlier, technology reporter I.J. Hudson sat down to talk with an expert about preserving computer batteries during a power outage.

Even the news about Isabel has become news.

“USA Tonight,” the high-minded local newscast that debuted on CBS affiliate WUSA-TV (Channel 9) last week, devoted a segment Monday evening to news coverage of the storm. Reporter Jennifer Ryan interviewed Tony Pann, one of the station’s meteorologists, and an American University journalism professor about “the fine line” between scaring viewers and keeping them informed.

“I don’t think you can overhype this thing. There are developments that are changing by the hour. It would be irresponsible to not provide comprehensive coverage,” said David Roberts, WUSA’s vice president and news director.

A lot of money also is at stake. Weather is the most popular feature of local news. Weather drives ratings, which drives advertising revenue.

The national networks, particularly the cable news channels, are getting in on the story, too.

Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC have added updates about Isabel to their round-the-clock coverage of the war in Iraq, the Democratic presidential race and the apparent broken engagement of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.

Ratings for the Weather Channel were up 95 percent over normal levels Monday, according to Nielsen Media Research figures that the network provided.

Local news managers say they will shift to hourly updates as the storm gets closer. Once Isabel makes landfall, stations say, they are prepared to offer round-the-clock coverage of any flooding, damage and power outages that may result.

In case of a power outage, hurricane watchers can stay informed by radio.

All-news station WTOP (1500 AM and 107.7 FM) said it will have reporters working round the clock to cover the storm. Management at WMAL-AM (630) said it is prepared to bump its talk show lineup to carry news about Isabel.

“If the power goes out, most people don’t have battery-powered TVs. They do have battery-powered radios,” said Jim Farley, WTOP’s vice president of news and programming.

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