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Radio station is the lone voice after the storm

When a massive storm and high winds knocked out power across much of the Northland on the morning of July 21, local television stations went dark and radio stations turned quiet.

Northwoods Radio General Manager Kerry Rodd said it was about 3 a.m. when the Cloquet-based radio station lost power, along with all of Duluth’s TV and radio stations and just about every other radio station from the Iron Range to Hayward, Wis.

Rodd and Operations Manager Jake Kachinske drove in to see what they could do at about 4 a.m., which basically amounted to drinking coffee, canvassing Cloquet to assess the damage and making plans for the morning show … if and when the power came back on.

But the timing of the storm was kind to the Cloquet station, which broadcasts WKLK AM and WKLK FM plus WMOZ FM. The station’s owner, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, had recently completed renovations at the Stark Road transmitting station, including a large generator with a plentiful supply of propane.

Of course, that didn’t matter at first, because downtown Cloquet was in the dark for several  hours, but as soon as the station on Cloquet Avenue got power at about 6:35 a.m., Rodd raced out to Stark Road and started up the new and previously untested generator.

“It took off like an airplane engine,” said Rodd, adding that work to connect the generator to its propane supply had just been completed on Monday. “All the lights went on in the building and the tower, and I called Jake and told him, ‘You should be ready to go in about 20 seconds.’ Then boom! We were on the air.”

The radio station spent the next four hours in “storm coverage format,” which means no programming, just the radio hosts helping the authorities get news out to the public, and residents and others calling in with information or questions or messages for loved ones. They “trimulcast” on all three stations, which meant the program was reaching listeners as far away as Chisholm, McGregor, Sandstone, Two Harbors and Ashland, Wis.

“We took close to 500 calls, from tree services to power companies to the general public, calls from everywhere,” Rodd said. “People were trying to get information, they had nowhere else to turn. It was a throwback to the radio days of old when radio was the only place to get live information.”

As the day progressed and got hotter, the radio station also coordinated with the Fond du Lac emergency management services to get word out to residents about cooling centers, how to respond to downed power lines, and more. They also conveyed messages to loved ones.

“One guy called us to try to get word to his sister, whose cell phone had died, saying ‘I want my sister to know that I’m bringing a generator so keep your freezer shut,’” Rodd said. “Others were reporting downed trees and blocked roads, or power crews they saw coming down Highway 210.”

It was exhilarating, gratifying and exhausting, but a great feeling to be able to serve the public that way, Rodd said.

“Some people were really emotional, I think because they didn’t know what to think and they couldn’t get any information because they were without power,” Rodd said. “And we were that calming voice.

“It’s just amazing when you realize how many people were completely and literally in the dark, both in knowledge of what happened and what was happening. It was just nuts.”

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