Ian efforts earn WGCU-FM Radio Station of the Year award

5 – minute read

WGCU staff
WGCU staff members celebrate winning 2022 Radio Station of the Year at the Florida Association of Broadcast Journalists’ annual awards.

The WGCU group photo was decidedly more joyous – and far less storm-weary – than anything its growing staff might have taken roughly half a year earlier. Gathered in Orlando for the Florida Association of Broadcast Journalists’ annual awards in late April, the staff of 14 beamed in photographs as WGCU-FM was named the 2022 Radio Station of the Year in front of cheering public and commercial station peers.


“The Station of the Year is for all radio stations in all size markets in Florida,” said Amy Shumaker, associate general manager of WGCU Public Media, which includes PBS television among its multiple broadcast and digital media platforms.


“To be recognized among all the commercial media in radio for the work we did, that is definitely something we’re very proud of. We were so excited to get that.”

WGCU-FM was recognized largely for its continuous coverage before, during and after Hurricane Ian struck Southwest Florida in late September. The credit goes to the station’s growing team.

“The model is hopefully to double everything,” said Corey Lewis, WGCU general manager. Lewis has already grown WGCU’s news staff from six to 16 “local voices” – a mix of full-time staff and contributors – as part of a five-year strategic plan announced not long after his arrival in spring 2021. “If we had not built up the staff before the hurricane hit, we would not have been able to be the factor we were because we wouldn’t have had enough people. Because we had a larger staff, we were really able to be a lifeline to the community.”


During the storm, which made landfall Sept. 28 as a strong category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 150 mph, WGCU-FM didn’t miss a minute of on-air time. It kept delivering locally produced updates while television, internet, cell service and other information sources faltered.

From 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. the day the storm struck, WGCU alternated between 15 minutes of its own locally produced coverage and same-length segments from the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network based at the University of Florida in Gainesville.


At the same time, WGCU housed other displaced local journalists, including about 40 staff from WFTX Fox 4. After Hurricane Irma rendered Fox 4’s Cape Coral studios unusable in 2017, the station signed a deal with WGCU to use its television studios in emergencies.

A few local newspaper reporters embedded at WGCU also established a makeshift newsroom for several days.


As Shumaker noted in WGCU’s awards submission to the journalists’ association, “every office in the building was packed with air mattresses and duffle bags.”


“We all kind of looked at it as there’s no competition here — we’re all serving the public interest,” WGCU associate general manager Kevin Trueblood told public media industry publication Current last fall. “That’s what matters right now.”


The day after the storm struck, National Public Radio sent WGCU reporter Eileen Kelley and WGCU photographer Tom James up in a helicopter to document the devastation for national broadcast on “All Things Considered.”

Corey Lewis, WGCU General Manager
“There’s not a lot of NPR stations in the country that can be the No. 1 station in the morning,” Corey Lewis said.

In the ensuing weeks, the news team – even though several of its rank and file were significantly impacted by the hurricane – continued to document the storm’s aftermath. They also provided information for those needing help or wanting to offer it. Lewis said traffic on WGCU’s website surged up to four times normal amounts because of the storm coverage. But it has remained more than double its prior tallies, year over year. This is one of several signs WGCU’s expansion efforts are working.


“I think we’re getting everyone’s attention,” said Lewis, noting WGCU-FM was No. 1 in Nielsen’s local ratings for “morning drive” in the spring and fall survey periods of 2022 (Nielsen Audio, Ft. Myers-Naples TSA (October-December) and (April-June) Average Quarter-Hour Persons Estimates, Monday-Friday, 5AM-10AM, Persons 18+).


“There’s not a lot of NPR stations in the country that can be the No. 1 station in the morning,” he said.

Since arriving at WGCU after 15 years as station manager at NPR station WBUR-Boston, Lewis has increased WGCU-FM’s local programming from four to 12 hours a day while growing staff across all WGCU entities from 32 to 45 employees.


Plans are for that number to reach nearly 80 by 2026, including fundraisers for the member-supported station, if WGCU is to continue serving its community, Lewis said.


“We need to grow with this community,” said Lewis, noting that many WGCU supporters came from cities where public radio stations have larger staffs producing more local content.  “We have to live up to that. That’s frankly what some of our largest philanthropists are striving for. They want that same resource they left behind in bigger cities.”

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