Friday, August 21, 2009

Tweeting the Twister


Last night a massive storm front slammed through Southern Ontario dropping a half dozen tornadoes all around, as well as in, the town where I live. This morning, the city of Vaughn and the town of Durham are still under declared states of emergency as they cope with considerable damage. Fortunately, there is only one confirmed death so far, an eleven year old boy who was camping with his mom, but many people are still missing.

The storms came in a wishbone shaped double wave with the first front hitting just before 6:00 pm. I was working at the computer, suddenly aware that the outside light had virtually disappeared. I looked up to see a black sky turn green with two funnel clouds forming to the North and West. This is far from Tornado alley, but any idiot could have realized what was happening.

Unfortunately, a special breed of idiots remains in charge of local Canadian television, for the station I had on in the office hadn’t even issued a storm warning.

I sprinted out to herd in the livestock, realizing we might be in serious trouble when I found my sheepdog already sitting completely still dead center of the house. The cat shot in from the deck and despite hating the dog even more than she hates me, took up a position right under the pooch.

The local radio station that was on in the kitchen was spitting out storm warnings as fast as it could, also letting me know that Durham had been hit hard. I sealed the windows against the monsoon as massive lightning strikes that looked like a map of the circulatory system began hitting about every five seconds.

Since the lightning was now crackling the radio so much it was unlistenable and local television was in news hour mode, I went back to the TV to find out what was happening.

I learned that the Lockerbie bomber had been released, the Prime Minister was enjoying his trip through the Arctic and Hurricane Bill was threatening Bermuda. Nothing about what was happening right outside my window and less than 30 clicks from where these broadcasts were originating.

To be sure, there had been a mention of Durham, where the first Tornado had hit an hour earlier and that there were “suspected” touch downs of funnel clouds in Vaughn and my hometown of Newmarket. But no details. No raw video from a courageous videographer. No field reporters ducking flying cows.

In the centralized model of Canadian local TV I’d predicted months ago but never thought might ever personally affect me, the two million people who live just beyond the Greater Toronto Area had no television service addressing the imminent threat they all faced.

Instead, I was treated to the same pre-packaged news segments, the same smiling meat puppets and the same banal “Sparky, what the heck’s happened to my Blue Jays?” banter.

By now, the weather site on my computer was giving me moving satellite maps and Doppler radar showing the second, much larger wall of storms approaching fast and a couple of my friends were Tweeting blocked roads and that the Twister in Newmarket had hit a children’s riding competition at the Canadian Equestrian Centre.

I started longing for the platoons of bubblehead blondes who appear on every LA street corner after an earthquake tremor, clutching their microphones and bug-eyed with intensity.

Can you imagine that many hot buttons (Tornado, kids in jeopardy, terrified ponies) being pushed in a market that actually tries to cover local news?

I kid – but consider for a moment that you are monitoring police bands in a Canadian TV newsroom and hear that a Tornado has hit a horse farm where hundreds of kids are participating in a riding competition. Wouldn’t that strike you as somewhat important, that maybe those hundreds of kids had parents who might want to know their children were in need of assistance?

But nobody reported any of that information even as the hyper-animated ass clown who does local weather on CTV finally started to show the Doppler I’d been getting online for an hour. You almost felt sorry for the poor schmuck. It was obvious that he was starting to grasp the enormity of what was happening and that hundreds of thousands of people within the sound of his voice were quite possibly in grave danger. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t shake his “Hippy-Dippy” on-air persona and be real for a change.

By the time the newscast ended, the streets around my home were fast-flowing, axle-deep rivers. A three foot thick tree down the block had been snapped in half and roofing material was skittering past everywhere.

I got Tweets saying every ambulance and fire truck in town was headed to the Equestrian Centre, that trees were blocking streets and barns had imploded. But my local news stations had all gone back to regular programming.

Try to get your heads around that…


If it had been up to them, these guys would have held off coverage of 9/11 until “Regis and Kelly” was over.

So I started Tweeting, in the hope that somebody following might get information they could use:





Sorry, lost it a little there and went for the Fox News version of news coverage.




Once the rain let up a little, I piled in the car to see if I could help at the Equestrian Centre as well as check on a friend who lives right next door to it. Power was out everywhere, trees snapped in half, debris all over the place. It looked like the twister had scored a direct hit on the show ring. It was gone. Horse trailers were shattered, over-turned and tossed into ditches. Barn roofs and doors had been torn away.

Cars lined both sides of the road, locals like me who’d come to lend a hand. OPP and York Region Cops were comforting terrified pre-teen girls in Jodphurs and riding boots as nearby farmers filled arriving horse trailers with dozens of skittish horses. A paramedic nearby was assuring a distraught woman that nobody had been seriously hurt as a cop let people know they could go back home.

“Nothing more you can do here.”

But there is something more I can do.

I can ask where the hell that $150 Million went.

I can demand to know why the people who are supposed to bring me local news are completely incapable of doing that.

I can try to discover why a part of the country with the largest concentration of media we’ve ever known didn’t get the journalism they pay for or even received the most basic level of service.

I’m sure CTV and Global will plead poverty and whine that they no longer have the staff to support their mandate and also need to rely on the Ad revenue from celebrity gossip to stay afloat in these “tough economic times”. Hell, they’ll probably use this tragedy to ask for EVEN MORE money from tax payers.

So, let’s be honest with ourselves. The people who run broadcasting in this country care more about Ricky Martin’s babies than yours and have more time for cell phone footage of Brad Pitt asleep than any programming Canadians might create.

We could write our MPs or complain to the CRTC. But it’s clear they’re not going to do anything.

At the most the CRTC will hold more secret meetings while denying that they even knew there were meetings.

The Greed and incompetence in our industry and the unwillingness of our elected representatives to act has reached a point where our television industry is no longer relevant to anyone.

Local TV is officially dead in Canada and it went not with a bang but a Twitter.


John O said...

Great post, Jim.
The CRTC and the privates will never change. It's a club designed to extract money out of the rest of us.
They're irrelevant.

Dwight Williams said...


Plain and simply obscene. Worse than any sex video can ever be accused of being.

Your outrage over this is sane and just. And I will sign my name to that.

Mark Mayerson said...

Screw the feds and screw the CRTC. Why don't a bunch of people in your area launch a class action lawsuit against the local broadcasters for criminal negligence?

Anonymous said...

Why no mention of the CBC? At least CP 24 had coverage - checked on Newsworld and they were playing a Marketplace REPEAT. What's with the CBC and their new strategy? Seems like no changes there either....

jimhenshaw said...

CBC was knocked off the air early. Don't know why.

Or, maybe they figured the storm was only hitting areas that had voted for the Conservatives who were hammering their budget and therefore deserved whatever they got.

Anonymous said...

It was an embarrassment for CBC Radio.
Freakin 680 radio owned the story and CBC radio came on literally when the storm clouds cleared at report what HAD happened.

680 tracked the storm as it moved across the city, with something like 5 reporters.

I'm no fan of 680, but given that cbc radio was broadcasting AS IT HAPPENS and REVISION QUEST at the time, i had no choice.

Dwight Williams said...

The budget cuts, sad to say, are a genuine stumbling block to CBC doing what they would and ought to do in situations like this. More's the pity that it's true.

deborah Nathan said...

I too watched the play-by-play on CP24 - since it wasn't worthy of air time anyplace else. Whenever there is any kind of storm, Buffalo cuts into feeds and has a runner at the bottom of the screen to announce the warning and level. But, that would be too much to ask of our networks.

Alex Epstein said...

So, what's a model for something better that we could usefully demand from Parliament? I agree this sucks. But since we don't get to throw the rascals out, what's the best we can realistically shoot for?

Anonymous said...

Actually CBC 6 o'clock news was all over it, warning people for the whole hour. Going to miss that news when they push it to 5pm to make room for Wheel and Jepordy

DMc said...

Actually, like everything else to do with the CBC, it's a little more complicated than that.

CBC is a local station, and a National radio network, too. And when it's "national time" there's not really the infrastructure to go live and local. It's actually quite complex to switch from the network to the local. They're not good at making that transition fast, that's true - b/c it's a bureaucracy. But It's not like the local newsroom is staffed to go live and local -- even in Toronto, that is not the thing's mandate. They do newscasts, and at that time of day, they do national programs. And everybody pretty much knows that if you're going to go live, you go with 680 News, who do have reporters out and covering the city all the time.

This is one of the times you can't whack the CBC for not being all things to all people all the time. CBC Radio is not supposed to be a reactive, go live service.

The question is how did CBC cover the storm in its TV newscast. I don't know; I didn't see. And Jim said it was knocked out in his area.

If CBC TV local screwed up the reportage of the storm during its newscast that's something. But CBC isn't the one doing the disingenuous "Save Local TV" campaign. If you're going to live on that hill, you shouldn't be shocked when somebody holds you to it. Presumbably all the locals - CTV and Global, were in the midst of prepping their early newscasts. They had the equipment, technology, and staff to go live. Not only didn't they do that -- when it came to the scheduled newscasts they STILL missed the story. #fail

jimhenshaw said...

Your defense of the CBC is logical and laudable, DMc, and according to Anonymous, they were all over the story anyway, and you can't get a more reliable source than him.

But I gotta say, it was one of those moments (at least here in Tornado Alley) where somebody needed to step up, jump over whatever bureaucracy or ruts were in place and "do their real job".

I mean good for a terrorist to know that if they strike during CBC's lunch hour they've got a shot at doing further damage before anybody gets the word out.

And Alex has the real point, "Okay, this sucks, what needs to change?"

I think it's simple -- force the broadcasters to live up to their terms of license. If they can't, give the licenses to people who will.

I was in Brandon when Channel Zero took over that former CTV station and they made it very clear that they felt they had a go-local mandate. I understand Hamilton is doing the same and if the staff of Global's Victoria station can succeed in purchasing it, that's also what they plan to do.

It borders on criminal negligence that three so-called local stations serving more than 2 Million people who live beyond the GTA border can't or won't serve the needs of that population in a crisis.

Imagine what people in Kamloops and Red Deer and other far less serviced regions would have been dealing with if the same weather system had passed through there.

We already know Global, CTV and Rogers would be quite content if Canadian artists just went somewhere to die and now it looks like they have the same opinion of everybody else.

Megan said...

I miss the civil defense sirens. You're absolutely right that the media should be spreading alerts of a truly dangerous situation much more effectively, but what happened to the old systems?

I grew up in the U.S. "tornado alley" zone, and everyone in town was in earshot of sirens. You would hear that siren multiple times over the summer, and everyone who could hear would know to take shelter.

Perhaps the modern equivalent is the system my employer has in place where a text message is sent out in any emergency situation to everyone who's subscribed. We have to be prepared to communicate to people where they are, and they're not at home watching TV or listening to the radio in the car anymore.

ribby said...

Great post Jim, I'll retweet and FB this story of Epic Fail on the part of the networks...

Disgusting doesn't begin to describe it.

You're right, 680 had the goods. We laugh at Buffalo TV but at least they have the Storm Watch thing happening.

Maribeth Solomon

Anonymous said...

Hey Jim:
Remember when we were kids in the fifties and every major city and town was equipped with cold war air raid sirens !
There was millions of dollars for imagined Russian threats, but when they were dismantled we were assured by our federal government that local broadcasters would now take up the slack and tell the populace of danger approaching (including Tornadoes and Plow winds) AS per usual, Canadian television stations run primarily on auto pilot and are not accountable for public safety. This should be law...if you are going to suckle on the public tit, then damn well provide public security service. Time to call our MPs now, as global warming dictates increased dangerous weather patterns for the globe. Only a human cry will get Harper's attention.....while people are dying in Ontario from natural calamity.....Harper and McKay float around on Submarines in the north fighting another imagined Russian Threat! Disgusting. While Newmarket and Durham crumble...Harper tells us arctic sovereignty is the real threat. Sad that it reminds me of Bush pouring Billions into the Iraq war and then ignoring Katrina`s impact because `those people were told to leave and they didn`t,..... so there!.....Time to stick it to our broadcasters and demand a safety warning system...we have the technology.

joel scott

Dwight Williams said...

(Richard Anderson voice impression)

But we must never have the capability.

(/Richard Anderson voice impression)

Troy Payne said...

An excellent post Mr. Henshaw. You create a compelling narrative. My thoughts go out to you and your community.

And, being from the US, I can empathize with your frustration about the public bailouts of corporate incompetents being delivered into the hands of those same incompetents. I don't know if we invented this sort of policy down here but we certainly seemed to have mastered it.

But my real reason for posting is to ask if you and or your community might be interested in a Low Power FM radio station. Though I am far from an expert, I have had some experience with setting up a couple of these here in the US and would be happy to share any information that I have about it.

I confess I am completely ignorant of Canadian law in this regard, but, after jumping all the licensing hurdles, I was surprised at how simple it was technically to get the stations up and running.

In any event, if any of this is of interest, please feel free to contact me.


Troy Payne

wp said...

I was in the area at the time and saw the funnel clouds, but thankfully had the Weather Channel on. Call me a cynic, but I had an inkling the local news teams would drop the ball on this so I didn't bother changing the channel.

Ian MacIntyre said...

Hey there, I know this post is 2 months old but I thought you might be interested (great post by the way). I had CTV on last night and they showed a commercial for their weather coverage, using clips of this actual tornado and the aftermath, and had the gall to spout the cliched "When tornadoes wracked the GTA, CTV was there" garbage. Later that night I also saw the competing "Save local broadcasting - screw the broadcasters!" and "Save the cable companies from the broadcasters!" commercials. Grumble...

I'm a young actor/ writer here in Toronto... looks like this career path is going to diappear from Canada entirely before I even get started.

Andrew Masuda said...

As per Dennis Mcgrath's suggestion, I fwded this post to my MP, the Honourable Jack Layton. I don't expect anything to change any time soon.

I would love to simply give up television and the internet as an expression of protest, but then my roommate would kill me. But I do read more library books these days, and follow this site and others more at work.