Tiny station plays hero's role
The Florida Times-Union - Thursday, July 9, 1998
Author: Charlie Patton, Times-Union television writer
At one point last weekend, Joan Heller, who was serving as press liaison for Brevard County's Emergency Operations Center, found herself holding messages from four news operations. Wanting the latest information on the fires that had forced the evacuations of several communities near Titusville, including Mims and Scottsmoor, were a large Orlando radio station, CNN, USA Today and WPGS (840 AM), a little 250-watt station in Mims. "It was obvious which one I would call back first," said Heller, whose usual job is public information officer for the Brevard County Sheriff's Office. "I was going to call the station that could get the information to the people most affected. CNN had to wait for WPGS." Heller and Jim Baumberger, a retiree who volunteers at the Mims Chamber of Commerce and serves on the board of directors of the Mims United Methodist Church, both used the word "terrific" to describe the efforts of the tiny radio station and its owner, Ed Shiflett. The station kept the 4,500 residents of Mims and the 2,000 residents of Scottsmoor, as well as the people of nearby Titusville, informed during last week's fires. Normally Shiflett's small station broadcasts only during daylight hours and carries mostly syndicated fare, primarily talk programs from the American Community Oriented Radio Network (ACORN), headquartered in White Springs. But Shiflett, who works for the American Community Oriented Radio Network (ACORN), made the decision on July 1, when fires first threatened Mims, to go on the air with local reports and stay on the air as long as possible, ignoring an evacuation order that covered the WPGS studio and the rural residential neighborhood where the station's transmitter tower is located. He continued broadcasting for about 80 hours until, with fires under control Saturday evening, "me and my voice gave out." The sheriff's office did not press him to evacuate, instead supplying him with hourly updates. To keep the station on the air, volunteers, including Shiflett's brother Earl and WPGS' engineer, Jay Rowan, went to the transmitter tower to make sure it didn't lose electricity. In the wee hours of July 2, Earl Shiflett climbed the 150-foot tower so he could report the progress of the flames. But Rowan "was the real hero," Shiflett said. "He decided his transmitter was not going to burn down." Rowan and neighbors helped beat back the flames. The tower turned out to be at "the epicenter of what occurred," said Shiflett. At one point, Rowan reported that the tower was surrounded by fire on all sides. Thirty-three homes within 3 miles of the tower were destroyed. "It's only by the grace of God it was saved," Shiflett said. "The whole street is burned except for the tower and two houses next to it." "I would say we talked to them more than we talked to anyone," Heller said. "They did a remarkable job." "Bless their hearts, it really meant a lot," Baumberger said. "They cared about what was going on in the community." That, said Shiflett, is the message he hopes comes through. His radio station, which he has owned for six years, doesn't make any profit and survives only because of the efforts of volunteers, he said. But it serves a real purpose.