A pandemic and a flood weren’t enough to take out Fort Payne’s only radio station, WZOB 1250 AM. They only missed about a week of broadcasting despite five feet of water filling the building 24 days ago.
The station, located at 1605 Radio Drive SW, became mostly submerged under stormwater when heavy rains from Easter Sunday storms caused Big Wills Creek to overflow its banks. Engineer Steve O’Neal said he was at the station keeping an eye on the rising waters before the station became overwhelmed.
“It wasn’t raining that hard at the time, but around 11 in the evening on Sunday night, the water was up to the steps,” he said. When O’Neal returned in the morning, police had Alabama Highway 35 closed. He said he thought there might have been a wreck. Moving closer, the area looked like the start of a Biblical catastrophe.
Station Manager Doris Hobbs said seeing the radio station in that condition “felt like losing a loved one. Once the storm waters receded, it was like a muddy football field inside. It wasn’t clean water like from a busted pipe.”
A line on the inside wall marks where the water reached. Items floated into different spaces, including a plunger from the bathroom that was found sitting atop the console where the announcers sit while on the air. Hobbs said O’Neal worked 12-hour days for about three weeks cleaning up equipment and gradually increasing the wattage of their signal until they returned to the 5000 watts they normally use to broadcast.
“Amazing work by our hero and engineer, Steve O'Neal. He worked tirelessly, almost around the clock, to get us back on the air so quickly. All our staff has gone above and beyond. WZOB is absolutely blessed.” she said.
Station Owner Mike Kirby said, “Our Lord and Savior was with us on this flood. Though we sustained considerable damage, it could have been worse. The tireless effort of the staff -- Steve O’Neal, Amy Harris, Doris Hobbs, Holly Allen, Caleb Allen, Charles McDonald and Tyler Jones -- was remarkable. Also, to all the local business who continued to support us. To all of Fort Payne and DeKalb County and surrounding areas, I say thank you!”
This is actually the second time the station has flooded. In 1990, as rainfall in some localized areas exceeded 10 inches, the creek rose so high that boats were needed to get patients to DeKalb Regional Medical Center next door.
Hobbs said she joked that if it happened again, she would just leave her keys at the office and walk out.
“But I didn’t. I couldn’t,” she said.
O’Neal said that earlier incident offered a few lessons that made it easier this time around. Because of his quick thinking, the station avoided electrical damage to the wiring by shutting down the main power box.
“The storm in ’90 hung around longer than this flooding did, and it left a lot more mud,” he said.
Dobbs recalled that then-manager Gloria Vogel used 18 large fans placed throughout the station to try and get the smell out of the building.
“We were luckier this time,” she said.
This time around, the carpet was removed and won’t be replaced until they’re sure everything is completely dried. They lacked air conditioning on Monday, but spirits among the station staff ran high as everyone was thankful to be back up and running.
The “number one country” music station has operated since July 2, 1950. It was originally owned by Glenn M. Gravitt and is currently family-owned by Kirby at his Georgia-based Central Broadcasting Company, Inc. The station’s most recent FCC update was March 2012, and their current license is good through April 2028. Although there are nearby stations like WQSB 105.1 FM in Albertville, WVSM 1500 AM in Rainsville and the noncommercial WQRX in Valley Head, WZOB is Fort Payne’s only remaining radio station since WFPA 1400 AM was evicted last October and its broadcast tower dismantled hours later.
With conditions already being tough due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the crew at WZOB dug deeper and found the strength to get back on the air.