On April 9, 2015, Russ Tanzillo ’15 and Josh Barlog ’16 were hosting their weekly radio show at WONC-FM 89.1 when they received an intense call from a fellow WONC staff member. They could not have imagined that this call would lead to a prestigious press award one year later.
Sean McDermott ’16, a certified storm chaser, was on the line and following a twister in Rochelle, Ill. Sam Reiman ’16, the show’s producer, quickly set up the station to live broadcast the call from McDermott.
“We had done a few live calls before that but were not that familiar with the system,” said Reiman, a broadcast communication and interactive media studies major. But quick thinking allowed the station to air McDermott’s description of the chase to listeners.
“Watching the sky go from dark gray to pitch black while the EF-4 tornado crossed the highway in front of me and my partner was one of the most awe-inspiring moments of my life,” McDermott said of the scene he described to WONC.
According to McDermott, most storm chasers are lucky to witness an EF-3 tornado during their career, so this twister—the strongest tornado to hit Illinois since the two in Washington in 2013—was monumental. With 15 storm chases under his belt, McDermott considers the Rochelle tornado his top chase to date and one he will never forget.
“As a child I was terrified of tornadoes,” McDermott admits. “But as I grew older I became infatuated with tornadoes and started to appreciate their beauty as well as their incredible destructive powers.”
At one point, the duo was forced to take shelter in a gas station when a second tornado of lower strength touched down less than a mile away from their vehicle. But McDermott continually called in to the station, describing the tornado as it ran its course.
“It was wild!” stated Reiman. “It was definitely an adventure and we had several broadcast updates throughout the night from him about the storm. I didn’t think we would ever do anything as big as the tornado. But we worked great as a team and I think that played a major role in the success of those reports.”
At the time, the call had simply been an interesting addition to the regular radio show, but it ended up being an award-winning piece of radio news. When entries for the Illinois Associated Press Broadcasters Association contest were being accepted, Reiman, the station manager for 2015-2016, decided to edit the conversation and submit an entry to the contest.
The team found out later that the piece had won under the category of Best Spot News for local radio.
“We were in complete disbelief. We were excited that we won and to join the ranks of commercial stations that also won,” Reiman said of receiving the news of the award.
“To say that the little idea to chase while the guys aired it over the radio won us this prestigious award is absolutely incredible,” McDermott said. “Words cannot describe how thrilled I am to this day over winning this award.”
Although WONC has received numerous awards in the past, John Madormo, general manager of WONC, was particularly satisfied with this one.
“We’ve won a lot of awards, but the AP nod is especially gratifying because we had to go up against commercial stations,” Madormo said.
By Michaela Daly ’18