Her real name is Carla, but a radio chief from a big city said that she “looked like a Tess”, so from that point on her name on the radio was Tess.

Other than his name, Tess Cowan keeps him real. Every morning, the people of Princeton, Ky. Wake up to his voice on the 250-watt WPKY-AM radio. Around noon, she travels 30 km to do an afternoon show in the nearby town, on WKDZ in Cadiz.

Her audience needs her warm voice right now. Three people died here in Caldwell County, Ky., When tornadoes swept through the Mid-South on Friday night.

The community she loves knows that every morning anyone can walk into the studio and announce whatever the locals need to know. Over the past two days, the mayor has shown up to explain to the Cowan public how they can help their neighbors who had lost everything in the Friday night storm that razed part of town. Mayor Kota Young was still wearing his volunteer firefighter gear because he had been busy removing storm victims from the debris overnight. The coroner also stopped, as did aid workers at the Southern Baptist Convention, the county executive judge and the Kentucky commissioner of agriculture.

“Brother Harold Riley is here from HR departments,” Cowan told his audience. He said he was in a hurry. “Well let me tear it up, tater chip,” Cowan chirped. Brother Riley said he wanted to tell people that his rescue team needed help putting blue tarps on houses that had lost their roofs.

“It’s going to rain on Thursday,” he said. “We have to seal them. “

He told Cowan listeners that a local church was open for people to take hot showers and asked people to no longer drop off clothes. But they could definitely use plastic storage bins, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency would have to be in the parking lot of the old high school today to start helping people.

Cowan began his radio career with WPKY in 1995, but left Princeton to try out big-city radio in Indiana and Texas.

“I had three children, one with special needs, and I had to come home,” she said. She went back to Farmersville, just up the road. “The radio station said it needed someone to do it in the morning, and I was home. It’s my home and it’s my neighbors I’m talking to. Two people who work for the station have lost their homes.

When the storm blew through western Kentucky, it cut off electricity for miles. When the winds died down, Cowan came out of a shelter with her three children and five others. His first instinct was not to go see his house.

“I have to get to the radio station,” Cowan said was his first thought. Power lines and tree branches blocked the roads. “The whole town was in the dark and I took back roads into town.”

The December 10 tornado destroyed dozens of homes around Princeton, Kentucky. The same series of tornadoes killed more than 70 people in Kentucky and Tennessee. (Al Tompkins / Poynter)

Station owner Beth Mann is known for the phrase “green light, go.” Cowan translates this as “She always asks how can we do this?”

In the dark of the night, Mann said, “We have to get back on the air. The community needs us. Cowan took off in his van, loaded a generator in the back, and drove to the radio station with the intention of putting it back on air with just the generator and extension cords.

“Just as we were about to fire,” she said, “the power picked up. We were back on the air.

Mann says local radio will be the foundation of the rural communities that the tornadoes destroyed. “When everyone’s gone, we’re still here,” she told me. “We are stewards of the community. It’s our job to connect the dots for people, to help them find the help they need. And we will play a key role in rebuilding the economic base of this city. It will be more important than ever for us to stress that we all need to support our local businesses. “

WPKY has become the city’s hub for tornado recovery in Princeton, Kentucky. (Al Tompkins / Poynter)

WPKY intervened with a news story where a state agriculture official said farmers in Kentucky needed fence posts immediately to fix the burst fences. The state’s first lady has called on Kentuckians to donate unwrapped Christmas presents to save Christmas for children who have lost their homes. Her husband’s family is from Dawson Springs, a town east of the WPKY radio signal. Many families in this rural part of America do not have insurance.

The station updated its website to indicate that the drop-off center needs baby wipes, diapers and bottled water for storm victims. The website also offers this little common sense rural tip, with exactly the tone of voice you’d imagine Cowan telling his listeners in a sweet country twang, “However, I would like to remind the community that our recovery from The Storm is a marathon, not a sprint. The need for donations will continue for some time to come and will change as the process progresses. Without ever discouraging generosity, I encourage you to consider space your generosity throughout the recovery process. We don’t want to burn out the first few days.

Cowan said since the start of the pandemic, she thought it would be a good idea to establish routines that people could rely on. So, every morning at 8 a.m., she has an on-air elementary school class recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The Princeton Optimist Club brought him an American flag. “I’m going to put it here on the control room wall,” she said.

At 8 a.m., everyone in the studio gets up, faces the flag, and puts their hands on their hearts. Then, for the next hour or so, anyone who wants to can come and sit at the microphone and talk on the radio with Cowan.

“If they need anything, if they have a bake sale, we’re here to help them,” she said.

At 9 a.m., a local pastor goes on the air to pray for everyone.

“We are stewards of the community,” Mann said. “We’re going to connect the dots for people. We’ll help government agencies tell people what’s going on and we’ll help people find what they need to rebuild.

“At times like these,” Mann said, “a local radio station can bring a community together. “

“Radio is the love of my life,” Cowan said. “I love living in a place where my kids can see their mayor in a fire truck. People know if you really like them or not, and I know it. “