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Bay News 9 ready this time

What a difference a month makes _ especially when you're a newly formed, 24-hour cable news operation.

Bay News 9 was two days old Sept. 26, when Mother Nature saw fit to deposit more than 14 inches of rain on parts of the Tampa Bay area. Critics and people in the industry roundly criticized the 24-hour news channel's coverage then, which remained stuck in the channel's cycle of regular weather and traffic updates.

It was a performance that seemed to belie the news channel's biggest selling point: the ability to respond quickly and completely to any local news event for as long as necessary.

So it is with a bit of I-told-you-so pleasure that general manager Elliott Wiser noted the performance of Bay News 9 after a deluge of news Monday, including the touchdown of a tornado in North Pinellas, the plunge of the stock market and a plane crash at Tampa International Airport.

Breaking into their regular "news wheel" of stories with special reports, the station shone when handling stories on the extreme weather Monday morning _ offering solid coverage from 8 a.m. to about 11 a.m. that included calls from viewers and live reports.

Anchorman Al Ruechel appeared in Clearwater where winds ripped up a church roof and a restaurant sign. He stood barefoot, moments after dropping his son off at school a few blocks away.

"I will admit that running around there with all that broken glass barefoot was not the greatest idea," Ruechel said. "But the adrenaline was going, so I went for it. You just do it."

Wiser, smarting a little from criticism Bay News 9 received in September, said, "There's a big difference between being on the air 32 hours and being on the air more than three weeks. This is what we're here to do."

Wiser admits the station was struggling to work out the bugs in its system when the first deluge hit. Despite its Pinellas Park headquarters' location in the middle of a flood-prone area _ one of the station's news cars was damaged by floodwaters _ Bay News 9 couldn't break free of its format to deliver the constant coverage viewers have come to expect, thanks to national news networks such as CNN and MSNBC.

But in recent weeks, the station has presented live reports on a number of news events, including Vice President Al Gore's Tampa visit, the launch of the Cassini space probe and the shooting at Lincoln Memorial Middle School in Palmetto.

"The storm was baptism by fire. It may have been the best thing that happened to us," Ruechel said. "But we knew then it was something we had to work on. It just took us a while to get the bugs worked out."

"They were there (Monday) morning . . . very aggressively," Dan Bradley, news director at WFLA-Ch. 8, said of Bay News 9. "Sometimes it's hard to shift gears when you have that seven-day-a-week format. But they were here this time."

Wiser looked at broadcast stations showing reporters in front of traffic maps and breaking in with special reports _ every local station had presented special news bulletins by 10:15 a.m. Monday _ and wondered whether Bay News 9 is having an impact.

The impact may not be known until Monday, when the cable channel is included in overnight ratings by Nielsen Media Research. "Too bad it couldn't have started (this past Monday)," Wiser said, knowing the weather crisis might have brought more viewers.