When The Chips Are Down
August 26, 2011
One night, a while ago, I idly looked out the window and saw flames leaping from a fence. At once, I sprang into action: I grabbed a handy fire extinguisher, ran to the fire, pulled the pin, squeezed the trigger... and the trigger snapped. So I was standing in front of a growing fire with a fire extinguisher that didn't work. I was able to put the fire out by running back inside, grabbing a couple of boxes of baking soda, and pouring the stuff on the fire. It's always good to have a Plan B. And, sometimes, the tools you're told are essential fail you at the most inconvenient possible time.
I was reminded of that when the east coast had its earthquake and the radio industry immediately used it to promote terrestrial broadcast radio and television as the ultimate in reliability for emergencies. And while I'll point out that TV and radio stations do, indeed, sometimes lose power and go off the air in emergencies, it is true that they usually manage to stay on the air somehow, and, yes, cell phone networks tend to have problems when everyone on earth is calling everyone else on earth in a panic.
But reliable technical service is one thing. Being of use in an emergency is another. We're seeing it again as Irene bears down on the east coast (man, is this a bad couple of weeks there or what?): People will be turning to radio, and television, and the Internet for information on evacuations and weather and emergency instructions. You can be assured that all-News stations will be on top of it as they were for the quake. But is everyone else? Will music stations step up or keep the tunes flowing? Will radio be like my fire extinguisher, useful in theory but not in practice?
I'm asking this because you KNOW that the need for radio in emergencies is going to bring up that pesky FM-radio-chip-in-cell-phones issue, and you know how I feel about that. But I have a proposal, and I think it's a fair one.
How about this: FM chips in cell phones become mandatory, but they can only deliver the signals of stations that maintain a substantial around-the-clock local news presence. See, because the argument is that we need radio on all devices in emergencies, right? I'd go so far as to say, sure, make 'em put the chips in everything -- every phone, every TV, every game console, every refrigerator, every vacuum cleaner -- but make the chips only find stations that, in an emergency, will provide extensive local coverage wall-to-wall. How? Simple: We can encode analog and digital signals for the PPM, right? So encode stations and have it controlled by an independent authority. Set minimum standards to qualify for the emergency code of approval. All news stations? Of course. Everyone else? You have X number of staffers on duty at all times, ready to pull the plug on regular programming at a moment's notice, you're good to go. You run unmanned, you don't make the cut. If the chips aren't feasible right now, wait until they are.
Okay, that's not likely to ever happen, and Lord knows I don't want the government involved in deciding who gets to be heard like that. But this little exercise in calling radio's bluff does have a point. When the industry touts its importance in an emergency, that assumes all stations come through at times of trouble. We know better than that. I've told you in this column of looking out my window at a hillside on fire, or feeling the house shake from an earthquake, and finding the FM dial filled with music and the AM dial airing infomercials. We talk a good game, and some stations are outstanding when the going gets tough, but when the public turns on its battery-powered or hand-cranked radios to find out what's going on, and the first thing they hear is Katy Perry or Dierks Bentley, all that "radio comes through in emergencies" becomes just a lot of hot air, even if, somewhere on the dial, someone IS doing the job. It shouldn't be necessary to search for someone imparting the needed information. It should be instant. Maybe that's unreasonable to ask of a strapped industry, but if we're going to claim emergency utility as one of our chief assets, everyone in the business had better walk that walk.
Sometimes, like when the earth is shaking or a hurricane is headed directly at you, there's no need to dig up topics for your radio show. Most times, though, you can use a little help. And that's what All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics is all about. You'll find hundreds of topics for your ranting and raving pleasure right here, and on Twitter at @talktopics. Also at All Access this week, you'll find "10 Questions With..." Ross Porter, who you know as the longtime former Dodgers broadcaster and who's embarking on a new chapter in his storied career with online sports streamer iBN Sports, and you'll get the best radio and music industry coverage at Net News, with the top stories tweeted at @allaccess. And, unrelated to All Access, you can follow me on Twitter at @pmsimon, read my stuff at Nerdist.com, and check out my personal website at pmsimon.com.
Seriously, if you're in the path of the hurricane, please play it safe and listen to those evacuation orders (you might even hear those on the radio, right?). I've been in a hurricane right at landfall (Katrina, actually, when it first hit Florida) and I've seen the devastation of multiple storms firsthand. It is not pretty. Let's hope for the best, and we'll safely reassemble here next week.