In Case Of Emergency, Break Radio
November 11, 2011
The last few years, the radio industry has been telling anybody who'll listen, especially politicians, that radio is a critical part of America's emergency indication system. That was the argument advanced for putting FM tuners in cell phones, and it's what the NAB promotes in the wake of every natural disaster. It's become radio's big selling point. when the apocalypse comes, the argument goes, radio will be the most reliable source of information.
After this week's Emergency Alert System test, the industry might want to reevaluate that campaign. Yes, it's true that the problems didn't necessarily originate at the station level. The problems may have been inherent in the entire system, and the FCC and FEMA, as the originating agencies, need to look at their own operations to determine what happened. And it WAS "just a test," a way to determine whether the system works and what needs to be fixed. At least, that's how the FCC seems to see it.
But the bottom line is that the public was told that this national test was happening, they were told that it would show how broadcasting would respond in a national emergency, and it didn't work properly. Too many stations never got the alert, and many more broadcast something that sounded less like an emergency alert and more like several malfunctioning radios playing at once. If this had been an actual emergency, we'd have been screwed.
Things happen, of course. You can plan something for a long time, and something unforeseen can derail the whole thing. But this went to the essence of the industry's argument about its own value in a changing media landscape. In fact, it became almost comic: The industry didn't have a clear message as to why its regular programming is valuable, but it asserted that we'd all feel lucky to have good old radio when the power grid failed. The leaders of the industry made that argument, and the result was this week's Lady Gaga-inflected cacophony. it was time to show off what radio, and television, and cable could do that the Internet can't, and it didn't work.
(I listened to the test on one of the regional primary stations for the EAS system, and it was a mess -- the sound quality was awful, the initial tones were followed by more tones while a nearly unintelligible voice message played, and if I hadn't known it was coming, I'd have wondered what the hell it was. At least it played; the news was filled with examples of stations not airing any test at all. You'd think that they'd have done a closed, not-for-broadcast series of tests just to make sure the equipment works, but I guess I'm no engineer)
Again, this is not to cast aspersions on the people involved in the test, but it IS to say that if an industry is using something as a chief selling point for its own existence -- if it's telling the public and the politicians that it's more reliable than competing media -- it had better damn sure make certain that it will work as advertised, and that's BEFORE it does a public demonstration of those capabilities. You don't go public with something that isn't ready, not even as a preview or beta, unless it's mostly ready. This wasn't ready, and testing it in public for what appears to be the first time ever was taking a huge risk of embarrassment.
Beyond the technical aspects and the EAS system, though, there's the issue of programming. How ready are you for an emergency? When the primary news out of the radio industry is how stations are cutting back and local stations are becoming repeaters for programming originated elsewhere, it raises questions as to whether, if an emergency strikes, the radio will be what the industrty leaders have been saying it is, the most reliable way to stay informed. We know that the national EAS needs work, but forget that. If something huge -- not just a natural disaster or act of war, but ANY huge news -- happens in your backyard, do you have the manpower and the resources to cover it? Do you have a plan? Even if you DO have the staff to cover it, do they all know what to do if an overwhelmingly big story comes to town? After every such situation, whether tornadoes or earthquakes or hurricanes, we get mixed reports. Some stations come through, some don't bother. Which side are you on? And as stations are being operated with fewer and fewer local employees, is this going to get better or worse?
Unless you're a CEO, you can't answer that. All you can do is to make sure whatever is under your control is prepared. So do that. With the EAS test glitches and the image of stations being empty when a crisis hits, radio needs to do everything it can to remind the public that it will actually come through in crunch time. If that's not always the priorities of the financial institutions in charge, it should still be the goal of the people who remain on the front line.
If you do a talk show and you're close to air time without enough material to fill your show, that's an emergency for which you don't need an EAS to alert you. (Lord, that was a terrible segue!) In that case, just consult Talk Topics at All Access News-Talk-Sports, which has hundreds of ideas and stories for your talk radio needs; find it here, and on Twitter at @talktopics. And as always, you'll 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.
Friday, November 11th is Veterans Day in America. Go thank every vet you can find. It's the least we can do to honor their service.