Where's the Fire? Or Flood? Or Tornado? Or....
July 6, 2012
Anyone around? Doesn't seem like it. It's quiet 'round here. Everything's all echoey and stuff.
So I'll keep it brief. This week saw the NAB and industry people jumping up and down screaming "YOU SEE? CELL PHONE SERVICE WENT DOWN IN THE STORMS! WE MUST HAVE FM CHIPS IN CELL PHONES!" And they pointed out how, for those in the DC-Virginia-Maryland area, WTOP and WNEW were lifelines for millions of people.
That part is true, but here's my concern: Yes, having the all-news stations available was a great service, and the stations pulled out all the stops to provide critical information. And, yes, that's valuable in an emergency. But... how many areas of the country have not just one but two all-news FMs? How many markets would have that kind of service available? In major markets with FM all-news stations or the ability to put an all-news AM (or a station with a strong news department) on an FM station for the duration, sure. In smaller markets, it's going to be hit or miss. You could have great coverage. You could have another case where there's nobody home because entire clusters are automated or operated from elsewhere. I fear the latter.
We're deep into the era of smaller budgets, smaller staffs, outsourcing and syndication and less news coverage. Yet, we're telling Congress and the FCC that we need to be on those phones for emergencies. And so many stations really don't have contingencies set up for what they'd do in an emergency... or even what they'd do if their tower fell or transmitters failed. Are you confident that, in your market, your local stations would come through the way that the Washington stations did, or even be able to stay on the air themselves? Are you sure?
I'd like to see something that's probably totally unenforceable and can't be policed: in exchange for an FM chip mandate, the radio industry commits to minimum 24/7 local live news staffing at every FM station. EVERY station. You say you need the FM chip to communicate emergency information? Then you have to commit to having experienced news staff to do that, and every operator should be willing to make that commitment. No sticking an intern by the phone, either. It's a real, critical job for a professional. Not willing to do that? Then what's all this about emergencies? How do we know you'll be sending anything over those chips but Today's Hit Music? Do you want the chip for news purposes or to send Katy Perry songs over phones without the bandwidth requirements? Here's a question: Would the industry leaders insisting on FM in cell phones be happy with a chip that ONLY worked in emergencies for news coverage purposes, activated solely by EAS messages? Because that would accomplish the stated goal. Right?
Otherwise, it's still really an attempt to prop up a troubled business plan, and using a weather emergency to accomplish that is pretty brazen. Revive the art of local radio news, and we'll talk.
Even during most of this nine-day-weekend, Talk Topics at All Access News-Talk-Sports has been offering lots of material for any kind of show; you'll find it by clicking here; all the topics are also linked on Twitter at @talktopics. There's also "10 Questions With..." Jeff McKay, traffic maven and APD at Merlin's FM News 101.9 in New York (and on IQ 106.9 in Philadelphia, too), talking about how to keep radio traffic reports relevant, useful, and attractive in the GPS era, and, of course, you'll find the radio industry's first-best-most complete coverage at Net News, with the top stories tweeted at @allaccess.
Follow me on Twitter and Facebook with my personal accounts at @pmsimon and www.facebook.com/pmsimon, read the pop culture stuff I write and edit over at Nerdist.com, and watch the videos on the Nerdist Channel at YouTube. Also pmsimon.com for the occasional flash of inspiration.
So... next week, I'll be at San Diego Comic-Con International representing Nerdist, so we'll see what that does to the column. I'm hopeful it won't interfere, but, then again, I haven't tried to do Comic-Con AND all my writing at the same time before. Pray for me. And then, almost immediately after that, it's off to The Conclave Learning Conference July 18-20 in Minneapolis moderating a panel. Come, learn, enjoy, say hi.
Also, thanks to all the folks who sent along birthday wishes this week. It almost made me feel... not old. Almost.