Before The Next Storm Hits
October 7, 2016
The thing about emergencies and radio is that the ones you see coming are really just tests for the ones that blindside you.
First, the ones you see coming: I'm gratified that I've heard some excellent work from several radio stations in the path of Hurricane Matthew, and a little sad that some stations were, even knowing for several days that this might happen, not as prepared to go into real emergency mode as they might have been. I'm not going to point fingers here, but in a large market, there's no excuse for either staying with syndication or simulcasting TV audio in lieu of having your own people manning the mics and phones. That should be self-evident, and "we don't have the staff" isn't an adequate excuse -- YOU are the staff, and anyone else that's in the building, and if you're not assigned as "news staff," it doesn't matter. You have to have that keep-us-on-the-air get-the-information-out attitude. It's what makes radio special in an emergency, and what the industry likes to tout when it's begging in Washington for things like FM chips in cell phones. You want FM chips in cell phones and you're pointing to emergencies as a reason for that? Do better than another ten in a row, or airing TV audio ("you can see the damage the storm caused..."). You gotta earn that emergency status all over again every time there's an emergency.
I learned my lesson back in my programming days when a large snowstorm hit the mid-Atlantic states and my plan to get to the station and help coordinate coverage hit a small snag: I couldn't get out of my own driveway. Oh, I prepared, and I thought I'd timed everything right, but the snow started early and kept coming, and I spent all night alternating driveway-shoveling shifts with my wife so that I'd be able to get out of the house and across the bridge to the station, but I didn't figure on the county not plowing my road (an official emergency route). My driveway was pristine right up to the main road, and then it was about 2 feet of snow. I did not have 4-wheel drive. We did have people with that keep-us-on-the-air attitude, though, so they stayed at the station while I cursed the people in charge of snow removal in Bucks County. Next time, I'd go in early, I vowed, and I'd stay at the station as long as I had to. (And then I moved to a warm climate, because snow sucks.)
So, I'm no expert. Howard Price is, however, basically THE expert on broadcast emergency preparedness -- and at the recent Radio Show in Nashville, he gave a great talk that both outlined what radio stations need to do to be prepared and excoriated stations who don't take those measures, because it is what radio's supposed to be about, being there for listeners when they need us. He has a Top 10 list of things radio stations need to do right now to be ready for anything, and while Matthew is, as of this writing, still in progress and still threatening a lot of territory, you should be prepared for the next thing, which you may not see coming on a weather map.
Howard graciously sent me his notes on the top 10 things stations can do to make sure they're prepared for anything, and I'll summarize them here while pointing you to his mediadisasterprep.com for more details. His top 10, which I've redone for space considerations (apologies, Howard, I know there's more):
*Get Out Ahead of the Story: You want to let people know to turn to you in an emergency, so you should have promo spots ready now so you don't need to scramble when something happens.
*Assume You’ll Be On Your Own for 72 Hours: Standard emergency management.
*Make a Plan, Keep It Simple, Communicate It Well, Exercise It Semi-Annually: Simple is best because nobody's going to page through a "big red book" during an emergency. Make sure you document what/where/when/how much you'll need to stay on the air, and make sure everyone from the top of your roster to the bottom will know “what to do if.” Keep the plan everywhere -- on your servers, on flash drives, on laminated one-sheets. Practice at least one part of the plan every six months. Plan not for scenarios but for six key impacts: loss of facility, loss of technology, loss of people, financial issues, stakeholder issues, and reputational issues. And, to me the most important takeaway, develop partnerships with public emergency agencies, utilities, and first responders NOW so when crisis happens, you're the go-to media representative -- and get official designation as critical infrastructure, so when things go down, you'll be atop the lists of businesses to keep operating.
*Backup Power: More than a generator, you need backups at every critical link in your air chain, plus STL backup (maybe over IP, maybe over a regular phone line).
*Backup Communications: For your phone system, especially. Two-way radios and relationships with ham radio operators.
*Emergency Notification System: Not a phone tree; you can do it via a third-party service and fire off information to your staff, clients, or anyone else via phone, text, email, whatever.
*Emergency Supplies: Seriously, get food, water, first aid, batteries, and even cash ready, and keep them fresh.
*Format the Chaos: Define some kind of format clock so there's some semblance of order and even non-newspeople can sound right when in emergency mode.
*Legal ID: Every 15 minutes, to let them know who's doing this.
*Situational Reset: Every 15 minutes, to let everyone know what's going on. And take calls and solicit photos for your website. Forget commercials but do have a way for clients to get on the air with emergency messages for their employees and the public. And assemble "Panic Packets" with information that can be helpful to air talent in an emergency, like contacts for experts to put on the air.
*Cross-Training, Staff Welfare & Record-Keeping: Make sure everyone's trained to do other jobs as well, because they might have to do just that if you're short-handed. Make sure you have breaks for staffers to decompress or catch a few minutes of sleep. And have a plan in place to reassure your staffers' families that they're OK and vice versa so that's not a distraction.
That's good planning, and it's a lot, but as I started out telling you, the true test of a radio station's emergency abilities is the emergency you don't see coming. Hurricanes give you time to set things up. 9/11 didn't. Earthquakes don't. The bridge that collapsed in the Twin Cities a few years ago didn't. Tornadoes don't. If you want to be the place people turn to when a crisis hits, you need to be ready for anything at any time. It's what podcasts can't do, and what people wouldn't even know where to find from digital. And when the power's out and they crank up those battery-free radios, that's when it's your turn. Be ready for it.
Once the emergency has passed, you can go back to regular programming, which is when All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics will be your source for news items and kickers and bad jokes all in one place, available by clicking here and at the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics with every story individually linked to the appropriate item. And there's the Podcasting section at AllAccess.com/podcasts.
We can go back to the usual nonsense and frivolity next week. Right now, to my friends who are still in the line of Matthew's fire, please stay safe while you're there for the people who depend on you.