Don't Do Nothing
April 29, 2011
I was sitting here Thursday night, as usual having no idea for a topic, when I noticed an e-mail from the NAB about broadcasters' community service initiatives, and I had a flashback to years of going to NAB conventions and countless Crystal Awards shows and charity drives and stuff like that. Those things are good for radio stations to do, of course, and it seems like those campaigns are what most people think of when you mention "community service." Surely, that's the gist of the Crystal Awards, and they get trotted out when the radio industry wants to give examples of how important they are to the community.
But that's not what radio's really important community service is about. Radio's greatest community service is in what they do when an emergency strikes. That's the situation right now in Alabama. Radio's value is never greater than in its being there with accurate, reliable, current information when all hell breaks loose. When you're huddled in the basement, the sirens blaring and no idea what's happening or whether the power is going to stay on, that's when radio needs to step up. I'm sure that during the present disaster, many stations did indeed do a great job; we've heard of some clusters going wall-to-wall on every station with team coverage. Some stations take audio feeds from TV stations, although I don't think that's the same as coverage produced specifically for radio -- when the TV anchor says "your local shelters are right there on the map," or the meteorologist is telling you to look at the line of storms right there, that's fairly useless when you can't see the screen. But it's better than nothing.
Unfortunately, as I've mentioned here not too long ago, nothing is exactly what some stations do in emergencies. They go to automation, or they just keep playing the hits and occasionally mention that there's a severe weather alert. I've told you before in this space about how, while a wildfire raged a mile from my house one night, the FM dial was pretty much solid music, and the AM dial was mostly taped shows and infomercials. One station had coverage, and when the cable went out (we have no over-the-air L.A. television reception here), and the local papers offered no coverage on their mobile websites, that one station was our only source of information. Again, better than nothing, but that's one station out of dozens and dozens.
Which leads me to this: When the industry points to emergencies as a reason for getting whatever they want to get out of Washington, like FM chips in cell phones or protecting spectrum, it's reasonable to ask for examples of how EVERY station handles emergencies. It sounds like Alabama stations did okay, but I imagine that some stations, whether because they can't afford otherwise or because they just don't have a plan in place or they don't think it's important ("hey, nobody's gonna look for news on a music station"), didn't. Same for wildfires and earthquakes out here, and for emergencies everywhere. Some stations will come through, some won't. And if coming through is a selling point for the industry, maybe all stations should have an emergency coverage plan ready to show the public at any time -- what the level of staffing would be, what kind of coverage they'd provide, what sources they'd use. What? That's not fair? Too much work, too proprietary, unfair to ask of stations without their own news departments, an EAS alert is enough? If you're selling the idea that radio is a critical medium for emergencies, it's only fair to require stations to be ready, right?
I don't want to end on a cynical note, though. The job some stations do in reporting emergencies is one of the things about the industry of which I'm most proud, and I know that the NAB has been highlighting some of those examples as well. As we move forward, I hope that this kind of service returns to being the norm rather than the exception. Give people the confidence that they can rely on you more than any other medium in an emergency, and you've gone a long way towards preserving your place in their lives, whatever competition may arise.
Time is running short if you want to donate to support me and my wife Fran as we walk in our fifth Revlon Run/Walk for Women in Los Angeles on May 7th to raise funds to fight breast cancer. It's a great cause and your support will be greatly appreciated. If you can give, please do: go to do.eifoundation.org/goto/pmsimon. Thank you!
I have to cut this one short again because I'm spending all day Friday covering the Worldwide Radio Summit, which you can follow in Net News at All Access and, if I can get into the right account, on Twitter at @allaccess. Not to fear, though, for the Talk Topics show prep column has been updated as usual with hundreds of items from hard news to kickers to sports and anything else that would make good material for the radio, lovingly hand-picked by someone who's actually done real major market radio, meaning me. It's here, as always, and you can also get the headlines on Twitter: @talktopics. This week, you'll also want to read "10 Questions With..." Matt Perrault, the sports talker who recently returned from KXNO/Des Moines to his home area of New England to do weekday afternoons at The Game in Manchester, NH and weekends at WEEI/Boston.
If you're looking for more me, and who isn't, you can follow my Twitter musings at @pmsimon, read some other stuff I write at my personal site pmsimon.com (now in its eighth hit season!), and gape in amazement at the stuff I write and edit at Nerdist.com, where pop culture, science, and comedy collide daily. Those aren't related to All Access, but you might enjoy them anyway.
Anyway, as I said, I'm at this summit thing in Hollywood, not too far from landmarks like the Carl's Jr. Jr. (yes, it's a junior junior) and the unlicensed superheroes accosting tourists in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and if you're at the summit thing, too, turn around: I'm likely in a corner someplace in the back scowling and pounding away on a MacBook. Feel free to say hi.