On January 23 at 8:07 AM local time, a false ballistic missile alert caused panic in Hawaii. For up to 38 minutes on a Saturday morning, residents dealt with fear and panic wondering what would happen. An automated alert message popped up on smartphones and interrupted radio broadcasts. For some radio stations, however, that was the extent of the coverage.
One GM in Hawaii that we talked to was personally happy to have slept through the emergency. This GM reported that the stations are all voice-tracked on Saturday morning. Can you imagine the betrayal listeners felt, having just heard that their lives could end in minutes, as they were returned to the station’s regular programming? Sure, you’re about to die, but here’s another 6 in a row with less talk.
We’re not picking on Hawaii. The scenario would have been the same in many markets around the country. It brings to mind the WKRP in Cincinnati episode (Season 1, episode 12) where a tornado warning ends up with Les Nessman improvising from a script written to deal with a Russian attack. If you’ve never seen it or haven’t watched it lately, it’s worth watching. Hulu has it.
Given radio’s track record disseminating information and helping communities during hurricanes and other local calamities, we’ve argued that the FCC needs to help radio weather the new competition it faces from Internet-delivered sources. If technology had developed differently and wired Internet-type communication had preceded wireless broadcast, there would still be huge community value in the type of wireless communication radio offers.
It’s too easy to imagine current-day events that could cripple the Internet and commercial power sources and leave radio as the only source of information for many. Of course, radio must be prepared to be that source of information when the need arises. Plans need to be in place to deal with a wide array of emergency possibilities.
Given the changing climate and world situation, operations teams need to be prepared for new types of emergencies. During voice-tracked dayparts, especially at night and on weekends, systems need to be established to know who is responsible and what would need to be done – perhaps at a time when the Internet is disrupted, and commercial power is out. When things are really at their worst, a multiple-station station cluster onlys need a single steam of the right emergency programming.
If your stations or company hasn’t reviewed emergency procedures recently, it’s a good time to do so. Talk to emergency management personnel in local government to learn what calamities they’re preparing to meet. Make sure you have plans in place to deal with them – and that your staff is trained and prepared just in case. Had the event in Hawaii been a worst-case, actual emergency, there would have been less than 15 minutes to do anything.