October 26, 2012
Hurricane Andrew cured me of taking storms less than seriously, and by that I mean seeing the aftermath of that storm, driving around South Florida while my wife pointed at places where she used to live south of Miami, saying, "it's not there anymore," over and over again, well, that can only be described as sobering, a horror I'll never forget. Years later, when we found ourselves in Fort Lauderdale directly in the path of Hurricane Katrina, we knew not to be holding any hurricane parties on the beach.
Emergencies, of course, are when radio gets a chance to show off what it can do. At least, that's the industry line, which they've been trotting out at every opportunity to show how radio is still relevant. Cell phone FM chips? Think of emergencies! Declining status in Pew surveys? Yeah, but in an emergency.... HD Radio? Um... well... have we mentioned emergencies? The interesting thing is that, in many cases, the industry line has rung true. At least in theory, radio IS a lifeline when the power's out and cell service is down. But it's only true if radio comes through with the emergency information and support for which listeners will be tuning in.
And that brings me to the "Frankenstorm" bearing down on the east coast of the U.S. at the moment. Yes, it's put up or shut up time. The industry talks a good game about emergency service, and, in some cases, it has come through with flying colors. But that's not always the case, and the storm this weekend is one way to separate the contenders from the pretenders. You should be asking yourself, is my station prepared for what might be coming? Are there news and programming plans in place to cover all possible emergencies? Are generators ready to keep the station on the air no matter what? Is the entire staff ready to pull 24/7 shifts? Do you even have a staff on hand to do that? Because, if this storm takes down power lines and interferes with cell phone service, radio is going to have to be a lifeline for, potentially, millions of people, and just relaying television audio isn't going to cut it. Nothing counters the image of local radio as an empty building with a bunch of computers and satellite receivers better than being there when people need you.
I suppose, then, that this is directed more at the guys who write the checks than those of you on the ground. The rumors of more and more staff cuts and elimination of local programming are coming at a time when that local presence is not only needed to serve the public but is the basis of the industry's own lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and with agencies. You can't be touting how you're critical in emergencies at the same time you're preparing to turn more and more stations into zombie repeaters. Whether or not Sandy turns out to be devastating or a dud, every station needs to do its job and do it well. If the public turns its battery-powered radios on in the dark and finds nothing but The Quint-Cities' Hit Music or some guy in a suit and tie fulminating about Obama and Romney or paid programming while the basement's filling with water, the industry can't claim it's necessary or relevant anymore. I'm hopeful that enough stations will come through, but it shouldn't even be a question, and it's a shame that it is.
Once the storm's out of the way, or if you're someplace that isn't gearing up for the wetness, there's lots to talk about at Talk Topics at All Access News-Talk-Sports, where you'll find hundreds of ideas for your show, from kicker stories to "real" news, for all formats. And follow Talk Topics on Twitter at @talktopics, where you'll find every story linked to the appropriate item at Talk Topics.
Follow me on Twitter, too: @pmsimon. I'm on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon as well. And I also serve as Editor-in-Chief of Nerdist.com, where you'll find fun stuff about pop culture; watch the Nerdist Channel at YouTube, too.
Hey, you know what? I just noticed something. "A horror"... "Frankenstorm"... "zombie repeaters"... there's a theme in this week's column. A totally unplanned, coincidental theme. Nothing premeditated. Nope.
Happy Halloween, y'all. Stay sick!