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Big market radio stations “unwilling and unable” to handle disasters?

Here’s some interesting fare for discussion as the Federal Communications Commission prepares to test its Emergency Alert System on Wednesday.  Radio stations in big markets know that they’re responsible for disaster assistance, a new study observes, but are sometimes reluctant to coordinate with public officials. They may also assume that neighboring stations serving smaller areas will carry the emergency information load.

Those are some of the conclusions of a survey of radio stations published by the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management.

Radio outlets that “reach the greatest number of people may be both unwilling and unable to effectively communicate with the public during times of crisis and disaster,” the five scholar research paper warns.

We’ve noticed this ourselves, most famously when a Clear Channel station in Grand Rapids, MI threw its 2009 Concert Bash near the Grand Rapids River, apparently oblivious to flash flood warnings issued by the National Weather Service.

We know what to do (sometimes)

The document is titled “Serving the Public Interest in a Crisis: Does Local Radio Meet the Public Interest?” Its research touches on many studies, but primarily two. The main survey focused on 124 radio stations that broadcast to flooded counties in the Midwest along the Mississippi river. In the Spring of 2008, thunderstorms hit these areas, resulting in floods that caused over a dozen deaths and an estimated $21 billion in property damage.

Sent a questionnaire by the scholars, 67.2 percent of participating stations strongly agreed with the assertion that they were “prepared to cover the flooding.” 78.7 percent asserted that they “knew what to do in the event of severe weather.” Less (44 percent) agreed that they had “received adequate training.”

But: “Market size reveals that stations in larger markets along the Mississippi River were less likely to have previously covered flooding in the region, but were also more likely to have participated in some type of disaster drill or training,” the study adds. “Thus, larger stations had more training and resources to cover a crisis event, but were less likely to have actually provided coverage once a crisis took place.”

Some other station

These replies dovetail with a national survey published in 2009 which indicated that two thirds of sampled radio stations admitted that they had participated in no local emergency drills. “In the same study, a little over half reported that they had no staff trained in reporting on biological or radiological terrorist events, and 78% reported that they had not participated in any training related to the handling of these types of emergencies,” the paper notes.

Why do bigger market stations appear to be less committed to emergency coverage? Here’s what the quintet of researchers think:

There may be several reasons as to why larger market stations are less willing to respond to a crisis, despite having more training and resources. It may be the case that personnel in larger markets carry the belief that some other station will choose to respond to that crisis, simply given the number of stations in the market. Further, stations in larger markets may experience more competition, and may therefore be less likely to place importance on disaster preparation, believing that the station has talented enough staff to handle literally any occurrence. It may also be the case that larger market stations do not see emergency response or preparation as part of their mission.

If you want to read the whole paper, it’s available at the publisher’s site, or you can request a copy from one of the authors, Patric J. Spence, here.

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3 Responses to Big market radio stations “unwilling and unable” to handle disasters?

  1. Bruce Jones November 7, 2011 at 6:28 am #

    I started in radio in the 70’s, and was a meteorologist on both radio and TV. The state of severe weather coverage on radio today is dismal. In most stations the staff is untrained to handle it, and they seem to lack the willingness to make it an important part of what they do. Severe weather coverage takes knowledge, training, extra affort, and a managerial commitment that is lacking today. Many stations seem blind to their duty to serve the public “interest, necessity, and convenience” as mandated by the FCC. I travel a lot and when I am driving into a severe weather area I flip across the radio dial searching for a station that is saying something about it. Despite the proliferation of signals across the dial, it is well nigh impossible to get severe weather information on commercial AM and FM. A big “high five” to the stations that are still doing it. Station managers should join together, contact their local National Weather Service office, and coordinate a severe weather training session for the staffs all stations in the DMA. The training could be done in two hours, and the on-air and management staffs would come away with #1: knowledge of how serious severe weather can be, #2: how to convey severe weather info accurately and effectively, and #3: how severe weather coverage can increase a station’s ratings, revenue, and reputation in the market. Severe weather coverage is a huge win-win for stations and their listeners. More importantly, it fulfills every station’s legal obligations to the FCC; and that obligation is in the end an obligation to the American public.

  2. Sammy November 7, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    This won’t be resolved until the FCC requires that broadcasters, who are ostensibly operating in the “interest, convenience and necessity” of the public, participate in a regular program that mandates training for owners, managers and staff, in how to work with government agencies to provide the information the public will need in a crisis. And that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Radio has become nothing more than a music and talk machine programmed from some distant place with little or no local involvement. Often there is nobody on duty who could figure out how to deal with a crisis (sometimes I wonder if there is even a microphone in the station), whom to talk to, or what to say on the air. It seems to be operated only in the interest, convenience and necessity of owner profits, and the public be damned unless they’re participating in the ratings. Sad.

  3. KoHoSo November 10, 2011 at 9:52 pm #

    As somebody that tries to follow sever weather online through both TV and radio streams, I am noticing a lot more instances in both large and medium-sized markets of simulcasting during severe weather. Many radio stations simply pick up the audio feed from a contracted television station. I guess it is better than nothing but, still, what might get missed by a radio listener as a television broadcast inevitably focuses on pictures?

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