It’s virtually taken on faith in the radio industry: This idea that when all other technologies fail, there’s still radio in an emergency. But open your eyes and you’ll see that radio’s role in emergencies is under threat, thanks to technology.
Sure, there are times when all the power goes out, but in those times our technology is powered by batteries. Take the recent Napa earthquake as an example. From CBS San Francisco:
Power outages were mostly irrelevant when it came to hampering communication, as cell phones charging on nightstands quickly allowed instant connections with loved ones, while built-in video and still cameras meant not a moment was lost in capturing what happened, and Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook turned 7 million people into citizen journalists.
And yes, there are cases of mobile phone networks being overloaded during tragedies:
While nationwide wireless coverage has vastly improved since the attacks of 9/11, after which much of the cellphone service in New York failed, the use of cellphones and smartphones has become much more commonplace, too. And wireless networks have not been able to withstand sudden increases in calling loads during natural disasters such as hurricanes Sandy and Irene, the earthquake in Virginia in 2011, or the attack in Boston on Monday.
But annually, these types of tragedies – nature-made or otherwise – can be counted on two hands (and while radio may have many advantages, enabling person-to-person calls is not one of them).
The fact is that emergencies are rarely this extreme. Most emergencies are isolated or only partially or temporarily incapacitating to technology, if at all. That’s why the response of governments national and local have been to ramp up efforts to get critical information to consumers by the devices in their pockets, not the ones on their car dashboards.
Here in San Diego, for example, the biggest threat is wildfire. This is an excerpt from a letter I received at home last week from a city councilman:
I wanted to let you know about Alert San Diego and how you can register to receive cell phone alerts in the event of an emergency. Alert San Diego is a system that improves public safety and regional coordination and has greater reliability than previous alert systems. This county-wide program allows the City to send telephone notifications to residents and businesses within targeted impacted areas when emergencies arise. Feel free to register your cell phone (land lines we aheady automatically registered) at www.readysandiego.org/alertsandiego/. E-mail addresses and Voice Over IP’s (VoIP) may also be enrolled for notification. Encouraging friends and neighbors to also register with Alert San Diego will help make our community safer for everyone.
And there’s also an app that pushes alerts to you automatically.
These technologies are getting bigger, better, more sophisticated, and more reliable as the years go on and mobile devices become ever-more entrenched in our lives.
Broadcasters need to recognize that the advantage of being more durable than more technologically novel alternatives in the most extreme disaster cases is useful only in those most extreme cases. If the cell phone towers still stand and my battery still retains a charge, radio provides not “better” information but different information.
Because radio is one-to-many, it’s great for communicating sweeping messages of critical importance to an entire community. It’s also great for creating the communal sense that “we’ll all get through this together.” And radio has a human value which is significant: The calming sound of a familiar voice can keep you steady when the world seems out of whack. Your mobile phone can’t do any of those things so well, if at all.
Mobile devices, however, are one-to-one. If I want to know where my family is right now, radio can’t help me. If I want to know my children are safe right now, radio can’t help me. If I want to gather my family right now, radio can’t help me. If I want to know where a disaster is relative to where I am right now, radio can’t help me – or at least not as fast or as conveniently as a Google map marked with fire lines. In other words, mobile devices are personalized to me and location-aware. Radio is neither.
So what radio provides is not “better,” per se, it’s just different. Thus the value of radio in an emergency cannot substitute for the personal, location-specific value of mobile technology. The two are complements.
Unless, of course, we are in a world where all mobile technology fails and radio remains the information source of last resort. Just how rare is that? Well in a study a few years ago of natural hazard-related deaths, only 3.4% of those deaths came from earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires – combined. And we can assume that in only a fraction of those cases did the entire grid blink out.
In my opinion, no media platform’s utility should depend on the outside chance of an apocalypse. We’re not the Emergency Broadcast System.
We’re all so much better than that.