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Let’s Not Be Too Quick with the Anointing Oil While the Jury’s Still Out on Media Response

CHORE has devoted most of this blog’s space to questions about civil defense and utility communications last Sunday after the earthquakes. Today we raise a few points about the media’s performance – again with the intent to stimulate discussion and perhaps contribute to improvements in serving the public during emergencies.

First, a word from our sponsor about the writer’s experience with broadcasting and earthquakes:

I was on duty as the newsroom editor/producer at all-news radio station KFWB in Los Angeles at 6:02 a.m. on February 9, 1971 when the Sylmar earthquake struck. The 6.5 quake killed dozens, most of them in a veterans hospital in the San Fernando Valley. KFWB’s studios in Hollywood shook harder and longer than what we felt here on Oahu last week, but we stayed operational and broadcast without commercial interruption for the next 24 hours at least.

Every broadcaster wants to be on the air in a crisis, and since the federal government licenses all broadcasters to operate in the public interest, they should be. The local outlets that were without power and had no backup capability last week are properly reevaluating their operations.

The outlets that did stay on the air did the minimum of what’s expected of them, so as the headline above suggests, plaudits such as those found in today’s Honolulu Advertiser story about stations distinguishing themselves might be too effusive in light of actual performance.

Let’s Go “Live” for that Report

Beyond minimal standards for broadcasters, most readers here at CHORE probably would endorse several additional layers of professionalism. Here are a couple suggestions.

A quick-response “live” broadcast capability seems essential to meeting the audience’s information needs.

The automation of the broadcast industry is well-established by now; it’s a model that seems to work for the conglomerates that own multiple outlets in this and many other markets. Does it work for the public?

What we know so far is that it took most of an hour for the state’s designated emergency broadcast station on Oahu to begin its continuous “live” earthquake coverage. That surely is too long for the public to be in information limbo, as numerous citizens have complained.

If a crisis hits during “normal” hours, a station’s staff can begin immediate coverage, but last week’s quakes hit when the staffing was minimal and a prerecorded public affairs program was airing. (Hawaiian Electric’s corporate communications staff used to joke about “Peck’s Law,” attributed to a HECO environmental department staffer who once declared, “All major power outages will happen at the most inconvenient times.” Last Sunday’s earthquake could be considered a validation.)

Do stations train their overnight board operators on how to go to a “war footing” when they’re the only person there? What protocols have Hawai`i broadcasters enacted in light of “Peck’s Law?”

If it’s absolutely impossible to go “live” in the first minutes of a crisis, stations could air a pre-recorded message that acknowledges the emergency condition (which listeners already have sensed) and assures the audience that “live” coverage will begin as quickly as possible. CHORE believes that would be far better than continuing to air a pre-recorded program with no connection whatsoever to the ongoing crisis.

When is a Crisis "Entertainment?"

Oahu’s primary emergency broadcaster seemed stuck after the earthquake in an “entertainment” mode that’s normal for weekday mornings but presumably is inappropriate for a post-earthquake island-wide power outage on a Sunday morning. So here’s another suggestion:

Broadcasters with an “emergency” rather than “entertainment” mindset will come closer to meeting the public’s needs.

It’s entertaining when listeners call in with their anecdotal stories about what happened at their house during the quake. It’s not essential to take those calls, however, and it’s even debilitating to do so when those calls block access by emergency responders. We’ve learned that HECO’s spokesman tried repeatedly without success to get through to the station, and so may have other responders. Encouraging callers to phone in with their stories presumably made matters worse.

The “entertainment” mindset obviously was in play Sunday evening when Oahu’s emergency broadcast station began airing a pre-recorded music show hosted by entertainer John Tesh while half of Oahu was still without power. Tens of thousands of customers remained blacked out into the night and had to be satisfied with news breaks on the half hour.

As suggested here yesterday, let’s hope civil defense and utility officials have worked in the past few days to compile a list of unpublished phone numbers at radio stations that can be used during the next crisis. Scenarios for a telephone service blackout also should be revisited.

HECO Fills the Void on Series-Less Monday

Unless Sunday’s St. Louis-Detroit World Series game is postponed, Monday will be a travel day for the teams. That will free up Monday afternoon for Hawaiian Electric’s question-and-answer session beginning at 2 o’clock in the State Capitol. All citizens with an interest are encouraged to listen, learn, question and help improve communications response with your good ideas.

NOTE: Readers with a newly elevated interest in improving media response to emergencies are encouraged to visit the Tsunami Lessons blog, which this writer started after the devastating December 2004 earthquake and tsunami. The posts have tapered off this year, but the need for improved broadcast tsunami warnings hasn't, so plow through the 2005 entries beginning on January 2 for a sense of our intent. Mahalo.


Art Shotwell said…
I'm shocked that it took so long for one radio station to begin coverage of the earthquake. Kudos to KITV, though, for being on the air and online throughout that day. I watched their coverage, which felt to me a little thin.

I was on-duty as an Editor at KFWB in Los Angeles when the Whittier earthquake struck in 1987. Of course being a large station in a major market, we were prepared. The station was off-air for about one second as our studio and transmitter generators started up. We picked up coverage immediately.
Doug Carlson said…
Thanks for your comments, Art. We remember you as KHVH's city government reporter in the 1970s when the station was all-news. Good to know you're still following events in Hawaii and contributing lessons learned from your years in broadcasting. Take care up there in the Pacific Northwest.

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