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In the public interest

Once upon a time, usually during a license renewal period, a radio station listener might hear the following on the air:

On May 15, 2001, Radio Station KZZZ (FM) was granted a license by the Federal Communication Commission to serve the public interest as a public trustee until December 1, 2005. Our license will expire December 1, 2005. We must file for license renewal with the FCC by August 1, 2005. When filed, a copy of this application will be available for public inspection during our regular business hours. It contains information concerning this station’s performance during the last four years. Individuals who wish to advise the FCC of facts relating to our renewal application and to whether this station has operated in the public interest should file comments and petitions with the FCC by November 1, 2005. Further information concerning the FCC’s broadcast license renewal process is a available at the KZZZ offices, located at 555 Main Street in Smallville, or may be obtained from the Federal Communications Commission, Washington, D.C. 20554.

So what does “Granted to serve the public interest mean?”  Perhaps having a news department, or sponsoring a debate in the local mayor’s race, perhaps a Sunday morning church service.  Maybe some High School football or even broadcasting emergency information such as tornado warnings or a flood warning.

How about broadcasting a flood warning to your listeners that are taking part in a station promotion?  How about if said station promotion happens to be taking place in a flood plain, and warnings issued several hours before the promotion is scheduled?  No?  You can’t make this stuff up, no one would believe you:

A Clear Channel station in Grand Rapids, MI threw its annual B93 Concert Bash on June 20 in nearby Ionia by the Grand Rapids River, apparently oblivious to flash flood warnings issued by the National Weather Service.

No, nothing bad can come of this right? right?  Of course the inevitable happend.  The river overflowed it’s banks, causing concert goers to flee for their lives and flooding the parking area submerging their cars.  Naturally, Clear Channel will pay those who had their cars towed out of the mud right.  Nope, you listeners are on your own, tough shit.

Then there is the now infamous Minot train derailing. For those not familar, a train carring anhydrous ammonia derailed and spilled it’s contents.  When local officials attempted to activate EAS, they couldn’t.  They then attempted to call the LP-1 station on the phone to get the information out, nobody was home.  Clear Channel placed the blame squarely on the local law enforecement agencies stating that they had not installed their EAS equipement properly and had changed frequencies on their radio link without notifying the radio station.  Perhaps, but it seems there is more than enough blame to share.  Were station employees proactive with the local government officials?  I can’t say, but they should have been.  EAS is a team effort.

Not to pile onto Clear Channel too much, Cumulus seems to encourage their listeners to head out doors, enjoy the good weather.  During a tornado warning.  Nice.

By this, It would appear that the public is interested in fleeing for their lives, having their cars flooded, all the while wondering what is going on.

No matter how hard people try, nothing can replace radio’s role in alerting the public.  Mass e-mail systems, Blackberries, and other internet based systems will fail when the power goes out and kills the supporting ethernet infrastructure.  Cellphones, PCS devices, I-phones become unreliable during emergencies because the TELCO system that supports them gets clogged with traffic.  Many cellphone towers do not have backup generators.  During the events of 9/11/2001, I experienced first hand the difficulties trying to use the wired telephone network due to congestion.  Since the HDTV rollout, cable companies have become the backbone for the distribution of TV signals.  Coaxial based cable systems rely on booster amplifiers every mile or two to keep the signal strengths usable.  Those amplifiers need power from the utility grid.  Not to mention, most TVs cannot run on batteries and lack portability.

Almost everyone owns a battery powered portable radio.  When the shit hits the fan, they will turn it on.  What will they hear?

So where is the official outrage?  Why has not the big radio CEO’s,  public trustees each, been dragged before congress to explain themselves?

EAS

Emergency warning siren station

Emergency warning siren station

EAS, or more properly, the Emergency Alert System, is a government mandated system of encoders and decoders designed by the federal government to alert the public in case of war or other emergency.  It, and it’s predecessor, EBS (Emergency Broadcast System) have never been activated by the federal government.  Both systems, however, are used extensively by local and state governments for things like weather alerts, amber alerts, etc.

Back in the mid-90’s the FCC had a chance to redo the EBS and produce something that was a streamlined and effective tool for public warning.  Unfortunately, the EAS system is neither.  Rather, it is a cumbersome system of weekly and monthly tests scheduled around pre-conceived notions that how the system is tested every week will be how the system works in an emergency.  In practice, this is generally a good theory of system design, but it has failed miserably with EAS.  The reasons why are thus:

  • Most all emergencies are local or at most state wide events.  To this day, very few state and or local government emergency managers would be able to activate EAS for their area.  The reason is there is minimal if any interface with the LP-1 EAS stations or station personnel.  Ignorance and apathy on behalf of both radio station personnel and government officials is the main culprit.
  • Most stations are un-maned for large portions of the day.  Even if government official could/did call the station, chances are, nobody would be there.  If by chance, arrangements were made to contact station employees at home, they would have to interface with the EAS equipment remotely, which ads complexity to an already complex system.
  • EAS messages are still mainly relayed from radio station to radio station, the so called daisy chain net work that has been shown numerous times to be unreliable.
  • The system of SAME codes, FIPS identifiers is not necessarily bad, the application in this case leaves something to be desired.  The FCC had a chance to update EAS before the HDTV rollout.  One would assume that any improvements could have been built into the new TV sets that are now being sold, but again, that opportunity was missed.  For example, I suggested that each TV have a set up screen option where the owner could input their zip code.  They could also choose what types of alerts they would want to know about and even base the alerts types on the time of day.  Live in a flood zone, the FFW (Flash Flood Warning) 24/7.  Live in tornado alley, TOR (Tornado Warning), etc.  The cable companies then pipe in the local NOAA all hazards radio station.  All the sudden there is a real national alert system in place using mostly non-broadcast wireless systems.  Add to that the ability to sign up for emergency e-mails and text messages for specific areas (many places are currently doing this) and there is multiple message paths.

The system as is is not reliable and sooner or later that will be shown with a large scale failure.  Recently, the FCC held a summit with the Department of Homeland Security.  The cliff notes version of this event is: Yes, the system can be made better.  Let’s keep throwing the same ideas at the wall and see if anything sticks this time.  Excuse me if I don’t do back flips, this is the same information that was discussed during the last “lets revamp EAS” discussion back in 2005 (04-296).

In the mean time, the EAS continues to be a good fund raiser for the FCC enforcement bureau.  Which, you know, it is easier to go to a licensed radio station and bust them for not re-transmitting the RMT (Required Monthly Test) than it is to go out and bust some of the numerous pirate radio operators, some of whom are operating in the same city/metropolitan area as a field office.

The shame of it is, it could work without a great deal of cost, very well.

Axiom


A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. An optimist sees the glass as half full. The engineer sees the glass as twice the size it needs to be.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
~1st amendment to the United States Constitution

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
~Benjamin Franklin

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
~Rudyard Kipling

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers
~Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, Article 19

...radio was discovered, and not invented, and that these frequencies and principles were always in existence long before man was aware of them. Therefore, no one owns them. They are there as free as sunlight, which is a higher frequency form of the same energy.
~Alan Weiner

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