The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at www.radioworld.com.
In the wake of the massive devastation wreaked by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Federal Communications Commission has acted swiftly to address the crisis impacting Puerto Rico. Still there remains a wonderful opportunity to take a pioneering lead in restoring crucial communications networks, including radio.
We have no doubt all seen the headlines and photographs. After being struck by two large storms, Puerto Rico is still struggling on many fronts three weeks later. Power, roads, housing and water are among the most dire concerns. Pres. Donald Trump has asked Congress for nearly $5 billion in assistance to ramp up efforts. However, even with the infusion of cash, the scale of destruction means that a return to the way things were — if not better than they were, given a real need to shore up infrastructure to withstand powerful hurricanes in the future — will take months.
How radio and communications are affected cannot be underestimated.
On October 6, a coalition of organizations, including the National Hispanic Media Coalition, appealed to the FCC on the crisis in Puerto Rico. “Puerto Ricans and U.S. Virgin Islanders desperately need that type of targeted response,” those concerned wrote. “Local authorities, carriers, FEMA, and volunteer relief organizations could be working together to craft innovative solutions on how to restore critical communication services as well as how to rebuild a communications infrastructure that will survive the next storm.”
NHMC, a member organization of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, co-authored the letter with the Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, Free Press and Public Knowledge. They asked for additional measures by the FCC to restore communications in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Their recommendations include organizing a teleconference of service providers, equipment manufacturers, nonprofits and other stakeholders to organize and coordinate a communications industry response; deployment of temporary wireless networks using Wi-Fi and other unlicensed spectrum as well as authorizing low-power FM stations; and temporary roaming agreements between wireless carriers to increase the cell service availability.
Even though Irma and Maria’s aftermath is disappearing from the news cycle, the need for humanitarian relief in Puerto Rico is evident. NPR reported that even in the second week of October about 90% of the island is still without electricity. A recent FCC report notes over 84% of cellular towers in Puerto Rico are still down. Communications is essential for providing medical aid, infrastructure support and ultimately normalcy back to the island. FCC Chair Ajit Pai should be applauded for the decisive efforts thus far. A task force and over $75 million are among the commission’s commitments so far.
More can be done, and noncommercial radio can serve a vital purpose in the campaign to rally back Puerto Rico and to support the families stateside still without word from loved ones.
Community radio is counted among the emergency response networks in cities and towns across the United States. Rural communities especially value having these stations at the ready to support residents with emergency information. Even in small- to medium-sized areas, what community radio does is critical. During Southern California’s recent fires, for instance, KCSB reported online when its tower was impacted. Such was the case with Mendocino County’s KZYX and the latest blaze.
Puerto Rico would be vastly helped by stronger efforts to reboot radio service quickly. While there remains a lack of electricity, solar, hand-cranked and other sustainable radios are easy to distribute and use. Restoring radio means families can communicate outward to those on the island. Community radio also can be a communications conduit for safety information, aid drop-off communiques and so much more that Puerto Rico desperately needs.
NFCB has several member stations in Puerto Rico, including WOQI in Adjuntas, WIPR in San Juan, WVQR; in Vieques and WRTU, also in San Juan. Each of these radio stations is a major part of life, culture, news and public service in Puerto Rico. Like all community radio, they serve the distinct purpose to inform and to educate. These and more stations are ready to act and help their respective communities.
The commission can greatly help Puerto Rico by acting on NHMC’s ideas, and by prioritizing community radio in this moment. You can still help Puerto Rico too. Those in radio concerned about what’s happening have many conduits. Organizations like Greater Public and the Latino Public Radio Consortium are organizing efforts to support community radio on the island.
Although Puerto Rico is still pressed by this calamity, our collective voices, resources and power can make a real difference. Together we can create changes that can alleviate pain in this truly heartbreaking situation.