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Community Broadcaster: Time of Need

Recent national talks on emergencies may prompt action

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at

Hurricane season in the Atlantic region starts June 1. With it should come a time for community radio to tally its readiness to help its audience when it needs a station most.

Many media organizations are stepping up to give your radio station the tools it needs.

The innovative public media leaders of Native Public Media just concluded their Native Broadcast Summit. Tribal broadcasters from around the United States descended on Chandler, Ariz., to talk about the future of Native American noncommercial broadcasting. The present, where many of these predominantly communities are affected by wildfires, drought and other disasters, was also very much part of the discourse.

To its credit, NPM is focused on emergency preparedness because these stations and towns need community media as never before. A host of national organizations is coming to terms with just how crucial radio is in moments where calamity strikes. So are lawmakers. In Texas, for example, Rep. Vincente Gonzalez is calling for support, because the loss of a station would diminish his community’s responsiveness. Radio’s ubiquity is still meaningful. That presence means a lot when hurricanes, tornadoes and even incidents of mass violence grip a city.

Yes, emergencies are more than storms. And they can strike anywhere at anytime.

Days before the Native Broadcast Summit, at NFCB’s Regional Summit in Grand Rapids, Mich., emergency preparedness was also on the agenda. There, longtime media responders Michael Beach and John Groundwater, who were instrumental in supporting community stations in Puerto Rico and other locales to get back on the air after disasters, as well as Tanya-Marie Singh, CEO of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Island’s WTJX(FM/TV), spoke about action during these moments. They also sought to teach community radio managers and others how to integrate emergency planning at all levels of a station’s operations. Considering how often emergencies arise in every location, such instruction serves many stations well.

[Read: Months After Hurricane, WTJX Fights On]

If you’re not in a hurricane zone, chances are you are in a community that could face any number of issues. Maybe all these dialogs can be your motivation to understand how your community radio station can help your town at a time of need.

For a few stations, the ability to respond may hinge on fundamental questions of scale. The Federal Communications Commission’s test of the Emergency Alert System revealed a patchwork of issues. Equipment problems, out-of-date software and audio difficulties were high on the list. LPFM stations were among the largest constituencies with the completion challenges.

Needless to say, if you are not familiar with FCC emergency protocols, or if you aren’t sure if your broadcast systems are poised and ready to go, quiet times are the right times to check. Nothing can be as frustrating as finding out your systems don’t do what you expect them to do just when you need them the most.

[Read: Community Broadcaster: Saying Goodbye to Mignon]

Gear hiccups aside, for virtually every station, emergency preparedness is about communication, planning and collaboration. As an educational broadcast outlet, your noncommercial station serves a vital purpose to your area residents. And local officials are generally quite happy to work with your organization in the interests of keeping everyone safe. Many community radio stations like northern California’s KWMR(FM), have strong relationships with the city and its first responders. The station even has a webpage collecting relevant phone numbers, Twitter feeds and other contacts in case a listener has an emergency or needs information about one.

If your community radio station is not familiar with your state’s Emergency Alert System leadership, maybe it is time to reach out and talk.

Then there is the programming standpoint. How does your station look to comprehensively cover a disaster? How do you go beyond call-in programs and provide your listeners a deeper, more contextual conversation in incidents where, in some cases, people have lost everything? NPR shared how it covered the Paris terrorist attacks, using live coverage, explainers, social media and other resources to give audiences the full depth of the story. Although your community radio station may not have the same capacity, certainly there are a few valuable lessons to be gleaned.

Community radio serves such a vital purpose to so many people. Emergency preparation is just another matter in which community media can shine. As national broadcast discussions continue to build, it is time for your station to take a place at the table.

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