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“We Are Accountable as Broadcasters”

Multilingual emergency broadcasting is a moral imperative for the radio industry

The author is an Earle K. Moore Fellow at the Multicultural Media, Telecom & Internet Council.

According to a 2011 Census Bureau report, 21% of the U.S population speaks a language other than English at home. Yet many of these individuals find themselves at a profound disadvantage when emergencies strike because very few of America’s radio stations routinely transmit emergency information in widely spoken languages other than English.

Notably and infamously, in August 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, close to 100,000 Spanish-speaking individuals were left with no radio lifeline after the only Spanish language station in New Orleans was knocked off the air.

To date, the FCC has no multilingual emergency broadcasting requirements. “It means that if you speak only Spanish, and a hurricane hits, you are on your own,” said Brent Wilkes, the former CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) supports extending alerting to the non-English speaking populations, stations have the choice to provide emergency information only in English.

America has no national language, so it is imperative that the broadcast marketplace ensure that those who do not speak English still receive life-saving information during emergencies.

Next Soldier Up

The idea of requiring EAS in languages other than English is not a new concept and can work if each local area has a “designated hitter” selected in advance to broadcast in languages other than English. The concept is based on the U.S. Army’s training of platoons: If a soldier goes down when the platoon is taking a hill, another soldier takes his or her place, and the job still gets done.

Credit: Getty Images/kgtoh

In 2018, this idea worked when three radio station groups voluntarily cooperated to provide vital information to Spanish-speaking residents to communities threatened by Hurricane Florence. At the request of MMTC and LULAC, Miami-based Spanish Broadcasting System (SBS) voiced and transmitted Spanish-language alerts for Cumulus Media and Dick Broadcasting, which serve Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, S.C.

The execution of the process was quite simple. According to Dick Broadcasting’s Aaron Wilborn, “Broadcasters can pick up the phone and in two hours it can be broadcast, put on the air and done.”

These broadcasters made it possible for 22,000 Hispanic residents in Myrtle Beach and 21,000 Hispanic residents in Hilton Head to receive information about health care issues, avoiding injury, shelters and where to find missing bodies after the hurricane hit. The initiative worked because “[W]e are accountable as broadcasters and license holders,” said Jesus Salas of Spanish Broadcasting System, the largest Hispanic-owned media company in the United States.

“These companies are an example to other broadcasters of the essential services that they should provide to the public they serve in times of disaster,” said MMTC President Maurita Coley. “America’s broadcasters should engage now, in this hurricane season, to save the lives of everyone, no matter what languages they speak.”

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