BANGOR, Maine What participants believe is the first local cooperative emergency broadcasting venture in this market among commercial radio broadcasters and public broadcasting could become a model for others in the industry hoping to combine resources to ensure that public information links remain stable after natural disasters, attacks or pandemics.
Clear Channel Radio, Cumulus Broadcasting and Maine Public Broadcasting have formed the United Radio Broadcasters of Eastern Maine. The group expects to test its communication infrastructure this month. Its name echoes that of an ad hoc group that formed in 2005, United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina.
Zone Corp., a Bangor-based broadcaster with two FM stations, had agreed to participate in the new venture but later withdrew. No explanation was given for the withdrawal, according to those familiar with URBEM.
The demonstration will originate from the studios of Maine Public Broadcasting, the primary EAS entry point for the market. The demonstration will be about the same length as an EAS test and air on all participating stations, said those familiar with the plans. Maine Governor John Baldacci is expected to voice the multi-station simulcast announcement.
All of the participating radio stations are licensed to Bangor, Maine, or surrounding communities. The geographic region URBEM expects to serve, a five-county region in the eastern third of the state, is home to nearly 300,000 people.
“This is a very unique arrangement that takes terrorism and disaster into account and how broadcasters can continue broadcasting potentially lifesaving information in the aftermath of a catastrophic event,” said Larry Julius, market manager for Clear Channel Bangor, a cluster of eight stations.
“URBEM is intended to be the communications link to the outside world in the anticipation of all wired and cell phone networks within the broadcast services area, or even the entire state, being out of service,” according to a URBEM spokesman.
The Maine Emergency Management Agency has told URBEM members, that as they plan for emergencies, they should assume that no public information would be forthcoming from the government within the first 72 hours after a disaster.
“In a worst-case scenario we want to be able to share programming across multiple locations,” Julius said.
The Maine Broadcasters Foundation has given the go-ahead for a $7,800 grant to be spent on a satellite phone and two-way communications gear for coordinating communications and sharing information among the cooperative broadcasters.
Richard Hyatt, director of engineering/Maine operations for Cumulus Broadcasting, said approximately 90 percent of the radio stations licensed to Bangor and the surrounding communities are participating. Fourteen stations are participating in the demonstration simulcast. Bangor is Arbitron market 220.
The technological issues, such as sharing programming among the 14 stations, “are solvable given the requisite time and money. The political issues, however, can be enormous. For instance the determination of at which point one really wants to be broadcasting a competitor’s programming,” Hyatt said.
The agreement signed by participants establishes answers to those questions in advance so that official information can be broadcast with no time wasted in negotiations, Hyatt said.
The technical infrastructure of the system is fairly straightforward, Hyatt said, with remotely-tunable FM receivers at designated transmitter sites that will enable the selective re-broadcasting of any participant’s signals received off-air at a given mountaintop location.
“Pre-coordination of existing, licensed RPU frequencies will also enable the sharing of common programming audio, in short or long form as desired,” he said.
The procurement of a satellite telephone system and establishment of a mobile communications network via VHF and/or UHF two-way radio equipment will enable the sharing of raw information among the participants, said Gil Maxwell, senior vice president and chief technology officer for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
“My philosophy is to keep it simple. We are adding tuners and antennas and adding them to our patch panels at the transmitter sites,” said Maxwell, referring to WMEH(FM) and WMED(FM), the two public radio stations near Bangor.
‘One step further’
Maine Public Broadcasting has spent approximately $1,000 for equipment at its transmitter sites so far, Maxwell said.
“We are the LP1 for EAS in the Bangor region, so part of our mission is to get emergency information out. This goes one step further to ensure one of the three broadcasters will have broadcast facilities operating to maintain public communication,” Maxwell said.
The level of cooperation needed to reach such an arrangement is encouraging, said Clear Channel’s Julius, who championed the idea from the outset when discussions began last fall.
“We are all competitors in the day-to-day battle for revenue. However, no one gave a second thought to signing the agreement. We welcome any other broadcasters to participate,” Julius said.
The Maine Emergency Management Agency supports the agreement, as does Maine Governor Baldacci, a Democrat, and the two U.S. senators representing Maine, Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, according to Julius.