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MMTC, NAB Square Off on Multilingual Alerting

Organizations at odds over proposal to create “designated hitter” stations

The time has come for the Federal Communications Commission to take a bigger step in ensuring that emergency information is broadcast to listeners in languages other than English, according to the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council.

The MMTC made that argument in a recent letter to the FCC.

The letter was in response to comments from the National Association of Broadcasters about a proposal being considered by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. That proposal could formalize a “radio station designated-hitter” system in which English-language stations would partner with non-English stations in their markets. The latter station then could provide news and information during an emergency if it was knocked off the air.

In its own letter to the commission, the NAB said the idea is well-intentioned but ill-conceived. Before asking broadcasters to turn over airtime to another station or broadcast in another language, it said, the commission should attempt to help non-English radio stations to improve their own resiliency.

“For example, the FCC should encourage such stations to obtain a generator and fuel reserves so they can continue service if the power grid goes down,” wrote Rick Kaplan, NAB chief legal officer and executive vice president of legal and regulatory affairs. “This would much more effectively address any concerns about the access of listeners to such stations and information during emergencies.”

In its reply letter, the MMTC called the NAB suggestion “unproductive” and questioned why the association is calling for non-English stations to focus on resiliency during an emergency, “something all radio stations already strive to achieve,” wrote Robert Branson, president/CEO of MMTC.

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The accessibility of alert information is critical in an emergency, MMTC argues, yet the Emergency Alert System — and particularly radio alerts — largely disregard the needs of people who are not proficient in English.

The organization cited the death of seven members of a Spanish-speaking family in 2013 during an Oklahoma tornado. “The family had been overtaken by flash flooding, a risk they likely knew little about as the area has few Spanish-language radio and television stations and even fewer bilingual meteorologists who provide adequate warnings during inclement weather,” the MMTC wrote.

MMTC said the need for reform on this issue has been at the FCC’s doorstep since 2005. That’s when the nonprofit and other parties submitted an emergency petition after Hurricane Katrina. Now, after nearly two decades of consideration and input, the commission has not proffered a better alternative than the designated hitter system, the MMTC believes.

The group said this approach worked when Hurricane Florence hit South Carolina in 2018. Cumulus Media and Dick Broadcasting voluntarily agreed to run Spanish-language alerts and information on stations in Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, which did not have full-service 24-hour Spanish-language stations.

Relying on the goodwill of stations to provide multilingual emergency alerts, however, will not ensure that critical information is relayed to and understood by non-English-speaking populations, it continued.

“Suggesting that radio stations that serve non-English-speaking populations lack the resiliency and equipment to continue operating in an emergency is speculative, inaccurate and reflects a lack of empathy about the challenges that these stations face,” MMTC wrote.

Resources like backup generators and fuel reserves do not guarantee that any station will be able to stay on air, such as when a transmitter is burned in a wildfire, the organization said.

The NAB also argued that listeners could be confused if they turn to a station and hear programming in a foreign language; they might simply tune away and lose trust in that station.

[Related: “Multilingual Emergency Broadcasting: A Moral Imperative for the Radio Industry”]

The MMTC disagreed. “Stations routinely broadcast weather or traffic ‘on the eights’ [so] there is limited cost to adding a bite-sized message in another language to such reports for non-English speakers, who need emergency information just as much as English-speaking listeners,” it wrote. “Including notifications that the information will be presented in English and Spanish would ensure that listeners are not confused when they hear a message in a foreign language.”

The NAB also said such a requirement ignores the tradition of broadcasters working together to help a station in need restore operations during an emergency. NAB’s Kaplan wrote: “Instead of pursuing this unnecessary proposal, the FCC should support the efforts of [state broadcasting associations] and encourage potentially at-risk foreign-language stations to better utilize their services, especially before disaster strikes.”

MMTC said the designated hitter system is an important step toward ensuring that every person in America receives life-saving information during an emergency.

“Just like any new endeavor, as broadcasters participate in the designated hitter system and publicize their emergency plans, listeners will become accustomed to hearing emergency alerts in multiple languages and identifying trusted sources of information when their preferred station goes down,” Branson wrote. “It will become a routine component of emergency responses.”