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FM Chip, Fuel Access Stressed During Sandy Hearings

Radio stations remained on the air during the crisis, broadcasters told FCC, public

In the first of what is promised to be several field hearings post-superstorm Sandy, several communications industry experts said access to fuel before, during and after a crisis is a big deal.

Clear Channel Chairman/CEO John Hogan also said the FCC might encourage wireless carriers to include or activate an FM chip in their cellphones so radio is available to people in an emergency even if other forms of communications are not. 

None of the broadcaster’s stations in the areas affected by Sandy went off the air, partly because Clear Channel had staged generator fuel for stations ahead of time, according to Hogan. Some employees camped out for days, making sure the facilities stayed on the air.

Disaster relief continues, as the broadcaster is still raising money for storm relief, Hogan told the assembled commissioners and other communication industry panelists at the public hearing in Hoboken, N.J.

Dave Davis, president and general manager of WABC(TV) in New York, agreed disaster planning is essential. Anticipating power outages due to the storm, his station asked ESPN to feed content to the company’s two sister radio stations in the market. Those stations, too, remained on the air, he said.

Commissioner Ajit Pai noted that about one million people were listening to radio, on average, on Oct. 29, the day Sandy hit the East coast, citing Arbitron information.

The manager of social media for the New York Fire Department described how she kept in contact with residents who had no phone service using Twitter and passed on their information to 911 authorities. Panelists discussed how to incorporate more social media into emergency alerting.

However while social media can be a great tool, the public needs accurate information, according to Davis, especially to disprove rumors. “Just because something is on the Internet, doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Hogan agreed, telling the attendees that “broadcasting is a curated experience” the public can turn to as a lifeline, stressing that Clear Channel takes its “first informer” role seriously.

Asked if any FCC rules are standing in the way of strengthening communications in times of crisis, both Davis and Hogan emphasized that access to fuel is vital; while not an issue for Sandy, it has been in other disasters like Hurricane Katrina, according to Hogan. In that case, Clear Channel had fuel trucked in, but couldn’t get the trucks past authorities.