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Public Media as Critical Services

Pubcasters can seek help from FEMA after emergencies or natural disasters

Score one on Capitol Hill for public radio for highlighting its importance in times of emergency.

President Obama in December signed legislation clarifying that not-for-profit radio and TV stations are eligible for federal emergency support.

The purpose of the Emergency Information Improvement Act of 2015, according to a Senate committee summary, is to make clear that a current law authorizing assistance to nonprofits that provide critical services to communities may include such stations.

“While nonprofit broadcast facilities currently may meet the statutory criteria for eligibility for this assistance, the law does not specifically identify them as eligible and some such facilities have faced significant delays in receiving assistance in the past,” the summary states.

“This bill would eliminate any potential ambiguity by explicitly listing broadcast facilities as an eligible provider of critical services.”

WNYC Chief Technology Officer Steve Shultis rows out to check on damage at the station’s AM transmitter site in Kearney, N.J., after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012.
Credit: Amy Pearl, WNYC NPR helped push for this in its role as a membership organization for the public radio system. It researched the issue and proposed a solution to members of Congress.

Vice President of Policy and Representation Mike Riksen noted that more than 98 percent of Americans have access to a public radio or TV signal. “Whether it’s remote, rural areas of our nation or densely populated cities, public media has become an essential and reliable source for timely and accurate information often related directly from emergency management officials and first responders.”

While NPR made its push on behalf of public broadcasting, Riksen said the legislation benefits all non-profit licensed broadcasters.

The legislation was bipartisan and enjoyed the backing of at least one GOP candidate for president. It was sponsored in the upper chamber by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and brought up in the House by Reps. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., and Brian Higgins, D-N.Y.

The underlying law in question is the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which took effect in 1988. Under that law, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides disaster assistance to eligible state, tribal and local governments as well as to certain types of private nonprofits through a Public Assistance Grant Program.

In the event of disaster, the program helps governments and organizations cover cost of things like debris removal, protective measures and repair, and replacement or restoration of facilities owned by private nonprofits that provide critical services.

But what is a “critical service”? Power and water, certainly; education and communications, too; but what about radio broadcasting?

“In recent years, several private nonprofit broadcast stations have sought financial assistance through this FEMA program, including in the aftermath of Hurricanes Sandy, Katrina and Isaac,” the committee report explained. “However, some of these entities have encountered difficulties in receiving timely assistance, despite the critical emergency services that those broadcasters provided to their communities.”

It noted that when Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, New York Public Radio, which has seven radio facilities in New York and New Jersey, sustained significant damage. It applied for repair funding under the assistance program but was denied at first because it didn’t qualify as an eligible non-profit “communications utility/facility.”

Ultimately FEMA found the broadcaster to be eligible, “given the critical nature of the services provided by the facility and the impact to the health and safety of the general public,” the report states. “Until the facility was fixed, NYPR was forced to operate on low power, significantly reducing its audience reach.”

Riksen said this experience — at WNYC(AM) in particular — revealed the ambiguity of the statute. “It took an initial rejection and lengthy appeal to put the station in the position to recover. We used the experience of WNYC as a rationale to clarify the law so that any station that in the future experiences damaged facilities or equipment during a national disaster will be better situated to recover.”

And it’s not just big-market signals that are affected. In a similar case, FEMA initially denied a request from the Hancock County Amateur Radio Association for funding to repair its low-power FM station in Kiln, Miss., after Hurricane Isaac in 2012.

The bill’s backers note that local stations can provide critically important public emergency communication services before and after disasters.

“According to a media report, during Hurricane Sandy, some radio stations in coastal areas experienced audience number increases of up to 367 percent, as the loss of power in many areas forced listeners to turn to radio to receive key information about the storm. At the same time, broadcast facilities can suffer extensive damage during major disasters.”

The report noted that Hurricane Katrina, for example, “severely damaged broadcasting infrastructure in the Gulf Coast region, including 50 percent of area radio stations and 44 percent of area television stations. Given the important role these facilities can play in a disaster, it is important that these facilities are repaired as quickly as possible after a disaster.”

(If you work in commercial radio, you may be asking, “What about us?” But the Stafford Act is about assistance to nonprofits, and commercial broadcasters are not part of the designation. The revision simply clarifies that non-profit broadcasters are covered. Could commercial broadcasters someday convince lawmakers to include them as critical services deserving of FEMA help? It seems doubtful to me. I’m not aware of any push for such a change; but past efforts to grant radio/TV stations “first responder” status have failed on the Hill. Such a bill would help stations obtain priority access to equipment, fuel and electricity after disasters; but the idea came up against resistance from police, fire and other emergency service interests. That’s a topic for another day, but it’s one reason I encourage broadcasters to avoid claiming for themselves the label of “first responders,” preferring “first informers” instead.)

I asked Riksen what form “federal emergency support” to pubcasters might take. “We’re not exactly certain at this point,” he said, “but we believe stations that experienced building or equipment damage resulting from an incident that was declared a national disaster will be able to recover all or some of the expense in repairing that damage.”

Riksen said broadcasters will learn about how to take advantage of the statutory change as stations and the public radio system gain experience in working with FEMA. “But initially, with the president’s action to sign this legislation into law on Dec. 18, stations should be aware that FEMA disaster relief is now a part of a disaster recovery plan.”