TOKYO — At 14:45 on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, the earthquake struck Tokyo.
The TOKYO FM main studio.
At that time I was at the barber having my hair cut, and I was surprised because all the shampoo bottles on the wall suddenly fell to the ground. I hurried outside and saw a power pole shaking like a palm tree.
I left the barber’s, got on a bicycle and hurried to the radio station I work for. On the way, I saw the streets were full of people and when I reached Shibuya, it was crowded like a jam-packed train.
CHECKING AND MONITORING
As soon as I arrived at the station, I made sure that there were no problems with our broadcasting system.
The on-air program had already changed to the emergency program, skipping all of the commercials, and an announcer was reading the news updates as they arrived at the studio.
Earthquake damage about five minutes’ walk from the new studio.
After I checked all of the important equipment, I went to transmitter site by bicycle to check on its condition. All things considered, the transmitter seemed OK; the only thing that was broken was a mirror that had fallen from the wall.
Next I went online to check on our four satellite transmitter sites. Remote control units connected to the sites via the Internet had not indicated any alarm, and I was able to check the on-air feeds through loopback monitors, so I decided to visit each of them later.
In the studio, many of our staff members —producers, directors, engineers and assistants — were already there. Directors and engineers were taking nationwide live programs alternately without any rest.
The emergency studio in Kamaishi.
The morning after the earthquake, we were still emergency broadcasting and the state of the disaster sites remained unclear. Reports had come in that there were over 300 dead bodies floating on a lake, and announcers and directors kept on working even though they were crying.
In Japan there is an earthquake-prediction system powered by the Japan Meteorological Agency.
For radio stations, an emergency report suddenly cuts into on-air broadcasts a few seconds before an earthquake is supposed to arrive. We put our magnitude threshold for a break-in higher than TV stations to prevent confusion.
Nevertheless, earthquake reports cut in six times during the first month after the March quake; however, earthquakes never occurred or were very small after almost all of the reports. More importantly, the system did not predict the first quake or the next biggest aftershock, proving the difficulty of earthquake prediction.
The response from listeners was much greater than usual. This was especially true in the disaster sites that lost electricity and where radio was the only available media for a long time.
Staff phone numbers and Twitter accounts were posted to facilitate communication.
We chose some theme songs from animated cartoons to play for children in the disaster sites; this prompted tons of responses on Twitter. Right after the earthquake, we decided to shutdown advertising in order to give higher priority to information.
Soon afterwards, we checked with all of our sponsors to see they were ready to have their advertisements back on the air. It took over three months to get back to normal conditions; however, we received much favorable response for this decision as well.
BUILD AN EMERGENCY FM
TOKYO FM has 38 networked stations via the Japan FM Network. FM IWATE was seriously damaged and requested us to help it set up a new studio.
I was one of the engineers sent to help with the work. I left Tokyo with a van full of equipment and headed to the one of the biggest disaster sites, Kamaishi.
All the members of the FM IWATE Kamaishi department had lost their homes and were staying at an evacuation center. One of the engineers, Daiki Sasaki, said that his family was OK but that had he lost his house and car.
The tower for FM IWATE’s emergency FM service.
FM IWATE was granted a new license to operate as Kamaishi Emergency FM after setting up the studio. They decided to provide a 30 W signal from the top of a mountain just behind the flooded area.
There was no ISDN line between the new studio and the top of the mountain, so they decided to use our 400 MHz wideband remote pickup unit. The equipment is licensed to be used only in Tokyo, but the government decided to move the license to Iwate as a special measure.
In Japan, radio was revived and rethought after this tragedy. At the same time, another efficient wireless technology, IP over 3G, demonstrated its utility.
Although Japan has not yet recovered from the disaster, I have decided to keep trying to make radio a reliable source of information to help the lives of all listeners.
Ryosuke Takasaki is an engineer working for TOKYO FM Broadcasting Co. Ltd. in Tokyo, Japan.