By Howard B. Price
ABC Television Network
Director, Business Continuity
“It’s YOUR fault, you know. YOUR fault a huge, powerful storm system hundreds of miles wide had the temerity to jog just 50 miles farther east, turning a forecast blizzard for many into a whimpering flurry.”
“Oh, and it’s YOUR fault, too – you emergency managers and business continuity pros – YOUR fault government and businesses took decisions that inconvenienced many and cost untold dollars in lost revenue or extra expense.”
Yeah, well – speaking as both a broadcaster and a certified emergency planning professional – to that I say simply and with strong resolve: “Good for us.”
New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, had an interesting – and I think, spot-on — take on the storm that (for some) wasn’t. First, he said, many of the areas forecast for blizzard conditions DID, in fact, experience them. Second, he asked folks to think back to Hurricane Irene. In New York City, critics chided then-Mayor Bloomberg for shutting down transit, and issuing evacuation orders for coastal areas, when at the end of the day, Irene’s impacts in New York City were minimal. “Where did the storm wreak havoc?” Cuomo asked rhetorically. Inland. Waaaay inland. Where no one saw it coming. Where no one planned for it. And where damage was widespread, costly and long lasting.
As one of my radio heroes, Dave Ross, likes to say, “let’s read that real slow.” Where No One Planned. Where No One was Warned. Where No One was Fully Prepared.
One of the shining stories from the upstate impacts of Irene was little WRIP-FM in Greene County, NY. Big Jay Fink came in on a Sunday, blew out scheduled syndicated programming, and stayed on the air for 13 hours straight– the only source of timely, accurate information for a community isolated in a raging storm. How big a deal was his heroic performance? Big enough to merit a story in The New York Times.
I picked a friendly online fight yesterday with the owner of my local radio station, 30 miles north of NYC — which in my view, underplayed yesterday’s winter storm, staying on automation in the midst of a declared local emergency. And he argued politely with me over what there is, really, to report on “preparedness.”
Well, licensees, why don’t you ask the fine people of Moore, OK? The folks in Tuscaloosa, AL…Joplin, MO? The folks up in greater Buffalo? Ask how important preparedness information is when a tornado is bearing down on your house. Or you’re stuck in your snowbound car on an interstate.
Ask how important information is when a mudslide or wildfire imperils a southern California neighborhood. When the earth moves in Napa. An ice storm paralyzes Atlanta. Violence erupts on the streets of a St Louis suburb. Or a flu or measles pandemic runs wild in your community.
The hard-working owner of my local radio station– who with all respect, is fighting a tough, costly, good fight for localism in the shadow of the largest radio market in the free world – makes a good point: There’s no value in hype. But I posit there is ALWAYS value in substantive information that allows listeners and viewers to make rational decisions about how to prepare for and respond to an impending emergent event.
No one should EVER blame the messengers for decisions governments and businesses take based on scientific facts that were trumped – as they sometimes are – by the forces of nature. Better to plan for what turns out to be unnecessary, then to be caught flat-footed when circumstances are worse than you anticipated.
The lesson for broadcasters? Be reliable, consistent, proactive purveyors of accurate and timely information. Have the resources always on hand to seek out truth, ask hard questions, go where the real news is. Be a beacon of light in chaos. Be the voice of help, hope and calm. Be the indispensible public service that is there when all else fails.
And when you get it wrong, learn from your mistakes, and come back faster, better and smarter than you were before.
Howard B. Price, CBCP/MBCI is director, business continuity for ABC Television Network. He can be emailed at Howard.B.Price@abc.com or phoned at 212-456-1073.