by Howard Price
NEW YORK — Ours is a business of superlatives. “The Most Music,” “Your Beacon of Freedom,” “The Hottest Talk.” Nothing wrong with that…it’s called promotion and marketing and IF you can walk the walk behind your talk, you can successfully build your brand, win listener loyalty, distinguish yourself in the marketplace – and make money. The operating word there is…IF.
So here’s a superlative for you, courtesy of The Weather Channel. Posted as I write this on Wednesday morning: “Hurricane Michael Just Hours Away From a Catastrophic, Unprecedented Florida Panhandle, Big Bend Category 4 Landfall”
Let’s read that real slow: “Catastrophic.” “Unprecedented.” “Category 4.” That’s scary talk if you are one of the four million or so people living in the path of this monster storm bearing down this morning on the Florida panhandle.
And the frightening, life-threatening nature of this storm is why SiriusXM is making The Weather Channel available FREE on Channel 145 for the duration of this event. Because this is a big, catastrophic, monster, unprecedented storm, and people need vital information to protect their lives and property. And we’ll worry about the money later.
What SiriusXM is doing is what terrestrial radio USED to do. I say “used to”…because I just scanned the live streams of a random selection of radio stations in the path of a storm just hours away now…and let’s see: The news/talk station I was listening to is continuing its usual morning menu of political bombast. The CHR station is still playing hot hits. The country station is still honky-tonking. Even the powerhouse public station was still carrying national programming.
How is this even possible? Have we as an industry lost our collective mind?
So let say this for the record, one more time with feeling. Stop whining about the FM chip in smartphones. Stop whining about owning more stations as if that will improve your bottom line, because clearly whatever money you’re making is NOT going to your listener’s bottom line, which is the provision of vital information in times of crisis.
Do your damn job as broadcasters.
It’s not just because it’s what that pesky FCC phrase about operating in the public interest, convenience, and necessity is all about. It’s about the fact that when you do your job as broadcasters, you save lives.
And that’s because despite repeated exhortations by public officials to evacuate ahead of an approaching storm, many people refuse to do so. Some look back on past storms they rode out – unable to fathom that the “next one” could be worse than anything they’ve previously experienced. Some stay out of emotional attachment, or fear of the unknown, or not wanting to return to heartbreaking devastation.
But I posit that some stay because, well, the radio is still playing music. Or talking about Trump vs. the Dems. And well, if the radio isn’t getting all riled up about this, it surely can’t be that bad. Seems logical.
Radio friends — there is a reason so many TV stations go “wall-to-wall” with severe storm coverage – and very early in these events. And why radio needs to join that bandwagon. Yes, it drives up audience…but think about why that is. It’s because PEOPLE ARE DESPERATE FOR INFORMATION. And that’s because even in the age of social media, the power, immediacy and reach of TV most authentically conveys the importance of events now. Compels you to sit up and take notice. Earns your trust. Spurs you to act.
In the infancy of TV, that’s what radio did. And surely at the local level, it can and must STILL do that. It needs to sound the clarion call to listen to the warnings because by carrying and repeating them in real time, we’re saying: “This is no joke. You need to leave. Your life is at risk.” Radio needs to foster preparedness through guidance we air and post to our websites and apps. It needs to give people a pertinent reason to STAY TUNED, because severe weather is ever-changing, and if you miss a minute, you miss a lot.
Ask Puerto Rico’s broadcasters what they learned from Hurricane Maria. They’ll tell you that reliable coverage brought people BACK to radio who hadn’t listened consistently for YEARS.
It is neither difficult nor outrageously expensive to plan, resource and execute competent special coverage and sustain your facility IF YOU START EARLY, WORK INCREMENTALLY AND THINK STRATEGICALLY. Here’s how in a nutshell:
- PLAN for only SIX universal contingencies
- Loss of People
- Loss of Plant
- Loss of Production Capability Within the Plant
- Loss of Cash Flow
- Loss of Reputation
- Third-Party/Supply Chain Impacts
- Have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C
- Plan A: Operations normal at main facilities
- Plan B: Critical Ops sustained on backup at main facilities
- Plan C: Fallback to hardened backup facilities
- Staffing and supply plans follow each of these strategies
- Plan for IMPACTS, not SCENARIOS
- WHAT has caused your disruption is less important in the moment that the NATURE of the disruption and your ability to invoke a workaround.
- Plans must be simple to communicate, simple to provision, simple to execute
- One- or two-page checklists rather than “big read books” no one can decipher at time of event
- Have a system for communicating with your team and with civic leaders
before, during and after emergencies.
- Rehearse your plans, cross-train ALL your folks to do jobs they might not do routinely, inventory necessary provisions and keep them fresh.
- Be prepared for being completely on your own for a minimum of 72 hours. Partner with government, and even with competitors, to pool resources and expertise…and minimize expense.
You’re broke, you say? Here’s a fast track to profits: Consistent, reliable, impactful service when listeners need it most. If you have no means to do it yourself, collaborate with local TV and newspapers to “force-multiply” your coverage team. TV especially has not only people, but the forecasting and field resources you don’t have to stay on top of the storm throughout your coverage area.
Use National Preparedness Month – which takes place every September – to stage community preparedness campaigns, which just like Bridal Fairs and Home Improvement Expos and Car Shows (you know, the kinds of promotional events you ALREADY do profitably), not only can be platforms for listener engagement, but an irresistible buy for businesses looking to bond with their community, demo product, maybe even close a “show special” or two so THEY make money while YOU’RE making money from them.
Once the money is in hand, invest it in your own preparedness. And if you STILL don’t have enough scratch to put generators at both your studios and transmitter sites – if you STILL don’t have enough cash to build a hardened site at which you can back up your critical operations – then demand more value from your memberships in lobbying groups like the NAB and your state broadcasters’ associations. Demand that they fight for federal and state assistance to finance these purchases, much like FEMA supplied to big clear channel stations during the Cold War, and like some states have done with gas stations, some of which were required – by LAW – to have generator power in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Our rallying cry should be “What’s essential for GAS stations, is essential for RADIO stations. Preparedness Parity NOW.”
There’s still another month or so of hurricane season left for the East Coast of the U.S. and it’s the part of hurricane season when the tropics historically have been the most active. And beyond this hurricane season, the end of this year’s National Preparedness Month provides a ready opportunity to plan for NEXT year’s Preparedness Month – planning that can and should start now.
This planning will not only assure well-documented, resourced, tested and perfected procedures – but it will also give you a chance to build a community campaign around it, and provide a new community bonding, branding and selling opportunity you can use next year and every year after.
Howard B. Price, CBCP/MBCI is the former director of business continuity & crisis management for ABC’s News and Technology & Operations divisions, and has also served as senior manager, enterprise business continuity planning for The Walt Disney Company. A certified business continuity professional, and the founder of MediaDisasterPrep.com, he brings cost-effective resilience planning, innovation and thought leadership to the media industry. Reach him at HowardBPrice@gmail.com or 917-414-1751, and follow him on Twitter @mediadisaster