At the Ready

Last week, a reporter from Radio World asked me some questions about state of readiness of small-market radio. That, and receiving Howard Price’s article printed on the foregoing pages, suggested the theme for this week’s issue. How ready are we? What will it take to be ready? Here are my answers; I welcome yours.

Q: Do you believe 9/11 made small market engineering managers/owners think about redundancy in system designs, if at all?

A: Immediately after 9/11 there was a flurry of activity among small-market broadcasters, but in the absence of any subsequent serious threats, broadcasters have succumbed to human nature; they are about as prepared to handle an emergency now as they were before 9/11. This of course varies from one operator to another; some are by nature more focused on emergency preparedness anyway.

Q: Redundancy costs money, of course. Do you think that this is a big problem?

A: The answer to this question is tied to the first question. Costs are always a major obstacle for small-market broadcasters, but those who are by nature focused on emergency preparedness consider those costs to be necessary, while others may consider them to be discretionary–and never a high priority.

Q: What’s your opinion–are small market broadcasters better prepared for terrorism or tragedy than 10 years ago?

A: I would have to say no. Even if every broadcaster put emergency preparedness at the top of the list, the cost structure of radio in general today–not just small-market radio–does not favor expenses that are not directly tied to revenue development. As we as an industry become more tied to capital markets, it is difficult to justify costs that have “soft” benefits–like contributing to local charitable causes, or ensuring that the radio station is ready for extraordinary service in times of need–are going by the wayside.

Final Thoughts

Just as economists say that we will never fully recover from our current recession, that we are operating in the “new normal,” so it is that the broadcasting business will never be what it was. In some ways this is good news, and in some ways it is not. I fear that in the future, due to our inability to justify the costs required to give full service in times of need, but more significantly, due to the growth of alternative ways of getting this information through social media, radio’s role as the center of the community when disaster strikes will diminish.

The good news for small-market radio is that this trend will take a while to seep into our communities. Even when it does, it is a generational thing, and the same dynamics that drive young people from small towns, especially rural ones, and those in states with small populations, will apply to us.

There is little that a small town can do to keep its youth from seeking fortune elsewhere, but at some point in their lives, many are ready to move back into a more safe and comfortable environment to raise their kids and to make a life. If anything, those “re-plants” make more enthusiastic and loyal community members–and listeners–because they know what’s on the other side of the hill.

That is not to say that social media will not have a more significant role in communicating in times of disaster and emergency in the future, but I don’t see it replacing the role of local radio to communicate locally. . .and immediately. . .and conveniently. . .and reliably. I only hope and pray that the short-sighted, “make the month” mentality prevalent in our business today will give way to a more enlightened perspective. The future of our business is not, after all, “Playing Workplace Favorites the Entire Office Can Agree on.”