Broadcast First Informer Role Cited in FCC Sandy Hearing

TV, Radio Help Keep Lines of Communications Open, People out of Harm's Way
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Broadcasters continued to be praised for their "first informer" status Tuesday even as the FCC and local government officials were pointing to the massive communications failures of other media. There was also an opportunity for some of those broadcasters to outline the preparations that allowed them to remain on the air while other communications systems failed.

At the first of three planned FCC field hearings on storm-related communications failures, commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out in her opening statement that "local officials -- and broadcasters --went to great lengths to make sure residents cleared out of dangerous locations before the storm made landfall."

She said that without that broadcaster outreach, it could have been much worse. While there was talk about the failures of 911 call centers, commissioner Ajit Pai suggested broadcasters can help reduce the need for such calls. "Our citizens may not need to contact emergency personnel if they receive timely, thorough information over the airwaves. I look forward to hearing from broadcasters and others today about their efforts to keep the public safe and informed during the storm," he said in his opening statement.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said New Jersey broadcasters were vital information links to their communities during the storm.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) also pointed to the importance of radio and TV broadcasters in emergencies.

In written testimony for the Hoboken hearing -- there was also a morning hearing in Manhattan -- Lautenberg said that disasters "highlight" the importance of local news and also highlight his fight for more local coverage of New Jersey. "Local radio, especially, was a lifeline for those without power, and I applaud everyone who worked around the clock to make sure that residents received timely and accurate information," he said.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said at that second hearing that the FCC needs to learn what went right as well as what went wrong during the "crisis" of Sandy. But he said there was "no question" more needs to be done.

During the hearing, John Hogan, chairman of Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, said the company takes its first informer role very seriously. He said all his stations in the affected areas activated emergency plans, including making sure it had fuel for generators, and disaster assistance plans, including backup generators. He said that when disasters happen, "radio people run toward it." He said some employees camped out for days, including, ironically, in the AT&T building in New York where they were based. He said his stations were never off the air, thanks to advanced planning. Those stations went "wall to wall" with news and updates.

He said his stations directed listeners toward resources for food and fuel, and are still doing that today as Sandy recovery continues.

Dave Davis, president and general manager of WABC-TV New York, who chairs the TV committee of the New York Broadcasters Association, said the station was preparing the "backups to its backups" in the week to 10 days running up to the storm.

He said the station's job was twofold -- prepare viewers and prepare themselves. They did the latter with three generators -- the station can be entirely self-powered -- backup transmission on two different buildings. He pointed out that, sadly, New York has a lot of experience with disasters. The transmission backup was in the wake of 9/11. It also has direct feed capability to cable and satellite. He said the station produced 122 hours of local information during the storm and its aftermath, including forecasts, evacuation information, and covering every major news conference. He said coverage continues given that there are still people who have not recovered from the storm.

Parent Disney also helped raise close to $17 million for storm victims.