The Spirit of Radio

You’ve probably noticed that California is on fire. At the moment, there are ten active wildfires. Half a million acres have burned, claiming seven lives, destroying 1600 homes, and displacing almost a million people.

Radio station KPBS in San Diego switched formats to 24-hour fire coverage last Sunday. The residents in their broadcast area needed timely, specific, detailed information that didn’t fit in the format of typical radio news.

Radio BroadcastingI should point out that KPBS is an NPR affiliate, and that NPR ran a national story on them. In-depth news is their business. Still, when compared to major commercial stations in the area, they have a tiny staff. Round-the-clock local news is way beyond their means. They enlisted the help of their listeners, allowing them to call in and describe what was happening. Displaced residents needed information on a house-by-house basis, so they set up a customized Google Map to show where the fires are, which houses have been saved, and where evacuation orders have been issued and lifted. They also started using Twitter to send short text updates to anyone who wants them. You can sign up for free, and these updates will come to your cell phone or computer as text messages. The information is more authoritative than the information provided by the California State Fire Agency. The agency started linking to the KPBS map, because it’s more complete and easier for people to use.

On Tuesday, KPBS lost its transmitter. The power and communications lines running up the mountain to the radio tower were burned. Commercial station KBZT-FM stepped in, and offered to air the KPBS signal instead of its own. While they were able to resume their own broadcasting relatively quickly, this does show how much their efforts are valued by the community.

I’ve occasionally thought about the role of the educational technologist in the event of an emergency like this. KPBS isn’t doing anything we can’t do. We have the technology in our high school to broadcast live TV over the cable channels to our community. Thanks to the folks at Worldbridges, I could probably muddle my way through broadcasting live audio on the Internet. Theoretically, we could also broadcast video live online. We can use the interactive tools like Google Maps and Twitter. We can use cell technologies and Skype and regular old phone lines to host call-in types of programs. We use a rapid notification service that can inform our students and their parents quickly by telephone in the event of an emergency affecting the schools, and that would be valuable.

The key is that innovation and adaptability are necessary. We wouldn’t necessarily know which services are or are not available. Maybe we lose telephone service, or electrical power, or our fiber. How could we adapt to still get the word out in the best way possible given the resources available to us? That’s a 21st century skill.

It’s worth thinking about how technologies might be repurposed and leveraged as communication tools in the event of an emergency. It may be possible to have some extraordinarily useful tools with a little forethought and a lot of innovative thinking.