My son rarely listens to “real” radio; he’s more likely to be listening Pandora on his iTouch. When we’re in a hotel, he scrambles for the iPod dock, not a favorite radio station. But I think he—and I—got a new appreciation for radio in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when we traveled for a family wedding to a storm-struck, electric-powerless region of New Jersey two weeks ago.
The Internet didn’t work, cell phone coverage was spotty, and TVs had gone dark. We stayed at my mother’s house, where her land line telephone worked just fine. But I couldn’t call to check on my elderly aunt; Verizon had upgraded her to its fiber network, and without power in her house, that was useless. The entire region, it seemed, was dark, cold, and silent—except for radios.
My mother has an ancient boombox in her kitchen—with a slot for (way too many) D batteries. She was ahead of the game. As the storm threatened, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, on CBS This Morning urged the up to 50 million people living in areas meteorologists predicted would be impacted by the storm to stay informed by tuning into local broadcasting, radio in particular. "Probably one of the things you don't really think about anymore is having a battery powered radio or a hand-cranked radio to get news from your local broadcasters…" Fugate said. "Cellphones may be congested. Radio is oftentimes the way to get those important messages about what's going on in the local community."
My aunt hadn’t heard Fugate’s advice; she figured out for herself that she’d need a battery operated radio. She hunted through stores, ending up with a jogging radio on an armband (and her very first pair of earbuds). It wasn’t quite what she had in mind, but it kept her informed throughout an entire week without power.
People who failed to get a battery operated radio before the storm hunted in vain afterwards. Hunkered down to watch election results in a local bar where power had been restored, I talked to one gentleman who was taking a break from his ongoing search for a battery operated radio. He was getting particularly desperate, figuring he’d be wanting to listen to election news long after the bar closed. (Fortunately for him, the presidential race was called well before closing time.)
And indeed, if you did have a battery-operated or hand-cranked radio (I’m never making fun of those NPR pledge gifts again), you did have something to listen to, because, by and large, radio stations stayed on the air. Radio towers are designed to be hurricane-proof, with backup power for eight to 10 days. (That’s something the cell networks could learn from: post Katrina, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had proposed that cell towers be required to have backup power, but the cellular industry resisted, citing the high cost. Post Sandy, one in four cell sites in the affected region failed. So folks used to turning to their smartphones to find out what’s going on were pretty much out of luck.)
Though radio stations, for the most part, were prepared with generators and backup generators, a few did go down. New Jersey Broadcasters Association President and CEO Paul Rotella told Radio World that “If you have 10 feet of water, a station will go down. But if a station does go down, it doesn’t matter so much because one station alone can reach millions of people. So if you have hundreds of stations and one goes down, people are going to hear it, they are going to get their information. That’s what the ubiquitous nature of radio is all about.”
Rotella called for cell phone manufacturers to include FM chips in cell phones, or to enable chips already installed in the case of emergencies. He’s not the only one arguing for FM chips in phones; some are looking to Congress to mandate the chips' inclusion as a safety issue. Jeff Smulyan, CEO of Emmis Communications, an owner and operator of radio and television stations, has long been lobbying for such a requirement, and the FCC is starting to see things his way.
Again, the cellular companies are resisting—people listening to Internet radio through cell phones pay for that data stream.
I’m rooting for Smulyan, Rotella, and their compatriots. Put those FM chips in a cell phones; we can charge them from our car batteries if the power is out; we won’t have to grope around on closet shelves to find them in a blackout since they’re likely to be in our pockets; and, the next time a hurricane is bearing down people like my aunt and the guy in the bar, they won’t have to scramble to find battery operated radios.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.