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Friday, June 8, 2007

Local Media Misses Fire Season Premiere

Multiple broadcast signals (appx. 23) are licensed for the expressed purpose of serving the public in the Santa Barbara metro. That's 23 local channels that will reliably air detailed coverage of whatever Paris Hilton does.

So how many local reporters showed up to cover a brush fire above the city on East Camino Cielo last night at about 9:40? I don't know but I couldn't find any news about it until The Daily Sound was linked to me this morning on Blogabarbara.

If you don't live here, you may not think that matters.

But if you are like many who have noticed that there is no local news or public emergency information on your local TV, Radio, Digital and Satellite stations, then it does matter. Towns across the country are giving the FCC an earful about broadcasters who have failed to serve them in an emergency. What's the FCC doing about it? Holding regional public hearings.

What are the broadcasters doing about it? Very little. Because they don't have to.

If that seems wrong to you you're not alone. And let me share what I've learned about the subject here in wild-fire prone Santa Barbara.

Radio stations here cover local news during the day. At night, the staff goes home. They turn off the lights, turn on the answer machine and lock the doors.

TV stations operate pretty much the same way, except KEYT, which still has a live 11:00 PM local news cast. They're pretty much the only local news after sunset.

The last wildfire disaster hit Santa Barbara in 1991. The one before that was 1978. The one before that was 1964. You get the picture?

In the 1991 fire, one person was killed and 440 homes were destroyed. A lot has changed since then but not for the better. Since 911, the rules have changed from the top down. A local event may suddenly be controlled by a FEMA director instead of local fire and police officials. And if an earthquake hits at 3:00 AM, there probably won't be ANY local news until somebody gets to the radio/TV station. Or you might get an EAS bulletin. More about that in a moment. But First...

Over the past several years I've talked with broadcasters, residents and emergency service providers about our current situation. Everyone knows there is a problem. Everyone knows the problem is communication of emergency news and information in a disaster event. The logical entity to take the lead here are the broadcasters. Except for that one little problem. Remember? They don't have to.

Well, THEY think they don't have to. And they should know. They helped lobby the FCC to make the rules. And here's a general idea of what the rules are.

"Harrumph! Mr./Ms. Broadcaster, you are hereby charged as a public trustee with serving the interests of the public. Since we at the FCC have no idea how to interpret what the public interest is, we leave it to you to decide."

One thing that complicates this situation for our otherwise satisfied broadcaster is the EAS or Emergency Alert System. EAS replaced our old Cold War Favorite, "The Emergency Broadcast System" ("If this had been an actual emergency..."). Since people hear EAS alerts on their local stations, they assume EAS is under local control. And they are wrong. EAS is actually meant to allow the President of the United States to address the nation in a national emergency. Homeland Security has put the director of FEMA in charge of the EAS. And FEMA can also trigger a national EAS broadcast.

After that, participation in EAS is voluntary and effectiveness is limited by the ability to respond to a local alert.

"Broadcasters and Cable Systems may decide individually whether to transmit such messages that originate at the State and Local level"

(FCC Report 05-191 Released 11/10/05 Section II, Part B, Paragraph 8) decide what the public interest is and don't worry about EAS unless the President is talking.

And what, you humbly ask, does this have to do with a fire on East Camino Cielo last night? Glad you asked.

While I am grossly irrtated and perturbed about the wholesale slaughter of the concept, "principled local broadcaster as trustee of public interest", you my friend may ignore my crusty attitude and let your local station know that they'd better straighten up - or else! Which brings me to The Public Comment File.

Every broadcaster is required to maintain a public file. Almost any citizen of good standing with interest in the community can file a complaint with a station regarding it's public service. The station must also open it's file to public inspection. The FCC reviews this file and the station response at license renewal times.

Since the FCC has declined to define public interest, this is a very important vehicle for pressuring broadcasters to meet community needs at the local level.
It's important to document the facts and submit them to the public file each time a station falis to be of service. Over time a pattern of failure can be established and a broadcaster will have a tougher time claiming that they serve the public.

The events of last night would seem to be a good place to start in Santa Barbara.

1 comment:

Darryl Pearce said...

Hmm, makes me rethink my consumption of media. And how cogent WKRP was: (back then) the future of the station (now) one sales guy and a computer remained at the broadcasting transmitter.

"Piped" news shows us a vehicle crash in a distant state (or country) but doesn't get around to the local shaking, rattling and rolling happening down the street.

Surprisingly, a lot of my "local" news now comes from internet surfing and the locals' blogs--self-evidently witnessing your "news" story.

Alas, such an appetite for information cuts into my established "technical writing" career....