Whatever happened to radio?

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By Merilee Dannemann

When was the last time you tried to get a weather report in a storm while driving?
The medium that used to be universal and accessible to everybody doesn’t work any more.
That is, the radio in your car: the moving vehicle where your safety is most directly affected by weather.
Nowadays, most radio is a local medium only during weekday morning and evening commuter hours. The rest of the day it’s nationally syndicated. You could be driving straight toward a blizzard, and nobody would interrupt the programming to warn you.
A few Decembers ago, a major snowstorm closed workplaces around noon all over New Mexico. Concerned about how to get home, I tried to find road condition reports on several radio stations, but none of them were interrupting their regular programming to give weather or road news.   
When I arrived home, the local TV stations were giving detailed storm information every 10 minutes. From the comfort of my living room I watched the reports of the thousands of cars backed up where the freeways were closed.
But the drivers of those cars, who might have changed their plans, didn’t have access to those reports.
If the freeway is closing  east of Albuquerque, and you’re driving from California, you ought to be able to find out in Gallup, so you can get off the road, find a motel, avoid getting stuck, and make the road safer for other drivers.
But many stations in many New Mexico cities don’t broadcast traffic except during commuter hours.
The rest of the time there’s a satellite feed from a national syndicate and maybe no live human beings in the building.
During a national emergency, broadcast stations will be taken over by emergency programming.
But I’m not talking about terrorist attacks or invasions from the little green beings of Area 51.
I’m talking about probable events, such as snowstorms, which we know how to respond to, if only we are informed.
How ironic that TV stations understand this perfectly.
Every time they interrupt my favorite soap opera to report breaking weather, they are promoting their own local news programs.     
Nowadays, weather information is available from satellite radio services and other media that cost money, but it will be many years – if ever – before that becomes universal.
But every single car comes equipped with four wheels, a steering wheel, and an AM-FM radio.
Some years ago, the Federal Communications Commission and Congress deregulated radio station ownership, allowing a few large conglomerates to dominate the national radio market.
This didn’t benefit anybody except those companies and the people they choose to make into stars.
Aside from the issues of mass music, mass talk shows and even mass and ridiculously repetitive news, the lack of capacity to respond to local conditions makes commercial radio no longer a public service.
Legislation is languishing in the U.S. Senate (HR 1147, The Local Community Radio Act of 2009) to enable the creation of low-power FM stations by nonprofit community radio groups.

While it is inexcusable that this law has not been enacted, it is a pathetically small gesture toward restoring what we’ve lost.
I suggest we need a national standard that, in every market, the dominant broadcasters should be required to be ready, 24-7, to broadcast urgent local and regional information on several free over-the-air stations, every 30 minutes – including traffic, weather, Amber alerts, emergency school closings, prison breaks, and so on – no matter what programming they have to interrupt.
The public still owns the airwaves. Maybe.

Merilee Dannemann
NM News Services