"Heroic" Localism

The New York Times recently ran a canonizing profile on the afternoon-drive DJ at WRIP-FM, a locally-owned Top 40-format commercial radio station in Windham, New York. He conducted a 13-hour broadcast marathon during the flooding caused by Hurricane Irene last month, taking phone calls and disseminating emergency information the old fashioned way – listener by listener.
The Times piece is but the latest in a long string of articles that have justifiably recognized the outstanding local service broadcasters have provided in the wake of this year’s natural disasters.
I’ve heard some of this emergency broadcast coverage first hand. After a tornado ravaged Joplin, Missouri in May, I listened to two guys commandeer a cluster of radio stations for the better part of a full day; they were reduced to relaying text messages from the news director’s cell phone for several hours after their studio phones were knocked out and their Internet access disrupted.
The following month, I watched a television news anchor in Minot, North Dakota read Facebook posts on the air as river flooding threatened, then washed away, part of the city. During this slow-moving disaster, other station employees, including field videographers, got on camera to relay the stories of their travels through the flood zone.
The praise awarded these broadcasters is well-deserved. There’s an instinctual response to jettison the order of business during extreme situations and go into full-on news mode. It has never been uncommon for broadcasters to pull double-digit hours on air during a crisis.
But the sad fact of the matter is that the capacity of broadcasters to adequately cover such crises has been significantly diminished in the wake of the consolidation that ripped through both television and radio news departments following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
15 years ago, during an emergency, teams of reporters from individual stations would respond to breaking news, making for more comprehensive and robust coverage. Today, we herald the lone anchor/reporter/DJ who bravely holds down the fort, often reduced to reading crowdsourced reports, as if this represents the best broadcasting can be.
It’s not, and and the praise for what was once ordinary but is now extraordinary is illustrative of just how deep the cuts have gone in local broadcast news operations.
Communities deserve localism from their broadcasters every day, not just during emergency situations where the lack of such behavior would be too difficult to ignore.