Radio in Times of Crises

When flooding rains pounded Texas earlier this summer, many communities found themselves in crisis. With wired network infrastructures flooded and unusable and power a sometimes-thing draining the battery-packs at cell tower-sites, many Texans found themselves reaching for their radio to find out what was going on.
One area that was hit very hard by the rains was Austin and surrounding towns, including Wimberley, Texas: flash-flooding sent a wall of water down the Blanco River in the Wimberley Valley on Memorial Day weekend that swept away entire structures, killing several people and doing millions of dollars in damage. Just a couple of years earlier, folks there had founded a non-profit organization to apply for an LPFM license. Construction permit in hand, when the rains came and wiped out most other community communications they did not stand idly by.
Using borrowed equipment, Wimberley Valley Radio applied for emergency authority to broadcast, which was granted by the FCC in June. For 30 days, KVWH-LP was on the air providing information to local residents about the flood’s impacts and services available to its victims. The temporary authorization expired earlier this month.
This is not the first time that the FCC has bowed to special circumstances to let an emergency low-power broadcaster take to the air. When Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf coast in 2005, the Houston Astrodome became a refugee storage-unit. The Prometheus Radio Project, in concert with local aid organizations, applied for and received permission to launch KAMP, a station located in an Airstream camper outside the Superdome, to provide those inside with information about relief efforts. Though it only broadcast for five days, it did provide useful information to those housed in the stadium.
However, temporary broadcast outlets don’t always have licenses to operate — but that doesn’t mean they can’t be just as effective. Coincidentally, just down the road from Wimberley is San Marcos, which in the 1990s was home to Kind Radio — a microradio station devoted to community politics, culture, and serivce. It, too, asked the FCC for authorization to broadcast, but this predated LPFM.
In 2005, I gave away my own pirate broadast setup (a 40-watt tuneable rig with antenna and portable mast) when friends from Wisconsin headed to the Gulf following Hurricane Katrina. They first set it up inside their bus in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Waveland, Mississippi, where it acted as a kind of connective tissue bringing disparate disaster-relief efforts together.
“Radio Free Waveland” later moved on to New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward to become “Radio Algiers,” broadcasting from the home base of Common Ground Relief. (This was but one of several emergency (unlicensed) transmitters sent to New Orleans in Katrina’s wake.) Ironically, some of the first federal officials who showed up in that disaster zone were FCC agents hunting the transmitter(s); the station was forced to move but the gear used to build it still plays cat-and-mouse with the FCC ten years later.
The radio industry is very quick to tout that one of its strongest attributes is radio’s role as the medium of last resort when the sh*t hits the fan. In this, they share a commonality with unlicensed broadcasters, who often set up shop because there’s no licensed media outlet that serves their own communities (much less even recognizes their existence). Disasters can come in many forms, whether they be short-term (floods and hurricanes) or long (gentrification and police brutality), so we should not be surprised when people gravitate to radio as a mechanism to grapple with community problems.
Meanwhile, a bandscan of the Flatbush FM dial (listen below) demonstrates the vibrancy of unlicensed broadcasting in Brooklyn – 36 stations logged in all on the Fourth of July weekend. After listening to this, it’s hard not to question what New York’s licensed broadcasters and Congressional delegation are smoking, going so far out of their way to paint these stations as dangerous criminals. When the sh*t hits the fan in NYC again, wouldn’t you rather have these broadcasters on your side, extending the reach of public response and recovery?