The impending arrival of Hurricane Matthew across the southeast has stations gearing up for the impact of the strongest Atlantic storm to hit the U.S. since 2005. While listeners have become accustomed to fueling up their car and hitting the local supermarket, the new way to listen to FM on a smartphone has some saying it’s a prime opportunity to expose NextRadio to people in need.
“Unfortunately, this weekend there is going to be hundreds of thousands if not millions of people whose cellphone and internet is going to go down and they’re going to need lifesaving information,” Commonwealth Broadcasting chief executive Steve Newberry predicted. “The best source of that is going to be over-the-air radio. And if you can get that on a device wherever you are, that’s in the best interest of public safety.”
During a webinar organized by the National Association of Broadcasters on Wednesday, Newberry said any parent looking to keep their family safe during the storm would welcome news of a potential lifeline that drains less battery life from their smartphone than streaming. And he urged stations to have hosts make the plea personally. “That trusted conversation with the air personality and the listener at these times of crisis will move the meter,” Newberry said.
NextRadio president Paul Brenner said his team has been working with the Florida Association of Broadcasters and station groups around the state to urge listeners to download the app while they still have power, so that if or when their situation worsens they’ll be ready. In effect, it positions NextRadio as being as necessary a part of disaster prep as stocking up on water, batteries and cash. “We can prove people use radio more often during an emergency, I can show you a lot of those case studies,” Brenner said. “But the best outcome is that it actually helps people.”
While promoting NextRadio on local television stations, which often reach their audience with radio simulcasts during a disaster situation, can be impactful, Brenner thinks the industry’s best bet is to promote the feature on its own airwaves since it reaches people with the most affinity for radio. “Those are the ones who are listening to the radio station and we should be telling them first and foremost,” he said.
The promotional effort comes just a week after the Federal Communications Commission adopted several moves to make cellphone Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) more useful to the public. The changes allow messages to increase from a maximum of 90 to 360 characters for phones using 4G LTE networks. The FCC will also require wireless carriers to begin using systems that will support the inclusion of embedded telephone numbers and URLs, which will allow the public to click to see a photo or more easily call the police. They’ll also have to make it possible to send Spanish-language messages, and fine-tune delivery so alerts go to smaller geographic areas that are impacted by severe weather, missing children or other emergencies. Wireless carriers will have one year to implement the changes.
NAB senior director of advanced engineering David Layer thinks the cellphone alert changes will only make FM on smartphones even more important. “If you look at the next WEA message on your phone, it’s probably going to say ‘check local media on it,” he said. “So it’s clear to us that once the FM chip is activated on the phone then it can’t be any easier for folks to do what the message is asking them to do, which is to check local media.”
While not the primary goal, Newberry said NextRadio may also help broadcasters defend their turf in an evolving media world. “We want to maintain that unique position for the radio industry,” he said. “I don’t want to be behind the cellphone industry waiting for them to alert our listeners.”
Meanwhile, the FCC has opened a 24-hour Operations Center to address emergency communications needs throughout the weekend, especially those related to Matthew’s impact in the southeast. It’s available to broadcasters, cable service providers, wireless and wireline service providers, satellite service providers, emergency response managers and first responders, and others that need assistance to initiate, resume, or maintain communications operations during the weekend. Reach it at 202-418-1122 or by e-mail atFCCOPCenter@fcc.gov.