As long as we have been talking about snow and floods and other recent weather phenomenon in Cascadia, I think we could take a moment to look at how we are getting our news about it.  After all, if there is really a weather emergency, or simply a week’s worth of snow on the ground that we might need to navigate around, then just how are we going to find out what to do?  Apparently, if we were waiting for our local radio stations to come to the rescue, then we are waiting in the wrong place.

Since I am in Portland, I can accurately report on the experience here.  If you turned to any of the four oldest TV stations in town, you were treated to hours upon hours of “storm coverage” that was titled in the most profound words they could think up at the moment.  They provided wall-to-wall coverage, preempted by only a few programs that they believe to be important particularly profitable, like football games and such.  If you looked long enough, eventually you would figure out there was snow and ice present, and occasionally they would report some useful information. It is news and entertainment all rolled into one, but for the occasional event like this, that is probably an appropriate function for television.

On the other hand, let’s say the power went out, and you really did need as much information as possible about the conditions around you or over the next hill.  Well, that’s all right, most of us have a battery powered radio somewhere, and virtually every car is equipped with this useful device.  No problems!  we just turn on the radio and we will have several choices of where we get our information from!

Well, not so fast.  It seems that none of our local stations are equipped with a news department anymore.  Sure, there are the usual few “news” stations that give us people talking around the clock.  But outside of the morning drive-time, and maybe in the late afternoon, there are no longer any actual local reporters at most radio stations.  Certainly, there are not enough of them to provide a credible, timely newscast of a live event such as a major snowstorm.

The medium that we used to always depend upon for local emergencies is something very different now.   Most have, at the most, a single local reporter who is prepackaging stories to be repeated for the next 24 hours.  Many have no local news presence, and in fact, little local presence at all.  News-talk radio now means that a voice from somewhere far away is chattering about some national event.  They will keep chattering about random national events, even if we are suffering through blizzards of floods or even earthquakes.  In fact, at many stations, even if something major does happen, there is no one present who would be qualified to even open the microphone switch and tell us that something bad has happened.  Let alone research and report on the information we truly need immediately.  This is almost a crime.

To be fair, one Portland talk station did actually offer some coverage while the city was initially paralyzed by snow.  Talk station KPAM 860 switched to rebroadcasting the audio feed from ABC TV affiliate KATU Channel 2 for a couple of days.  At least there was some information out there for those without power.  Although it wasn’t very helpful for the inevitable times when you would hear that you could “call the number on your screen for assistance.”  Still, better than nothing.

My thoughts also turned to my television.  I will often simply turn on my portable TV in the kitchen to see and hear what is going on outside during these snow events.  This is handy, especially since my current business depends upon my knowing what road conditions are like all over town.  For now, this worked out fine, since I could still get a slightly fuzzy picture out of my old TV.  It also occurred to me that, even with an antenna larger than the portable TV set itself, I have still not been very successful getting a consistent picture from the TV when hooked up to the new Digital TV Converter.  So, unless I can get that issue solved, and it’s a real issue in the hills of Southwest Portland, then after February that might not be an option, either.

I understand that radio has evolved in the last decade from a business where no owner could own more than two stations in town to where one of six large corporations own most of the stations in town.  And I do understand why they are moving away from local radio service and going with syndicated programs for both talk and music services.  But if that is happening, we will need to revisit how we will communicate necessary information to the masses in a local area during a real disaster.

Yes, we do have an Emergency Alert System in place.   That will do the trick to warn us that a severe storm is on the way.  Beyond that, radio is an important medium to tell us which way we can go to get to safety after the disaster occurs.  Currently, I believe we would be hard pressed to disseminate that vital information in a timely manner.

For those who tell me they got their information from the Internet, yes, there are a lot of good and frequently updated emergency resources there.  And I have zero faith that my Internet connection, even the one on my cell phone, will be working after a disaster.

Yes, the snowstorm was not really an emergency.  Consider this, though.  If we do have that earthquake with an intensity only felt every 400 years like they say we might, who will be manning the radio station to get us vital information on what options we have.  From what I saw of our recent storm coverage, I am not comforted.