WJLA'sRyan: Broadcasters Key To Life-Saving DisasterDecisions

WJLA Washington meteorologist Bob Ryan told a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on disaster preparedness Tuesday that broadcasters and their local meteorologists, in concert with information supplied by the government, play a vital role in saving lives during natural disasters.

He pointed to the broadcasters who had kept viewers informed in Alabama during the killer tornados. He pointed out that a 100% accurate weather forecast that is not communicated accurately is a failure, and that it is the local broadcaster, with their connection to the community, that gets that word out accurately and allows the last link in the chain-the viewer who must act on the info--to make that life-saving decision.

He said the government needs to look into new technologies and approaches, but that it must continue to support the core structure of that warning system--local TV and radio--which he called a "shining example" of the key role of protecting the lives and property of citizens.

The local broadcast meteorologist who is known in the community, and using traditional over-the-air TV and live radio continuously "is the truest source for the public to make that [life-saving] decision."

While Ryan was talking about government investments in weather forecasting technology, he could also have been talking about the broader issue of preserving over-the-air broadcasting.

Asked where the overall system fell short, Ryan said that live webcams can help viewers make better decisions. He also said it could help bring in social science expertise to help people make the best decision about what to do. For example, he talked about two families who had gotten the tornado warnings. One family had offered room in their storm cellar to another, which declined. The first survived, the second did not.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told Ryan that his industry was vital, and gave a shout-out to Weather Channel hurricane
specialist Bryan Norcross when he was with Miami TV station WFOR during Hurricane Andrew back in the early 1990's. Nelson said it was impossible to gauge how many hundreds of lives he saved by staying on the air. Ryan said Norcross had done a "lifetime" of work in a few days.

Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) put in a plug for his bill to allocated the D Block of spectrum to public safety for a national interoperable broadband communications network. He asked Ryan if that would be a good idea. Ryan answered that anything that helped emergency managers better communicate and prepare for or respond to natural or manmade disasters to better serve the public would be a good idea.

The bill hinges on some broadcasters giving up some of their spectrum, which will be auctioned to help pay for the network, which broadcasters have argued could negatively impact their ability to continue to provide life-saving emergency info. Ryan made the point that broadcasters are an integral part of the emergency warning system, and that even with advances in mobile communications and laptops and the rest, viewers still turn to TV to see a trusted person to help them make that lifesaving decision.

Rockefeller assured him that broadcasters' spectrum give-back would be voluntary. He also said that the FCC, as well as the White House, was now solidly behind allocating the D block to public safety. The FCC had been leaning toward a second attempt to auction the spectrum for a public-private partnership that could build out the net.

Rockefeller also seemed to give some inkling of how much would be left over to compensate broadcasters out of a spectrum auction. He said of the $28-31 billion estimated to be gleaned from the spectrum auction, about $10 billion-$12 billion could go for care and feeding of the emergency net, with $9 billion or $10 billion for deficit reduction. That could leave somewhere between $6 billion and $11 billion for broadcasters, though the White House also wants some money for broadband applications research to come from the auction.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.