Radio Week: The role of radio in a crisis

With more people turning to radio to help them understand and cope through the Covid-19 pandemic, we explore the role of radio in a crisis and why the channel is a vital messaging tool during times of national emergency and disaster.

Recent data out of the USA shows that 8 in 10 people listen to the same if not more radio during times of crisis, as is the case during the current Covid-19 pandemic. The research, conducted by Nielsen, points only to the means of listening that has changed as more people engage with radio digitally. People continue to tune in for entertainment, companionship and most importantly, to be informed and kept up to date with fast-moving developments.

Similar listening trends are evident in New Zealand, making radio a highly effective mass communication channel for Civil Defence’s National Emergency Management Agency during times of crisis. The Agency is a big supporter of radio, and often calls upon the channel to get information out in cases of emergency. “Radio plays a valuable role in a crisis, the main way our agency uses radio is to inform the public about unfolding emergencies via news bulletins and, in fast moving threats such as tsunami warnings,” says Anthony Frith, Communications Manager at the National Emergency Management Agency.

It is for this reason that Frith say the Agency has set up a Memorandum of Understanding with radio broadcasters. “In an emergency, Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) and radio broadcasters will work together to tell people what they need to know to get through,” he explains. Radio New Zealand (RNZ), which is classified as a “lifeline utility” in the MoU, has a statutory duty to take all reasonable steps to ensure that it has the capability to function during an emergency. Commercial radio stations such as More FM and The Hits also agree to voluntarily work with the Ministry to provide broadcasts of alerts, warnings and updates as required.

Why radio?

Radio is regular; it’s a 24 hour, 7 day a week service with rhythms of news and on the hour updates. For this reason, the medium is quick-cutting useful, reliable and trustworthy during rapidly changing situations such as in the current Covid-19 climate and other times of crisis. “Doing what it does best, radio provides information and education. It’s a place where people can debate but it’s a medium that people trust,” says Dr Peter Hoar, a Senior Lecturer in Radio at Auckland University of Technology.

Hoar says that it’s also radio’s ubiquitous nature that appeals to the likes of CDEM for their emergency messaging. “It’s rugged, it’s fast, it’s simple. Words are quicker than images during an emergency. Radios infrastructure can take a lot of rough treatment and still work and it has wide geographic spread,” he says. Frith agrees saying that during times of flooding and landslides – think of the not so distant flooding in the lower South Island when a state of emergency was declared in February – radio’s infrastructure is most reliable (and stable) in reaching people directly affected by such disasters.

“One of radio’s main advantages is that your attention is free. You can do other things while you listen. It’s an emancipatory medium compared to screens which imprison us in their fields of vision,” says Hoar.

In addition to flooding and landslides, the CDEM has used radio as a means of updating citizens during past weather-related disasters such as the 2007 Taranaki Tornado, as well as in times of emergencies related to fires and earthquakes – the 2011 Canterbury earthquake one such prominent example.

Covid-19 communication

While there has been significant news coverage and messaging around the Covid-19 crisis across the country – as per the above-mentioned MoU – the CDEM has also used other messaging to keep us informed and educated. The latter being a key component of messaging in this time.

“Obviously the Covid-19 response is a very different kettle of fish and has involved an extensive paid campaign,” says Frith. Past paid advertising the CDEM has used includes promotions around earthquake awareness campaigns such as ShakeOut as well as Emergency Mobile Alert tests. “The broadcasting of formal emergency announcements, such as information around Emergency Mobile Alerts is an important part of our messaging,” he adds.

While such alerts are important, Firth says they do not replace the likes of free public interest radio messaging in times of emergency, especially in the current state of national emergency we find ourselves in.

This story is part of a content partnership with The Radio Bureau.

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