It’s become a common sight: Video footage of an intrepid news reporter struggling to maintain balance in the face of 75+ mph winds, or standing thigh-deep in a flooded area. When watching from the safety of our homes or businesses, far from the disaster area, the unfolding drama can be mesmerizing.

But if you have the misfortune to be directly impacted, to lose power, television coverage, internet and cell service, to be cut off from the outside world during a disaster – it’s terrifying.

Where do people turn for reassurance?

To the radio. And to their phones, if they have the NextRadio app.

Local radio shares information. Listeners share their angst.

In a story from its “First Informers” series, Inside Radio recounts the night that Hurricane Irma threatened Tampa. Mid-day DJ Nio Fernandez of Beasley’s Tampa Bay “92.5 Maxima” WYUU stepped up in a big way, readily taking on the task of translating news from a local ABC television affiliate into Spanish.

“We were experiencing hurricane-force winds and people were calling to talk and share their anxiety and their experiences,” Fernandez told the publication.

“We had people who had gone into the garage and jumped in their cars, and I could hear the kids crying in the back seat. People were losing power, wondering how much longer everything would last. It was so overwhelming.”

Being without a radio is simply dangerous.

The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) recommends listening to the radio for emergency alerts during disasters, including weather events. But the last thing any federal agency recommends is that people go outside and get in their cars during a hurricane.

Storm safety and preparedness sources couldn’t be more explicit: Stay inside. Flying debris is the most common cause of injury during a hurricane. Put as many walls between you and the outside as you can.

“Given our nation’s dependence on cell phones, the smartphone’s FM switch is a public safety issue,” states the South Florida Sun Sentinel Editorial Board.

In a recent op-ed, the paper blasted Apple for refusing activate FM chips in the iPhone and called on Florida’s congressional delegation to take a lead in legislative action requiring mobile phones companies to activate the FM chip, citing: “Many smartphone users in the nation’s third most-populous state couldn’t hear the emergency alerts, storm updates and other critical information communicated after Hurricane Irma knocked out power to millions. Instead, we were advised to buy battery-operated radios in advance. Even if you could find and afford one, good luck finding the batteries to run them. A better answer resides in the palm of our hand.”

Without batteries or traditional radios, people turn to their phones.

Many Florida residents piled on about not having access to a traditional radio, including this Tweet from Tampa:

Noted Radio Ink Editor Ed Ryan also took to Twitter, but posted a solution – the NextRadio app that lets people listen to radio via the FM chip on their Android phone:

Consumer use of NextRadio went through the roof during Hurricane Harvey.

Our data team tracks NextRadio app usage during storms and a pattern had emerged: People turn on the app in droves. Listener counts and session starts spike. Total time spent listening and session length, however, tends to be reduced as people frequently tune in and out for up-to-the-minute information.

Listener behavior during the recent Texas hurricane matched this pattern.

Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Friday, August 25 at Corpus Christi, Texas. Compared with an average Friday in this market:

  • Listener counts were up 186%
  • Session starts were up 124%
  • Total listening minutes were down 3%.

As the storm continued to pound Houston on Sunday, August 27, data here showed:

  • Listener counts were up 50%
  • Session starts rose 22%
  • Total listening minutes were down 11%.

Then came Hurricane Irma.

During Irma, listener counts and session starts up 1,000+% in some Florida markets.

As the storm churned toward Florida in the first week of September, listener counts and session starts grew steadily each day and shot up exponentially as the storm struck the coast on Sunday, September 10. But here, total listening minutes increased right along with the other metrics.

Compared with the preceding Sunday (September 3), NextRadio listening saw massive increases:

Miami –

  • Listener counts were up 850%
  • Session starts were up 867%
  • Total listening minutes were up 578%

Fort Myers-Naples-Marco Island –

  • Listener counts were up 1,127%
  • Session starts were up 1,442%
  • Total listening minutes were up 687%

Tampa-St Petersburg-Clearwater –

  • Listener counts were up 712%
  • Session starts were up 501%
  • Total listening minutes were up 437%

Because the hurricane hit Tampa during the night of Sunday, September 10, unprecedented listening rates continued into the next day. Compared with the previous Monday, we saw:

  • Listener counts were up 492%
  • Session starts were up 459%
  • Total listening minutes were up 607%.

Jacksonville also took a later hit, feeling the brunt of the storm on Monday, September 11. Compared with the previous Monday:

  • Listener counts were up 452%
  • Session starts were up 574%
  • Total listening minutes were up 423%.
A heat map of NextRadio listening across Florida illustrates the dramatic increase in both listener counts and total listening minutes on September 10, 2017 versus the previous Sunday, as well as movement of people from the State’s southern counties to the Tampa region and further north. Color correlates with listener count and size of circle with the time spent listening.
A heat map of NextRadio listening across Florida illustrates the dramatic increase in both listener counts and total listening minutes as disaster struck on September 10, 2017 versus the previous Sunday. Also seen is the  movement of people from the State’s southern counties in the early path of Irma to the Tampa region and further north. Color correlates with listener count and size of circle with the time spent listening.

 

Thought leaders advocate for the NextRadio app.

Ahead of hurricane Harvey, Oscar Rodriguez, President of the Texas Association of Broadcasters, led an effort to remind people with Android phones to download the NextRadio app. He encouraged all stations to mention listening via the app, citing benefits of the FM chip in preserving battery life and data packages.

Fresh from a tour of flood-ravaged Houston, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai commented on the importance of radio listening at the 2017 Radio Show, citing NextRadio reports that when Harvey made landfall in Corpus Christi, local NextRadio app listening was up 186% compared to the average Friday. He noted that similar findings were reported for Houston listeners.

New technology site GottaBeMobile.com wrote about how the Zello Walkie Talkie app was gaining traction as Hurricane Irma approached. But the publication also pointed out: “You should install NextRadio on your phone as a backup for getting information. This app can use local radio to get information even without a cell phone signal or WiFi. It tunes into FM radio using built-in chips already in your phone.” The author’s recommendation turned out to be quite prescient. As of September 12, the FCC reported that 25% of cell sites in Florida were out of service. Meanwhile, FEMA estimated that three out of every four Florida residents were without power.

Threats promote radio’s lifesaving role during a disaster.

Understanding the pivotal role our industry plays in keeping the public informed, a majority of legislators agree that radio should be recognized as an essential service during federally declared emergencies. The Senate finally passed the Securing Access to Networks in Disasters Act (SANDy Act) on September 11. (As of this writing, the act awaits the President’s signature.)

In response to the Senate’s passage of the SANDy Act, NAB Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton stated:

“As hurricanes Harvey and Irma have demonstrated, hometown radio and TV stations play a lifesaving role as ‘first informers’ during times of emergencies, and this legislation will provide local broadcasters with access to vital resources to stay on the air when disaster strikes…”

After Irma, the FCC reported some 50 stations were out of service across Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The pending legislation will help in future situations, enabling radio stations to fix outages faster – even across state lines – and be back on the air more quickly. And because we’ll be there, our listeners should have the ability to tune in however and whenever they choose. Especially when they most need to hear our voices.

Essentially yielding to our industry’s expertise, FCC Audio Division chief Peter Doyle told Inside Radio: “Our animating principle remains the same and that’s getting out of the way of broadcasters who know exactly what to do in these circumstances.”

It’s not over until it’s over.

So far, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) dire prediction that “the 2017 hurricane season could be the strongest since 2010” is on track. And the National Weather Service reminds us that more storms are likely.

It’s only sensible that having a phone with an activated FM chip should be a part of every American’s emergency plan.

Is Anyone Out There? Yes. Radio Is.

Informing the public, reassuring people. It’s what radio does. So it’s important that our programming is available at all times, without putting our listeners in danger by seeking out a car radio during a storm. What broadcasters can do:

Remind people to download the NextRadio app to their phones as part of their emergency plan.

Make it a year-round habit to promote the NextRadio app to your station’s audience.

Petition Apple to activate the FM chip at FreeRadioOnMyPhone.org.

Review the new NextRadio Playbook to learn how your station can maximize the value of the app.

“I felt trapped in my own home when the power went out and I found out I couldn’t call anyone. I had seen a post on Facebook about downloading the NextRadio App. That it was supposed to work on my Android phone even when nothing else would – and it did! It made me feel a lot calmer to hear updates through the radio. I didn’t feel quite as helpless.”
— Genie Dybel, Bonita Springs, Fla

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