Perusing the August 5 issue of the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, I came across this piece on Radio Freedom - the community radio station for Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. When a report of an airplane wing - possibly from missing Malasyia Airlines Flight 370 - came from a caller to the station, local responders quickly reported to the area in question.
Growing up in rural Tennessee in the 70s and 80s, I remember when community radio stations played an important role in sharing news and information with the listeners throughout the county. Most of these stations - low wattage AM stations that only transmitted during daylight hours - carried not only syndicated talk radio shows, but also local news and call in features. Many mornings on our way to school, our father would tune into the local "Swap and Shop" show on WLIJ in Shelbyville, TN. Think of it as a very primitive version of Craig's List. Callers would get on the air and announce what they had for sale - livestock, farm equipment, lawn mowers, used cars, mulch, children's clothes and other items. They'd give out the phone number, and the host of the show would dutifully take notes for when people would call the station later and inquire about a particular item for sale.
My mother's parents - Nannie and Papa - would regularly tune into the local AM station in Sparta, Tennessee to hear that day's obituaries. As a teenager with no real appreciation for my own mortality, I found that a bit odd. There was no internet in those days, of course. The fastest way to get local news was from the community AM radio station.
The article in the Journal made me think about the role community radio plays today. My childhood friends, Rusty and Anita Reed, now run both AM stations in Shelbyville. In addition to announcing school closings and severe weather warnings on the air, they also utilize Facebook to get the word out as well.
Even in larger markets, AM radio provides real time information during various emergencies. While FM tends to be clogged with stations that play mom rock and teeny bopper music (for those who have yet to migrate to satellite radio), many AM stations continue to provide local news and weather information. These stations often leverage technology by relaying information now available from the internet (such as severe weather alerts) at much greater speeds than they could just twenty years ago.
Yet most folks don't utilize AM radio. My stepdaughter recently "discovered" the AM/FM radio that's been sitting on the kitchen counter for several years. Her first question - typical for a teenager today - was to inquire how she could plug her smartphone into it. Needless to say, she was rather disappointed to learn that the twenty year old radio did not have an aux port for her phone.
When I ask her about AM radio, she looks at me a bit puzzled, only to recall that there's a button on her car radio that labeled "AM." Of course, she has no idea what that button does.
My wife, on the other hand, does know what AM radio is...and never listens to it. Why listen to news and talk radio when you can enjoy Elton John and the J. Geils Band on a variety of Sirius/XM stations?
To ensure they both have access to news when things get bad, I've programmed their first AM radio preset to the 5,000 watt daytime/1,000 watt nighttime station KLBJ (which at one point was owned by LBJ, hence the call sign) based in Austin. When things get bad, I've told them, punch the AM button and then press "1."
Even if you listen to satellite or FM radio exclusively, make sure you know the local AM stations in your town (large or small) and have them programmed into your vehicle's presets. Make sure the others in your family who have vehicles have their AM presets programmed as well.
Finally, if you travel a fair amount, pick up a small AM/FM transistor radio for your suitcase or briefcase. In the event of a power outage or other local emergency while on the road, having a small radio can really key you in on what's happening in real time.
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