Wednesday, September 27, 2023

OP-ED: In times of crisis, access to news is not a privilege but a necessity

I found myself in awe at the power of radio at the age of 15, when I walked into the University of Guelph radio station and asked if I could start a show. Two weeks later, I was on the air. Coming out of high school, it was Radio and Television Broadcasting or Accounting as career opportunities; I chose the one without any money.  

Barry Rooke

In the fall of 2004, I met Paul Scott, a former broadcaster and newly-hired professor at Conestoga College’s program, who had relocated from B.C. That year, we learned everything from writing news, voicing, editing, interviews, sales, and whatever else was thrown our way. But what stuck was the sheer impact that radio had on the communities that dealt with the record-setting fires in 1998 in Salmon Arm, B.C. that Paul lived through. His personal and professional photos and on-air news clips drove home the importance of having a reliable news and information system that is free and accessible to everyone.

Paul tells me that “radio then and now, continues to serve, inform, entertain and educate. Its strengths are its immediacy, portability, and intimacy. It’s also trusted as a reliable and legitimate source,” which is backed up by his Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) Gold Ribbon Award and RTNDA Ron Laidlaw Award for B.C. Region for his coverage in 1998. Just years later in the sweltering summer of 2003, B.C. was thrust back into the national spotlight again. The Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, a raging inferno fueled by bone-dry conditions and strong winds, laid waste to thousands of homes and hectares of pristine forest. Twenty years later, Kelowna faces another formidable fire season – and we have adjusted in some ways. One critical lesson from 2003 was the importance of early detection and rapid response. Kelowna has since invested heavily in state-of-the-art fire detection systems, including aerial drones and sophisticated satellite technology. These tools provide real-time data, enabling authorities to identify potential fire hotspots before they escalate into major conflagrations.

But radio remains critically important, just as it had with Hurricane Fiona when it blasted through Cape Breton, where local not-for-profit station The Coast 89.7 (CKOA-FM) Glace Bay, managed to continue broadcasting even when its tower was blown off its foundation.  For days after, citizens listened to battery-powered radios where emergency service workers relayed life-saving information, such as when it was safe to leave their homes due to downed power lines, where shelters and food were, etc.  

In the wake of a crisis, information becomes more than a commodity; it becomes a lifeline. As wildfires continue to ravage Canada’s North and West, the importance of timely and reliable information cannot be overstated. 

Speaking with Claire Thompson, the President of CFUZ-FM, Peach City Radio in Penticton, she explains that as a small station with no paid staff, they are not able to provide up-to-date information over the air on the fire situation – though fortunately, no fires were immediately in the area and none of their programmers have been impacted. The majority of their live shows are music programs, and spoken word shows are often pre-recorded up to weeks in advance. Once the fire situation calms down, they plan to meet with the communications director for the regional district’s emergency operations centre to see how they can work with them to better get information out to listeners. They also look forward to being in a position to apply for a Local Journalism Initiative grant (if the program is extended), to be better able to provide timely and accurate information to listeners.

However, a recent and unexpected challenge has emerged on the information front – social media bans, notably the one imposed by Meta (formerly Facebook) on news content for Canadian users. With close to 250 independent, not-for-profit radio stations having their Facebook and Instagram accounts blocked, life-saving information in a time of critical need is not reaching the people it needs to. Stations attempt to adapt, in some cases using personal funds to share station information like programming updates and fundraising goals. With the pressures the pandemic put on stations, the reduction in volunteers and the rising costs of operations, community stations all over the country are at risk of closing.  

“In previous fire seasons, we would have been sharing a lot of information on our Facebook page,” Thompson told me. “Things like press releases from the Regional District, South Okanagan Emergency Operations Centre, updates from B.C. Wildfire Service, and links to news articles. With Meta’s block, we have not been able to do any of that.”

Where do those annoying emergency alerts tell you to go? Tune into your local media for more information. What if that local media was not there? It’s already disappeared from Meta platforms. X (formerly Twitter) is changing its algorithms, and we have not heard how Google intends to respond to C-18. With the Local Journalism Initiative still not been formally renewed, over 100 communities will potentially be impacted, most of which already have minimal news resources.

The need for accurate and timely information has never been greater. In times of crisis, access to news is not a privilege but a necessity, and it’s high time that tech giants like Meta and governments recognize the immense responsibility they bear in ensuring the flow of vital information and capacity to those who need it most.  As journalists become fewer and fewer, broadcasting schools close, and communication is further splintered, I wonder what the future of live and local will be in the next 20 years.

Barry Rooke
Barry Rookehttps://ncra.ca
Barry Rooke has been the Executive Director for the National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA/ANREC) since 2015. He has been a broadcaster since the age of 15, hosting over 1500 shows and podcasts. His master's thesis examined how radio stations used social media in 2011-2012. He lives in Ottawa and is leading the charge in developing a new national cider association, Cider Canada / Cidre Canada.

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