The Power of Radio

It was an experience I never will forget. One broadcaster called it one of the “most polarizing events he has ever personally witnessed”. But it was a week that once again demonstrated the power of radio.

Some of you are accustomed to thinking that people involved with radio get ahead by trading on their good looks. Many women have told me I have a face for radio. I thank them for the compliment, but I think that those of us who love radio also have something more to offer……

I am and always will be an unabashed fan of the medium. I have had the good fortune over the past few decades to travel across the country and sit in just about every major market radio station from St. John's to Victoria. Radio seems to inspire a passion that is very personal. Whether we are speaking of those working in radio or listeners who feel an affinity for their favourite station, radio holds a formidable amount of power. To this day, I am continually struck by the passion of those people who have forged a career in radio. Even those who have been victims of the recent consolidations with attending corporate politics seem to maintain their love the medium. And for many listeners, it is a subtle but important friend, supplying a connection to the community and to the world.

The December ice storms in Toronto and surrounding regions had a profound impact. Over 300,000 homes (and over an estimated 1 million people) felt the wrath of freezing cold without any heat or power. Politicians wrangled incessantly about what to do. Was this an official emergency? Is this a disaster area? Let me tell you as one person who was affected. When you and your family are trying to live in sub zero temperatures (indoors) for days at a time….this was an emergency! On Christmas Eve in my home, Santa was heard muttering the sort of expletives for which Mayor Ford has become famous. 

Veteran broadcaster Iain Grant was on air on NewsTalk 1010 taking calls from listeners. He described the reactions as being polarized. Those experiencing the cold and dark had a certain sense of desperation mixed with frustration. Many of those who were warm and cuddly couldn’t appreciate the impact. Iain tells me that all those affected called with the same question. When will my power be back on?

To say Toronto Hydro wasn’t forthcoming with answers is an understatement. Calls to their phone number were greeted with a vague pre-recorded message and automated misinformation. Not even any room to leave a message. 311 operators were frustrated because they had little information with which to comfort callers. Of course Wifi was not available. It was up to radio stations like 680News and NewsTalk 1010, among others, to provide a community service. The last line of defence. I, for one, was huddled in the darkness with my little battery powered radio listening to updates. Others went out to the car for radio updates. Live human voices providing some direction and comfort in terrible times. Direction to warming centres. An assurance that someone was listening and would continue to provide updates. The importance of radio under these circumstances was recently underlined by Mississauga Hazel McCallion. She spoke out talking about the need for a local station in the area of Peel to specifically help her citizens.

For those who didn’t witness it, let me say that the circumstances were unforgettable. Broken and uprooted trees everywhere you looked. Traffic lights were out everywhere you turned with motorists treating intersections like 4 way stops (a potential recipe for disaster). All the hotels and motels in affected areas sold out. Stores sold out of batteries and flashlights. Restaurants that remained open were running out of food. Gas stations closed. In the malls that were open, aisles were littered with people clustered around every available outlet trying to charge their phones, laptops, tablets, etc.

When it comes to quantifying the listening details of those without power during the week, it may be problematic. PPM Panellists in both the Toronto CA and the Toronto/Hamilton EM were impacted. A number of households went unpolled due to the lack of power. As such it will be impossible to detail the exact tuning patterns of those affected.

In the end, it is important to remember that radio doesn’t belong to the corporate name on the license. It belongs to those that need to hear that voice of the community. A voice on which we can rely and in whom we trust. And it will always belong to the child who listens with a sense of wonder to his or her bedside radio late at night. And to those of us in which that spirit will always live on. I don’t know what the future holds for the medium. But I do know that I will stay tuned for as long as I can. The lights may have gone out, but we kept listening. That's the power of radio.

David Bray is President of Bray & Partners Communications.
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