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Radio stations fail listeners during fires

At 4:43 p.m. Sept. 10, while driving along Interstate 5 with my headlights on, struggling to see through the dense smoke-filled air of the city I love, Medford, I’m weakened by the sight and smell of black ash and gray dust from the still-active Almeda fire.

The wildfire started in north Ashland Tuesday, Sept. 8 and quickly spread north through Talent and Phoenix, nearly destroying both towns.

Driving past closed exit ramps for Phoenix and Talent, I’m listening to heritage local country radio station KRWQ FM, featuring one of very few “live and local” morning shows. It’s my best bet for news on the fire.

The air talent announces the song, and jokes that “people are complaining about Halloween season” with something of a follow up — “the problem can be relieved by moving Halloween to Spring, with football,” and then into the commercial break.

Not a single word about the fire.

Originally, I had learned of the Almeda fire from family who live over 300 miles away.

I assured them that the fire was nowhere near us and all was well. We ended the call and I checked social media.

All was certainly not well.

Gov. Kate Brown said, “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history.” Phoenix Mayor Chris Luz estimated that 1,000 homes may have been lost. In the neighboring town of Talent, hundreds more homes were incinerated.

Maybe, the Halloween quip wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I’d previously heard someone say something on the radio about the fire. Anything. Anything at all.

For two days, I switched stations, frantically jumping up and down the dial, but heard nothing on the Almeda fire. Nothing said about the current evacuations, or how to receive evacuation alerts, or what Levels 1, 2, and 3 even meant. Nothing about a fire, at all.

Once considered an essential item to pack in case of an emergency, alongside blankets and water, was a radio. That radio was your lifeline, keeping you aware of imminent danger in your town, broadcasting live information directly to you, wherever you were. This is what radio does. It provides immediate, local and free information, without a subscription, user name, password or app download. Perfect in its simplicity. And no other medium does that better.

How could all three radio groups in Medford, nearly 20 radio stations, disregard the community during this very real life-or-death moment?

And then I considered local radio’s clammy response to the Coronavirus epidemic.

COVID-19 has closed our schools and stores, ending jobs and drastically denying us of human interaction. We are isolated and lonely. Basic needs that radio could easily and affordably deliver, without delay. Because that is the true magic of radio. A friendly, familiar voice. A port in the storm. A local connection. That is radio.

So what happened?

For over two decades, radio has been more than a career, it has been my life. But in recent years the industry has degraded through monopolization and greed, becoming almost unrecognizable, a cardboard box with a bow, but nothing of real value inside.

But this level of indifference from Medford radio stations at a time when radio is so desperately needed is shameful.

Listener feedback from other markets exposed to fire danger had varied responses, but most had heard some sort of fire news on the radio.

Why had radio stations in Medford so blatantly failed the community? One possible explanation: The majority of radio stations subscribe to Nielsen or Eastlan ratings. The Ashland-Medford Radio Market has chosen to refuse ratings.

No ratings system is perfect, but they have value. By eliminating the need to be accountable and compete, ego and disillusion fill the airwaves in southwest Oregon, deteriorating into mediocrity.

It’s Sept. 11 at 6:50 p.m. Two hours earlier, I received email notification that “due to the large active, uncontained fire burning in the middle of the school district” the school calendar will need to be adjusted.

By chance, I hear the last on-air break from the usual guy, but this time, he adds, “... keeping an eye on the fire. If things get out of hand, we’ll let you know.”

No, they won’t.

Dana Rae Mobley has spent 20 years as an on-air radio talent in Oregon. Her career spans from Medford to Portland, as a programmer, marketing and production director.