Broadcast radio: The most reliable medium for disaster updates
Radio is a powerful medium for cooperation and peace, with the widest global audience. As partners worldwide celebrate World Radio Day, ITU-R Study Group 6 chair Yukihiro Nishida explains the enduring advantages of radio broadcasting in emergency and disaster situations.
How has radio broadcasting enhanced communications in disaster zones?
In every kind of emergency, the public needs accurate information quickly.
Instances include natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, snowstorms, earthquakes, and tsunamis, as well as cases of terrorist violence, mass transportation accidents, and industrial and technological catastrophes. All these situations call for informing people as rapidly and comprehensively as possible.
Radio became part of governmental emergency plans more than a century ago – as soon as broadcasting became available as a mature technology. Since then, radio has proven agile and effective to spread information widely in critical situations.
Radio ensures the fastest provision of information to the public. Its life-saving role remains widely recognized, as confirmed by surveys conducted after recent disasters.
How can radio broadcasting operate effectively when infrastructure is destroyed?
When emergencies occur, people expect – and are prepared to receive – broadcasts through small battery-powered radio receivers. Radio receivers are inexpensive and require no access fees.
So radio broadcasting in either AM (amplitude modulation) or FM (frequency modulation) signals is still the most reliable way to obtain trustworthy, high-quality information every time, everywhere.
Firstly, the broadcast infrastructure for radio is highly robust and usually remains operational even when other communications technologies – such as two-way voice and data services – fail.
Secondly, broadcasters typically maintain an emergency plan, along with the necessary facilities, to keep their signal on the air and their newsgathering units and studios powered and operational in disaster situations.
The mandate of public broadcasters normally includes the placement of spare transmitters and local power generators at key sites to ensure continued operation for a long time, even when other essential infrastructure is lost.
Any adequately equipped radio station can also set up local broadcasting sites to provide regular and trusted information. Many broadcasters are equipped to quickly install small, mobile, self-powered AM and FM transmitting stations in a crisis area.
What are the implications of more recent advances in radio broadcasting technologies?
Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB/DAB+) and other new technologies enable the appropriate authority to automatically tune people’s radio receivers to emergency channels. Radio distribution can therefore be fully integrated with public alert plans.
Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) natively supports emergency alert signalling (DRM Early Warning Functionality, or EWF) for immediate mass notification in case of impending disasters. DRM receivers are triggered to re-tune automatically to an emergency transmission (including optional auto-switch-on) while flashing the screen and increasing the audio volume.
But older technologies also continue to be useful.
Regardless of evolving technical platforms, people rely on radio – especially from public broadcasters – for credible information, especially in times of crisis. Public service media represent the most trusted news brands in many countries, with radio still being the most trusted way of accessing news.
Despite the proliferation of digital communications in recent years, trust in social media networks and sources has declined, while trust in legacy media, including radio, has remained stable or even increased.
How can public authorities use high frequency (HF) radio broadcasting services to inform citizens during emergencies?
Many international broadcasters have joined the International Radio for Disaster Relief (IRDR) programme under the umbrella of the High Frequency Co-ordination Conference (HFCC), which supports informal co-ordination of frequency channels for short-wave radio broadcasts.
The unique propagation conditions of short waves allow radio broadcasts over long distances, hundreds or even thousands of kilometres from the broadcasting station – a crucial asset when local infrastructure is damaged or completely gone.
In 2022, the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R – one of three sectors of the International Telecommunication Union) updated Recommendation ITU-R BS.2107 “Use of International Radio for Disaster Relief (IRDR) frequencies for emergency broadcasts in the High Frequency (HF) bands.”
Based on the Radio Regulations and the relevant output of the HFCC, this Recommendation lists 10 frequencies between 6 megahertz (MHz) and 26 MHz that should be reserved globally for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for emergency broadcasts.
In emergencies, those frequencies are available for use in accordance with the Radio Regulations, the treaty maintained by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technology, to coordinate specific frequency allocations worldwide.
How can radio broadcasting in the 21st century contribute to international cooperation and peace around the world?
Throughout its 158 years of history, ITU has played a central role in advancing the use of radio worldwide, establishing and updating international regulations on the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits.
ITU is the custodian of the global treaty on spectrum management known as the Radio Regulations.
Updated in a global conference roughly every four years, this treaty facilitates equitable access to and rational use of the radio spectrum, ensures the availability of frequencies provided for distress and safety purposes, and promotes interference-free operations of the myriad radiocommunication systems.
ITU and its membership produce technical standards, referred to as ITU-R Recommendations, that support and encourage the advancement of each country’s radio broadcast system. Key ITU-R recommendations range from transmission standards for AM, FM sound broadcasting, systems for terrestrial digital sound broadcasting, and vehicular, portable, and fixed receivers, to the use of international radio for disaster relief (IRDR) frequencies for emergency broadcasts.
Today, radio remains the medium to reach the widest audience, even as this tried-and-true technology is evolving to work in new forms, with new devices. This makes radio a key tool for international understanding – but not just at the national level. The collaborative spirit reaches diverse localities with well-loved community radio stations.
In tribute to this vital medium for cooperation and peace, ITU joins with the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and numerous national, regional and international broadcasting associations and organizations in celebrating World Radio Day.
Non-governmental organizations, media organizations and outlets, and citizens, for their part, have formed further partnerships to celebrate radio broadcasting, improve international cooperation among broadcasters, and encourage decision-makers to create and provide access to information through radio services.
Radio is a powerful medium for celebrating humanity in all its diversity. All countries are encouraged to mark the occasion of World Radio Day on 13 February.
Where can we learn more about radio broadcasting as part of disaster preparation and response plans?
An ITU-R report, “Broadcasting for public warning, disaster mitigation, and relief” (ITU-R Report BT.2299) examines the role of broadcasting in crisis situations in more depth.
In addition, an upcoming workshop co-organized by ITU-R Study Group 6 and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) on “Broadcasting in times of crisis – 2023” will highlight experiences, lessons learned, and best practices in emergency broadcasting. The workshop takes place on 9 March and is open to media and the public.
Also see the ITU-R Study Group 6 chair’s technical perspective on broadcast services for the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) taking place in Dubai, UAE, between 20 November and 15 December 2023.
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