The Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC) has long been pushing for a so-called designated hitter system that would ensure that foreign-language programming is available on the radio during a disaster. It would depend on the Federal Communications Commission administering such a program. But with broadcasters resistant to such a formalized effort, MMTC now says it sees a “hybrid approach” as a workable alternative, relying on stations to step up on their own.
MMTC President Robert Branson met last week with the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau and Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau to discuss how such a system could work. According to a regulatory filing about the meeting, he suggested that in markets where a broadcaster volunteers, the station would need to provide notice to the FCC that it will be serving as a designated hitter.
In the remaining markets, the Commission would hold a lottery or contact broadcasters directly to identify whether they can serve as the designated hitter. Recognizing that many stations do little local programming origination, Branson suggested that a station have the opportunity to “prove hardship” in order to sidestep the responsibility.
Branson says such a “regulatory backstop” that assigns a designated hitter in markets where no one has volunteered “would ensure that those who do not speak English receive crucial information after a natural disaster.”
The National Association of Broadcasters has been cool to the idea of creating a designated hitter system to date. When broadcasters met with FCC staffers during the NAB State Leadership Conference this month, they said the proposal ignores the long tradition of broadcasters banding together to help a station in need restore operations during an emergency.
NAB Executive VP Rick Kaplan says it is also hard to believe that any foreign language station would want to announce before a natural disaster struck that it was unprepared and that its listeners should turn to another station on the dial for help. “Instead of pursuing this unnecessary proposal, the FCC should support the efforts of these industry experts and encourage potentially at-risk foreign-language stations to better utilize their services, especially before disaster strikes. This approach would most effectively address the underlying problem of a broadcaster’s resiliency,” he said in a disclosure filing about the meeting.
But Branson thinks an entirely voluntary system of multilingual emergency alerts “is not sufficient” to ensure that broadcast stations actually provide such alerts to their communities. “Indeed, the Commission’s proceeding on this issue has been pending for 16 years, and many markets still lack a broadcaster that transmits emergency alerts in languages other than English,” he pointed out. He likened the need for government intervention in the fight to racially integrate schools during the 1950s and 1960s as a template to follow.
MMTC and other advocacy groups have been pushing for a designated hitter system ever since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. While the role of WWL (870) in providing critical information to people in the region is now one of radio’s most celebrated stories of recent times, they say it overlooks the fact that non-English speakers were left without a critical lifeline during the disaster. New Orleans’ only Spanish-language station at the time— daytimer “Tropical Caliente 1540” KGLA—was knocked off the air for eight days.
But a voluntary effort took shape in 2018 when Hurricane Florence threatened the Carolina coastline. Spanish Broadcasting System was enlisted to produce Spanish-language alerts for listeners of Cumulus Media stations in the Myrtle Beach, SC market and Dick Broadcasting stations in the Hilton Head, SC market. The effort came at the request of MMTC and LULAC with the help of the South Carolina Broadcasters Association and the FCC.