News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, October 21, 2013

Some ain't too swift in Rapid City

Two weeks  ago, I huddled in a powerless house in Rapid City during the unseasonal blizzard.  We went there to meet my daughter and husband and grandson from Denver and  gathered at the house of my son-in-law's mother.   Also in attendance were my daughter's newly adopted greyhound from Florida and my spouse's Boston Terrier puppy.  We arrived on Thursday evening when rain was shrouding the town and making it very difficult to figure out the detours  around the many street closures because of construction.  During our attempt to find our way through the construction maze,  the empty light came on in the gasoline gauge.  But  everyone made it to the appointed house and spent a normal evening doing what families do when they get together.

By Friday morning, the snow was slamming down on a high wind.  A branch on a huge crab apple tree in the back yard crashed on the deck, bringing a cable  with it.  About noon we heard an electrical transformer explode and the power went out.  I thought it time to fill up my empty gas tank and get some food, so we plowed through the drifting snow to a Safeway store not too far away. The 4-wheel drive was useful.   At that point the snow was drifting but was so watery that the car tires could cut through it  to grip the pavement, but the temperature was dropping and the snow was beginning to pack down into a slushy ice.  By evening no power was restored, so we cooked supper on a charcoal grill in the car port.  We huddled in blankets and afghans as the house cooled down, and tended to dogs and a toddler by candlelight.  We tried to get some reports on what to expect on a battery powered radio, but no radio stations were reporting news other than to observe we were in an unusual winter storm (Duh!) and the authorities were advising against travel.  By this time, the snow was piled high enough that we saw that we could not go anywhere even if we could back our 4-wheel drives out of the driveway into the street.  And big tree limbs were dropping into the streets to further block any traffic.  The radio stations continued their country music and evangelical rants against that devil Obama and his  liberal minions.  But nothing about what to expect from the storm or the official response to it. 

 Eventually, to stay warm and conserve the candles and dwindling power in our phone batteries, we went to bed wondering whether some of the food in the warming refrigerator should be moved to the colder carport. 

On Saturday morning, one radio station had a lengthy interview with  an emergency manager.  Rapid City had banned all travel, but not in time to keep a bunch of people from getting stranded in the snow.  Particularly vexing was that people were getting into their cars and following emergency vehicles and snow plows and getting stuck in the process to further impede the workers' efforts to deal with the storm.  The manager cited one case in which fire trucks were seriously delayed in responding to a fire by the foolish motorists getting in their way.  And the manager put out a call for people with snowmobiles to volunteer their help in rescuing stranded motorists.  The report that morning assured people that roads were being cleared and power restored.

The blizzard was a disaster in many respects.  It was no bigger a disaster than the performance of the radio stations.  At a time when there is no power for television and computer and wifi connections, battery-powered radio assumes an essential role. But radio stations are no longer equipped to serve that role.  Aside from that one interview, there was no news other than national feeds, which reported that the Black Hills were experiencing a blizzard.  Duh.  The twang-billy stations still played music of lament about scraping that there stinky stuff off ma boots, and the evangelicals still preached their message of hatred and rancor from the first epistle to the anti-Obamaites.  There were no reports even faintly resembling an attempt to provide news relevant to dealing with the blizzard.  The public radio towers must have been taken down by the blizzard, because I could not find their signal.

The lack of any useful information in Rapid City during the blizzard is a symptom of the overall deterioration that besets America's news media.  Up until the late 1990s, for example, Aberdeen had three radio stations that had news staffs.  My spouse was one of the reporters.  During any kind of community emergency, those news people would be at work relaying pertinent information over the air.  Reports on the state of roads and power would be updated continuously. 

Greyhound coping with blizzard.
But the MBA syndrome hit the radio business.  Rather than try to make the radio stations make money by building an audience through providing it with locally produced programming and reporting, the stations were bought up be "media" companies that made money by eliminating as much overhead as possible.  Staffs were eliminated, except for announcers and advertising sales people.  The programs are satellite feeds coordinated by computers.  Most news is from a national network feed. 
 Some stations will have an announcer read state news from a wire service and read the local weather forecast.  Often the weather forecast is recorded on tape and replayed throughout the day and night.  There are no reporters or news editors reporting on local events,  although some stations do have part-timers covering high school athletics and recording reports on the events.  

Boston Terrier puppy coping with blizzard.

Toddler grandson coping with blizzard.
The ruling criteria for radio programming is how cheaply it can be done and still to have an audience for the selling of ads.  Radio station licenses are periodically reviewed and a point of such reviews is how the stations are serving the public to justify a broadcast frequency on the public airways.  It is a  game of seeing how little will suffice to justify a license and how cheaply it can be done.  Media companies do not buy radio stations to improve programming and service to the public.  They totally operate on the principle of seeing how much they can earn by doing as little as possible as cheaply as possible. 

In situations such as the early October blizzard, the lack of media attention and effort has its effect on the sources for information.  When reporters call into government agencies and power companies, the organizations grudgingly respond by getting requested information.  Or in the case of Rapid City, the police department volunteered the information that the city was banning all travel to keep citizens out of the way and to keep them from getting stranded in the snow.  The experience with the power company was quite different.

By Saturday afternoon with no power and no news about when to expect it, we started calling Black Hills Power.  Their call center is in North Dakota.  The calls produced the information that lines and power were being rapidly restored and we could expect power at any time.  On Sunday morning, there still was no power.  A call produced the information that power had been restored to our location at 4:53 that morning.  We checked the circuit breakers to make sure they did not go off when power was restored.  They were still connected, so we called back.  This call produced the information that the company was unable to restore power to 14 homes in our area.

So, with no heat and no way to prepare warm food, we called motels and found one--with power--and went there for the night.  The news we received on a television station was that 14,000 customers were still without power. 

As we drove out on I-90 Monday morning, we saw the carcasses of cattle in the ditches, in the median, and in the pastures.  What had  been a weather adventure became a tragedy for ranchers and their stock. 

The radio news media was simply not up to dealing with the storm.  It has eliminated the ability to gather and provide useful information in such situations.  It has disqualified itself as a news source, and now can only flood the airways with twang music and the sanctified hate speech of the evangelicals. 

It is just one facet of the journalistic inadequacies into which our legacy news media have fallen.  It just is not capable of covering the world most of us live in. 

1 comment:

John said...

Thanks for detailing this experience as yours mirrored mine. Black Hills Power's garbage automated answering was as unuseful and unhelpful as is their non-"clearing" of their rights of way - the absence of clearing greatly contributed to the outages.

The community-focused AM radio station from Deadwood usually provides helpful, reliable, consistent local news. But it's likely that one in Rapid City is unable to receive its signal. The station provided real news for the first day or two until apparently the Black Hills Power incompetence knocked them off the air. After which my "emergency" radio was worthless for days three and four without electricity.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States