At 1pm CT today, there will be a test of the Emergency Alert System, carried by every radio and television station in the country. It’s a waste of time and money.
If there’s one thing we don’t have a shortage of in the USA, it’s information. When there’s an emergency somewhere, word gets out pretty quickly via traditional media, online outlets, and social media. Should a government agency have official details to pass along to the public, the various platforms already exist.
The EAS system replaced the EBS system, which was best-known by the public for the annoying test announcements that played weekly on broadcast stations, but were never taken seriously by the people who ran them nor those who heard them. Both systems relied on a network of lower audio quality than the speakers at a McDonald’s drive-thru, relayed by the biggest stations in a market and then repeated by the smaller ones. That put the smaller stations at the mercy of the 50kw behemoths, who could fit the test announcements into their usually-talk-intensive formats but forced their rivals to air them at awkward times. Some of that changed through the years, but the connections never made sense.
To this day, I still remember the text of the EBS test announcement:
“This is a test. For the next sixty seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.”
Then there was an alert tone (maybe 1 kilohertz?) for 20 seconds or so — which triggered equipment at other radio stations to tell them they had to run a test, too — before the copy continued:
“This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The broadcasters of your area in voluntary cooperation with the FCC and other authorities have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed where to tune in your area for news and official information. This station serves the (name of city) area. This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System.”
The word “voluntary” was a lie. Every FCC-licensed broadcast outlet had to run the tests, log them, and send reports to the FCC detailing exactly when they had aired. And that part about being instructed where to tune for official information meant that most radio stations would have to tell their listeners to turn their dials to the bigger “primary” stations — effectively saying, “Listen to my competition, because they’re the only ones in town who know what’s really happening while we sit here and play some silly records!”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some music radio stations decided to turn the useless EBS tests into something a little less annoying. There were a couple of different singing versions of the standard EBS text, one of which even turned the test-tone into “Mary Had A Little Lamb”…
The FCC was not enamored of the light-hearted approach, however, and banned them from the airwaves, forcing stations to go back to the bland, dry booth-announcer format that irritated listeners and broadcasters.
In the early 1980s, when I was doing mornings at WHCN/Hartford, we tried something different. The station hired a voice guy from Chicago (I can’t remember his name, so let’s call him Joe Balls) to do some of our imaging audio. He recorded station ID’s, promotional announcements, show intros, and all sorts of other stuff. He charged one flat fee for five pages of double-spaced copy, and we could make it whatever we wanted — if we could write it, he would read it.
I sat around with program director Dan Hayden, production director Tom Watts and a couple of other on-air guys as we came up with as many things as we could for Joe Balls to record. When we’d exhausted all of our ideas, we still had room on the fifth page. That’s when someone suggested having Joe record the EBS test announcement. We all agreed this was a great idea, as long as it was done straight so as not to raise the FCC’s hackles. It was typed up and sent off to Joe.
A few days later, his reel arrived in the mail (this was 30 years ago, before the advent of digital recording and instant file delivery). We gathered in the production studio to listen as Tom wound the tape onto the machine, then smiled as Joe’s incredibly deep voice poured out of the speakers intoning our call letters and slogans. Every cut sounded perfect, and Dan knew he’d made the right choice in hiring Joe.
Until the EBS test.
Just a few seconds into it, we were all looking at each other with surprise. Then we started laughing. We realized that, with Joe’s basso-profundo delivery, we could never put this on the air. He’d read the copy with such intensity that any listener, upon hearing it, would immediately assume that they were under attack and had only minutes to live. Although the entire EBS test concept was a joke, Dan decided to play it straight, keep Joe’s version off the air, and continue with the dry version we’d used for years.
And because he knew what kind of guys he was working with — the type who would sneak into the production room, make a copy of Joe’s work, and have it show up “accidentally” on the air one day as a joke — he told Tom to roll that portion of the tape onto another reel, which he then locked up in his desk, where it was never heard again.
To my knowledge, there has never been a national EBS (now EAS) warning issued, where a government official commandeered the airwaves to report official information to the public. Somehow, in the five decades since the concept began, Americans have managed to find out about emergencies, and we still can. There’s no need for alerts or tests. We’re covered.
Unless Michael Jackson’s doctor kills someone else. Then we’ll have to break into regular programming.
I wrote a followup after the EAS test aired today — read it here.