Grade for this afternoon’s federal test of the Emergency Alert System: a big fat F.

I punched around on the St. Louis radio dial at 1pm and heard all the radio stations relaying the EAS test, but there was some confusion. At least two of them didn’t know the exact hard start time, others didn’t (or couldn’t) explain what was going on, and they were not all synchronized, possibly because some stations run on delay (particularly those that take listener phone calls), while others do not.

Even so, the test audio was absolutely horrible — you’d sound better on a five-dollar Radio Shack walkie-talkie, in a tunnel, underwater. Worse, the tones that should have run only at the beginning and end of the test were audible throughout. Brian Stelter at the NY Times reports on some bizarre problems in some markets, including some DirecTV subscribers hearing a Lady Gaga song instead of the test and others suddenly having their TV sets switched to QVC (an ironic throwback to the days after the attacks of 2001, when President Bush made an emergency plea asking Americans to go shopping).

The FCC and FEMA claim that the test was to help them determine how well the system works, and fix any problems so that, in a national emergency, the President could address the American public en masse. But that system already exists through the machinery of the White House press corps. In such an emergency, all the President’s staff would have to do is notify the reporters who cover him day and night that he wants to make some kind of address. It would take mere minutes for the technology already in place — phone lines, satellite and microwave transmissions, etc. — to put the President on the air. Most stations would carry it, and it would be much more audible than the soup-cans-and-string setup the EAS used today.

Here’s my original piece on the history of this fiasco.