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The ABC an essential service – in so many ways

17/03/2014

The closest experience with a bushfire I have had to date was in 1997 when we were living in the Victorian highlands near Creswick.  It was a hot morning and there were already serious fires in the around the state.   Driving home from Melbourne the previous day, I had seen three of our local CFA trucks heading off merrily in the opposite direction along the Western Highway on their way to fight the fires in the Dandenongs on the other side of Melbourne.  What, I absently speculated, would happen if we had a fire here?

The next morning it happened. Our neighbour rang and said in a calm but urgent voice, “just look out your back kitchen window”.  I did and there was a huge plume of billowing smoke that looked like a volcanic eruption.  Looking at intricate detail in the folds of smoke I started appreciate the scale; it was both bigger and further away than I first thought.  The little wind there was would be taking it away.   I judged, that there wasn’t any immediate threat to the house but I was concerned that my partner who was in the local town at a doctors’ appointment and one of the ways she could choose to come home, would take her pretty close to source of that huge cloud.  I rang the doctor’s surgery but she had already left.  This was before the days of ubiquitous mobile phones and the days before everyone in the bush had fire plans.  The only thing I thought to do was to fill the bath and sinks, buckets and any containers with water.  Most of our water was pumped from a well by an electric pump and if the electricity went we wouldn’t have any.  I dimly remembered some other piece of folk wisdom that I had heard somewhere; that you should stuff the down pipes with a tennis balls and fill up the gutters, but of course, no tennis balls.   I was concerned and what I really wanted was information.  The neighbour suggested that I tune into the local Ballarat commercial radio station. “They’re local, they’ll have the latest information” so I did.    I heard some lame middle of the road classic oldies, later an announcer came on briefly to give the time and back announce some of the songs; then an ad break, some low rent ads for local companies and then before going back to the music, a woman’s voice cuts in.  “There is a bushfire in the Creswick area we will keep you updated as news comes to hand” she announces blandly but with a calm authoritative firmness.  OK, I thought they’re on to it.  I went about my business but never out of range of the radio.  All the time listening out for the all important update.  At the end of the song bracket some another ad break and then the woman’s voice cuts in with exactly the message in exactly the same voice.  Something didn’t feel right but I stay tuned the cycle went through again with the same message in the same voice at the end of the ad break – exactly the same – a recording.  After some more lame music there’s the hourly news which appears to be a mostly nationally syndicated compile of news items,  They do mention the fires around Melbourne and Victoria but do not mention the Creswick fire specifically.  I quickly realise that this station is a waste of time and retune to the Melbourne ABC 774 (which might have still been 3LO in those days).  They are covering all the fires in the state many of which are much more serious (one of which actually turned out to be fatal – killing two people in the Dandenongs). But they are systematically working through them but priority was given to the more serious fires.  Even so, within a few minutes I had the bare-bone facts that I needed on our fire.  100 hectare burning out of control in forest between Creswick and the White Swan reservoir travelling slowly in south easterly direction.  No property threatened.  That’s maybe all a I need to know at this stage.   My partner arrived home safely but as it turns out she took the wrong way home and was driving alongside the fire front for a while and could see orange flames between the trees.   It was relatively benign all though CFA truck did get trapped and the crew had to employ the emergency curtain-of-spray-survival plan and the tyres caught fire and eventually the truck was burnt out after the .  Through out the day we were kept up to date through the ABC.  Small bits of information as they came in – not a lot, relative to the more serious fires where property and lives were at stake, but enough to keep track of things.  Importantly there was the reassurance that if things did get out of hand we would be upgraded and have the same access to detailed informations and warnings.  A couple of times I retuned to the local commercial station to check if they had come up with anything but still the light classic rock and the prerecorded voice.   This was irresponsible and wrong.  By promising something that they never delivered they were not only wasting people’s time, they were distracting diverting people from the helpful  information source that could potentially be life saving.

The most dramatic part of the day was when the wind changed direction with the cool change and blew all the smoke and ashes back at us. Suddenly no sky or horizon. What had been a bright blue day changed instantly into a violent swirling hot fog of smoke and cinders.   You got a sense of what it would be like on the wrong side of a fire front but this fire was now blowing back on what it had already burnt and it was about to start raining so – emergency over.

Not long afterwards and completely coincidentally, I was shown around the studios of the very same local commercial station.  There was no one behind behind the soundproof window in the announcing booth; no jolly DJ working his magic in front of the microphone.  I was puzzled.  The station manager proudly pointed to banks of hard-drives mounted in racks and said, “this is where it all happens nowadays”.   At the time this must have been very new and expensive technology.
“It means”, he explained, “that the announcers only have to come in for an hour in the morning and they record all the spots for the day in one go and then the computer puts it together with the music and ads in real time”.    So the radio station is effectively a robotic ghost station.  Doubtlessly it is very cost efficient but it is not honest or honourable.  The programming “content” is treated as filler to go around the ads – not as something of value in itself and it cannot respond to changing events

During the very recent fires around Melbourne a few weeks ago, I was driving around over the weekend mostly around the inner city, a safe distance from the fires but listening to our local government radio station ABC 774 which had gone into emergency services mode to help.  It was functioning in a calm and good humoured way as a conduit for all the – the collected wisdom.  With regular updates from the CFA and police but also importantly from people ringing in with reports and stories.  Often little details like road closures and alternative routes.  It also was taking in and processing lots of text and twitter information and distilling the most pertinent information.

This is something that commercial radio simply could not do even if it had the will to because it isn’t interested in the public interest.

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