When the power goes out, a $5 transistor radio is more valuable than a $500 smartphone. That is certainly a lesson learned from last September’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, which left residents with a single source of information: AM radio. Just how valuable it became is the subject of an in-depth feature in Columbia Journalism Review, titled “After Hurricane Maria, AM radio makes a comeback in Puerto Rico.”
As the hurricane approached last fall, many television stations knew they would lose power and actually shuttered during the storm. Wifi was decimated, leaving “old-fashioned” radio as the single media lifeline. “Maria erased the world of journalism in Puerto Rico,” says Carolina Rodriguez Plaza, production manager for the news team at WORA-TV Mayagüez. “It reemerged in a new form, with radio playing an important role.”
As Hurricane Maria’s 150-mile-per-hour winds toppled power lines and torrential rains grounded out the island’s power grid, Plaza was like thousands of other residents—who turned on a battery-powered radio for news during Maria. Plaza found WKJB (710 AM). “WKJB was a light on Puerto Rico’s darkest night,” Plaza says. The station was maintaining its broadcast after learning about disaster preparedness in 1998, when Hurricane Georges blew down its radio antenna and cut off power, according to the CJR story. Since, the station was equipped with a backup power generator and a reinforced antenna that can withstand hurricane-force winds.
Other stations, like San Juan’s WKAQ-AM also stayed on the air, shifting from regular programming to that solely focused on storm coverage. Billboard’s coverage noted that the station also used other available channels such as its social media to help those in trouble, and sent recovery teams to parking lots and damaged homes to bring relief where it was needed most.
Plaza, wanting to help her community, ended up volunteering at WKJB during Hurricane Maria. When she arrived after the storm, she found that the station was also being used as a distribution center for donated supplies and as a clinic for people with small injuries. The Mayagüez police had also set up there because their dispatch office had lost power.
As a result of AM’s presence, Plaza says now, “Maria served as a moment of contraction in the news industry. Meanwhile, AM radio emerged even stronger. Young people in the under-35 demographic are listening to radio news for the first time in their lives. Radios are at the center of a culture shift. Neighbors sit together drinking coffee and listening to the news.”
Problems still exist in getting Puerto Rico’s radio infrastructure completely back, however, “contrary to predictions and global trends in the industry, radio proved itself in this circumstance to be vital,” Rafael López of Radio Isla told The Miami Herald, as quoted in CJR. “It became something of a first responder and the first line of help.”