This is Not a Test
Updated: Jul 25
I can still remember recording the official warnings. As a young radio deejay, not only did I spin the Adult Contemporary hits, my duties and responsibilities included voicing and recording commercials, public service announcements and, on occasion, the official language scripted by Cold War doomsday planners.
“This is a test. This is only a test. For the next thirty seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.”
Then came a shrill tone, aimed at grabbing the listener’s attention, forcing them to imagine the unimaginable. Soviet Inter-continental ballistic missiles arcing their way over the polar ice cap bound straight for our backyard. Our own Titan II and Atlas ICBM’s lodged deep beneath the farmland ringing Topeka and Wichita, home to much of the nation’s aerospace manufacturing capacity.
Kansas. The sunflower state, wide open spaces, room to breathe and grow. A target rich environment.
This memory was jogged after hearing of Ford’s desire to abandon AM radio in new cars. They backed down when some rural Congressional leaders introduced a bill basically mandating AM radios in all new cars. Without AM radio, their argument went, how will folks be alerted to emergencies? Warm air will still rise, tornadoes will still form in the summertime and kidnappers will still boost children walking home from school.
Ford’s response was basically, “why, the Internet, of course!” After all, today’s alert system is much more technologically sophisticated – delivered not only through terrestrial broadcasting, but cellular service and Internet-based platforms. One message, a raft of different technological vehicles to carry it.
Ford’s notion to abandon AM radios smacks of coastal thinking, ideas generated by those whose daily personal experience takes access to high-speed Internet for granted and does not involve listening to AM radio. It seems little, if any, thought is given to the middle of the country and those wide open spaces.
Play that antique cassette tape out to the end. Ford will very likely eventually get their way, but for a different reason. When rural broadband reaches the last farmhouse in the section, the need for terrestrial radio signals generated by a transmitter, broadcast through the air by a red and white stick towering over the prairie, will fade into history like the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine.
The telephone did away with the telegraph. Digital printing eclipsed offset. In Hollywood, digital video left celluloid film, literally, on the cutting room floor. The Integrated Public Alert & Warning System 86’d the Emergency Broadcast System.
Video killed the radio star.
Early in my career, I was fortunate to work for three Kansas pioneer broadcasters, Martin Umansky at KAKE in Wichita, Bob Schmidt and Ross Beach at KAYS in Hays, and the Stauffer brothers at WIBW in Topeka, in television and AM radio at all three. Only by looking backward does one capture a sense of “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
Technology changes old ways of operating. Best practices that were once widely accepted in the mainstream of our existence have become novelty niches. Business models will change. The cutting edge will get sharper. “Broadcasting” as a culture and an industry will adapt or fail.
“This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System…”
Matson began his career in broadcasting as an all-night deejay and transitioned to broadcast journalism, where he managed radio and TV newsrooms. Then came service in politics/government and advocacy, all in Kansas.