A freight train barreling through Minot, North Dakota, on a frigid night in 2002 went off the tracks, causing freight cars to scatter along the rails like a loose pack of cards. Five tank cars carrying anhydrous ammonia ruptured, filling the area with a poisonous gas cloud. But a public warning over radio wasn’t broadcast for nearly ninety minutes. One person died, and more than 300 were injured in the incident.
Little more than two blocks away from the derailment, Jennifer Johnson heard the crash, then watched the ammonia cloud roll toward her house. She searched in vain for information on what had happened. “The phone line was out, so I couldn’t call 911,” she told the Bismarck Tribune. “The only thing on the radio was music–no one was telling us what happened or what to do.” She dialed through every station in town, but after an hour without hearing an announcement, she gave up and turned the radio off. “We didn’t know what the chemical would do to us,” she says.
What happened in Minot reflects a nationwide problem: Media consolidation has left many radio stations nearly empty at night. At the time of the accident, Clear Channel owned six of Minot’s eight stations, including the designated emergency announcement station, but only one person was there during the accident and did not respond to local authorities’ calls because phone lines were jammed by residents calling in. The authorities tried activating the radio’s Emergency Alert System to notify the public about what to do, which can be done without station personnel, but the EAS failed. Authorities had to pull out a phonebook and call local Clear Channel employees at their homes to tell them to broadcast an emergency message.
The stations were understaffed because of voice-tracking, a technology that allows the airing of preprogrammed play-lists, eliminating the need for someone to be in the DJ booth. Relatively unknown in the early 1990s, voice-tracking became widely used after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 lifted restrictions on the number of stations one company may own. Voice-tracking enabled Clear Channel to cut employees across the country; as much as 70 percent of its programming is now voice-tracked, according to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Other companies had to follow suit to compete. Numerous complaints about problems produced by voice-tracking, which include more than safety issues, have been filed with the Federal Communications Commission, prompting it to ask the public and media stakeholders last year for their comments on whether voice-tracking negatively affects local broadcasters and listeners. Comments were due in early January. But the FCC put the inquiry on hold because, according to a commission spokesperson, its chairmanship is in transition.
Clear Channel management and local authorities are at odds over who failed in Minot. Clear Channel’s Rick Stensby says local police didn’t have their EAS set up correctly, while Lieut. Fred Debowey, local 911 coordinator, says Clear Channel and his staff share the blame; he says that Clear Channel wasn’t using the correct frequency on its receiver, and his own staff weren’t aware that their EAS had recently lost power and needed to be reprogrammed. The local authorities also say Clear Channel management has been uncooperative in letting them do enough on-air tests of the EAS to make sure it’s working properly. “They don’t want us to interrupt their broadcast,” Debowey says. “We know that if we cut into a commercial, they’ll lose revenue.” The FCC requires broadcasters to allow on-air testing only once a month. Debowey’s staff does weekly off-air tests of the EAS, which don’t break through the radio broadcasts, but they aren’t sufficient, Debowey says, noting that an off-air test just a few days before the derailment said the system worked.
What concerns Minot authorities is that the failure could happen again. Little has changed since the derailment. “We’re still not able to get ahold of anybody [at Clear Channel] immediately if we need to” late at night, Debowey says. The radio behemoth still owns six of Minot’s stations.
Problems pertaining to EAS nationwide, including how many tests are needed, also prompted the FCC to seek comment last year from government agencies on how the system can be made more effective. The FCC is currently reviewing responses.
What happened in Minot isn’t an isolated incident. A similar event took place in January in Graniteville, South Carolina, where Clear Channel operates WBBQ, another designated emergency announcement station. After a train derailment caused a chlorine spill that put hundreds of people in danger, the EAS failed on the first attempt. But officials had no way of knowing that, because no one at WBBQ answered their calls.
In 2003 former Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays told Fortune magazine, “We’re not in the business of providing news and information…. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.” In other words, the bottom line comes first. Lieutenant Debowey counters, “If you can’t keep the public safe, then the bottom line means nothing.”