Here is what I wrote in response to questions from the Community Broadcasters’ Association of Australia about our community access radio station’s experiences after the September 2010 earthquake.
Plains FM 96.9
1.How badly damaged was the station from the earthquake? Was there any structural damage to the station’s building or damage to equipment in the studios?
After a couple of hours checking that our families were all OK I turned on Plains FM at 7:15am on Saturday 4th September and heard the familiar sound of Samoan voices. I was shocked and amazed that the Samoan team were on air broadcasting their usual Suifofoga O Samoa programme. I was sure that they would have stayed at home and the station’s silence detector would have kicked us over to the BBC World Service. But no! Our intrepid PIs had been on air live since 6am (an hour and a half after the big quake). I couldn’t get through to them on the phone and I was terribly concerned about their safety if the building had been damaged.
I drove to the station through streets that were eerily deserted, even in the central city where we are located on the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology campus. Robert, David and Lilly were sitting in the studio looking pretty relaxed until the building rattled with a big aftershock! They were determined to carry on broadcasting however, so my husband and I scooted around the building to check for damage. Structurally there was nothing apparent. A monitor had hit the deck, as had a shelf of CDs and sundry unimportant items but otherwise we were on-air, with power and water intact. Amazing!
2.How has programming been affected? Have there been any changes in program content related to the earthquake and its affect throughout the community?
My next concern was that what was being broadcast was accurate and helpful. So I fed information through from the City Council website and Civil Defense to the Samoan broadcasters on air to translate for their community. Because of the tsunami that hit Samoa last year people were terribly worried the same would happen here and were fleeing from the eastern suburbs nearest to the coast. We were able to reassure them that there had been no tsunami warning and to stay put.
Our broadcasters and staff definitely felt a sense of responsibility to be on air over the next difficult few days to help disseminate key messages from Civil Defense. Luckily we were just outside the CBD police cordon. Broadcasters also wanted to reassure listeners and buoy up their spirits.
A few programme makers did take a break over the days that followed as the significance of this event hit them emotionally, or they had to deal with damage to their home and contents.
Everyone was suffering from sleep deprivation due to the aftershocks that just kept coming so when the Polytech evacuated the site after some major shudders above 5 on the Richter scale on Wednesday 8th September I made the call that my staff and live broadcasters would go too.
Our building would probably have been OK but I didn’t want to take the risk and I felt we all needed a chance to just be at home with our families for a day.
3.Tell us about the station’s evacuation. Despite the stress of it all, judging from the YouTube clip it looks like you still managed to have a sense of humor about things!
There are quite a few things to consider when you decide to shut shop. Luckily we had lots of pre-recorded shows already in the system so it was a matter of getting in touch with our live to air presenters by phone, and canceling some pre-record bookings the next day. We also put messages on Facebook, Twitter and our website, and a big sign on the front door with a mobile contact number to call.
I took my car-less colleague Edward home and my husband suggested we make a small detour to check out our friends’ QuadChilla for a bit of light relief. Think of a chilly bin on wheels with a handlebar on the front and a small engine on the back!! It was great to have a laugh after 4 days of stress – hence the YouTube clip. However our thoughts did not stray far from those Cantabrians who were dealing with demolished homes, messy liquefaction and damaged businesses.
4. What role did PLAINS FM have in broadcasting information about this emergency to the community?
When disaster strikes you naturally want to hear something in your own language. We have 68 programmes presented by community volunteers in 14 languages. It is their call as to how they inform and reassure their listeners. The PI broadcasters used talkback so the community could share their experiences, and they also used the phone to connect with radio stations in Samoa and around NZ and Australia so listeners could send messages to family and friends in other cities. Other programme makers disseminated key contact numbers, information and website addresses to listeners and utilized information from our daily updates that staff left in the live studio. One of the best websites was canterburyearthquake.org.nz which collated a lot of information from various local and national government and non-government agencies in one place, so we linked to that. We also showed which streets were cordoned off in the CBD.
We utilised our daily staff-produced Mornings Show to interview key people from Civil Defense, the Mayor and city council staff, police, the medical officer of health, various local MPs, Salvation Army and student volunteer coordinators to name a few.
Quiet Minds (our mental health show) has done a special on the mental health services that are open and what they can provide. So programme makers are targeting specific areas or topics as it applies to their respective audience.
5. What lessons have the PLAINS FM community learnt from this event?
It could happen again at any time so be prepared! Make sure your landlord has your cell number so you can get updates about the safety of the building you are in. We were hearing information secondhand until I got us on to a text-tree. Have spare water stored on site, torches and a well-equipped first aid box. We had no injuries but things could have been very different if the earthquake had been bigger or had struck at a busy time of day. We also had to put notices up to boil water for 3 days after the event. Have a full list of staff and broadcaster contacts printed out at home. Retain a phone that can plug into the phone line so that you can make calls even if power is lost but phones lines are operational. We are now exploring having the ability to send out group texts from our station cellphone. More lessons will reveal themselves as time goes on. I will also be asking for feedback from our broadcasters as to what we, as staff could have done better.
6. PLAINS FM recently received a Diversity Award from the Human Rights Commission in recognition of your outstanding contribution to cultural diversity and race relations. What is it about PLAINS FM that you think differentiates it from other community stations and made it a winning candidate for this prize?
He tangata! The people! Our committed broadcasters, and our creative and dedicated staff and voluntary Trust board members. Plus all those Canterbury folk who agree to share their experiences and talents as guests via interviews, music and discussion every day. Technology also has a big role to play as we share and highlight what happens here through podcast, livestream, tweets and photos. I think we’re a dynamic station with lots to say and much to contribute to the ongoing connectedness and development of our Canterbury region.