A voice in hell’s fury

Ra­dio came into its own as bush­fires took their toll on mod­ern tech­nol­ogy

Herald Sun - Switched On - - Front Page - GREG THOM

FOR many Vic­to­ri­ans caught up in the firestorm that en­gulfed the state, ra­dio was their only link to the out­side world.

As mo­bile-phone net­works crashed and power lines were cut, the wireless was of­ten the only source of news for those trapped in the fire zone and wor­ried friends and rel­a­tives out­side.

The cen­tury-old medium came into its own, pro­vid­ing Coun­try Fire Au­thor­ity warn­ings and up­dates of at-risk ar­eas, re­port­ing on the catas­tro­phe it­self and re­unit­ing loved ones on air.

Through its net­work of re­gional af­fil­i­ates through­out the state, the ABC played a vi­tal role.

ABC Lo­cal ra­dio man­ager Steve Kyte says from the time the ex­tent of the dis­as­ter be­came ap­par­ent on ‘‘Black Satur­day’’, nor­mal pro­gram­ming went out the win­dow.

‘‘In that ini­tial pe­riod, the week­end cov­er­age was about de­liv­er­ing in­for­ma­tion,’’ Kyte says.

And top­ping the list of cru­cial in­for­ma­tion were the threat warn- ings. They were broad­cast ev­ery 15 min­utes, 24 hours a day, pre­ceded by a dis­tinct au­dio alert and pro­vided the most up-to-date news from the CFA and Depart­ment of Sus­tain­abil­ity and En­vi­ron­ment.

Kyte made a de­ter­mined ef­fort to get teams out of the stu­dio and into towns af­fected by the in­ferno.

‘‘The core of what we do is to give out ad­vice and in­for­ma­tion and do it ac­cu­rately and quickly,’’ Kyte says.

‘‘The other part of our job is one of re­as­sur­ance. That’s why our broad­cast­ers who go to re­gional Vic­to­ria — peo­ple like Derek Guille, Richard Stubbs — we have them out and about and into the com­mu­nity.’’

A broad­cast vet­eran, Kyte says the bush­fires re­in­forced why ra­dio is still around af­ter all th­ese years.

‘‘Ra­dio’s a great sur­vivor,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s a very old-fash­ioned tech­nol­ogy on one level, but its sim­plic­ity and porta­bil­ity are why talk ra­dio has sur­vived.

‘‘This just re­ally brought it home to us on an in­cred­i­ble level, how much peo­ple have re­lied on us.’’

The ABC’s cen­tralised cov­er­age from Mel­bourne was of­ten in­ter­rupted in lo­cal ar­eas by re­gional broad­cast­ers re­spond­ing to an emerg­ing fire threat.

‘‘At one point, we were run­ning five sep­a­rate streams of rolling cov­er­age, which is quite a feat,’’ Kyte says.

Just as mov­ing and dra­matic as some of the re­port­ing was the raw emo­tion dis­played by lis­ten­ers call­ing to tell their sto­ries or plead­ing for help in find­ing miss­ing loved ones.

For many, talk ra­dio sta­tions such as the ABC and 3AW pro­vided an emo­tional shoul­der to cry on.

‘‘I think hear­ing an­nounc­ers and callers at a time of cri­sis is in­cred­i­bly re­as­sur­ing,’’ Kyte says.

‘‘And I think hear­ing other peo­ple’s sto­ries can be quite ther­a­peu­tic. You’re not alone. It’s a shared ex­pe­ri­ence, unit­ing the state.’’

As ded­i­cated news and talk­back sta­tions swung into action, FM mu­sic broad­cast­ers also ral­lied.

Though owned by the same com­pany, ri­val broad­cast­ers FOX FM and Triple M put on a joint broad­cast com­bin­ing on-air tal­ent.

The move saw FOX break­fast crew Jo Stan­ley and Matt Tilley and Drive team Hamish and Andy join Triple M’s Peter Hel­liar and Myf Warhurst in one stu­dio in a simul­cast on both net­works. That was com­bined with a fundrais­ing drive that raised more than $2 mil­lion.

Aus­tereo gen­eral man­ager Ben Amarfio says those con­cerned did an amaz­ing job.

‘‘The first thought of it was less than 24 hours be­fore we went to air. The thing was evolv­ing and mor­ph­ing as the day went on,’’ Amarfio says.

‘‘That’s the ad­van­tage of ra­dio, be­ing able to re­spond in a timely man­ner and gal­vanise our troops.’’

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