A voice in hell’s fury
Radio came into its own as bushfires took their toll on modern technology
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.’’