Radio Practices and Their Impacts during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico

Bruno Takahashi
Michigan State University

Yadira Nieves
Michigan State University

Manuel Chavez
Michigan State University

Publication Date: 2018

Introduction

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, cutting electricity and basic infrastructure such as phone and Internet communications. Thousands of people were left homeless and the territory’s infrastructure was severely damaged due to heavy winds and catastrophic flooding (Ferre-Sadurni and Ramzy 20171). Throughout the emergency, social media, television, and online communications were cut off across the island. Local radio, however, maintained operations and continued reporting on the hurricane’s path, the destruction, and recovery efforts. Some reporters continued to broadcast even when the winds ripped off their radio station’s roof (Mazzei 20172). Audiences were able to follow the events related to Hurricane Maria thanks to battery operated radio receivers.

Part of the communities’ fragility and the slowness of response and recovery efforts was caused by the interruption of reliable information channels. Media organizations in Puerto Rico faced unprecedented challenges. The slow recovery period represents a challenge to these media as they try to not only rebuild their damaged infrastructure, but also to develop ways to perform their roles under the circumstances. In this unique scenario, we investigated how radio stations and journalists performed their functions, which will allow us to expand theoretical understandings of media practices and develop practical tools to improve communication responses to future natural disasters—especially when it comes to vulnerable populations.

Background and Literature Review

The death toll after Hurricane Maria continued to climb as a result of the inadequate disaster response. News outlets such as The New York Times and the Washington Post recently reported that the inadequacies in the Federal Emergency Management Agency response to Hurricane Maria was due to the singularity of the scenario, one in which there was “widespread poverty and a weak local response capacity and extreme logistical obstacles” (Konyndyk 20173). Part of this discussion should include the current and potential roles played by news media organizations in either allowing or preventing the spread of fact-based information that might keep people from engaging in high-risk behaviors, such as drinking contaminated water, or help promote desirable behaviors, such as seeking shelter or medical assistance. In this project we examine current infrastructure and journalistic barriers that prevent media organizations from fulfilling their intended role of accurate information dissemination in disaster situations.

The devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico represents an unusual case study because of the extensive loss of power and the long recovery effort. This also represented an uncommon scenario for journalists and news producers. Previous research on disaster reporting has taken place within relatively short-term scenarios, such as the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, tornadoes, or floods. Similarly, studies on hurricane impacts have examined the issue cross-sectionally, with few studies examining media practices during the full recovery period (e.g. Usher 20094). In addition, disaster and crisis communication studies need to be firmly placed within the specific cultural and language contexts in which those events take place.

Radio is the medium used by the government of Puerto Rico during weather related emergencies. Currently, radio stations in Puerto Rico are responsible for broadcasting the Emergency Alert System, which warns the public about local weather emergencies. Consequently, radio stations in Puerto Rico are prepared with power generators, several Internet providers, and engineers that provide maintenance for the equipment (Rodríguez-Cotto 20175). Ideally, radio becomes a hub that facilitates cooperation between affected citizens and local officials (Hindman and Coyle 19996) through an organic process. However, while media attempt to relay official governmental information during a disaster (Sood, Stockdale, and Rogers 19877), the particular dynamics of broadcasting during an emergency can shift significantly compared to non-disaster contexts. For example, in call-in programs, radio stations have no say over the callers or the information they provide since there is no way to verify the information (Ewart and Dekker 20138).

During everyday operations, news editors and producers make routine decisions about what events to cover and how to position them in bulletins and news programs. Likewise, individual journalists, interviewers, or presenters select the material that is reported using journalistic criteria (Starkey and Crisell 20099). This process of facilitating or constraining the passage of news is referred to as gatekeeping (Cassidy 200610; Shoemaker and Reese 201411). Yet, during a disaster, routine practices—and therefore gatekeeping processes—are disrupted as the lack of communication limits on-air access to sources and reporters covering recovery efforts (Takahashi, Tandoc, and Nieves-Pizarro 201712). Local journalists, as members of the affected community, have to negotiate and balance their positions as professional reporters and affected individuals (e.g. family members in danger, exhaustion, property damage), which can significantly affect journalistic routines (Tandoc and Takahashi 201613). In a context where technologies such as the Internet and wireless communications are unavailable, traditional radio stations play a specialized gatekeeping role.

Another aspect to consider about the role of radio during disasters is the dynamics of the media-audience relationship. Affected communities depend greatly on radio for immediate information about an emergency (Ewart and Dekker 2013). Past research has studied radio and television news production processes in place during disasters (Sood, Stockdale, and Rogers 1987), but few have gone beyond the examination of one-way information processes. A media-audience relationship remains across the warning, preparedness, and recovery phases of a disaster. Specifically, during this last phase when wireless communications and the Internet are unavailable, radio provides emotional support and a sense of community (Perez-Lugo 200414). Audiences become a community drawn together around a particular program or host and joined by the conversations between the host and callers (Fitzgerald and Housley 200715).

People in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the hurricane only had access to information via battery-operated radio receptors unless they owned a generator and could obtain Internet connection. While radio remains an important source of information during a disaster, the disruption in power and communication systems limits affected community members to a passive audience role. This fits with the historical role of radio as a one-way communication medium (with the few exceptions of people who can call in via landlines or other communication devices powered with generators ). Individuals outside Puerto Rico could access radio and television stations that broadcast online (e.g. Facebook Live), and also interact with media organizations, something not possible in the island. In other words, people on the island and those outside of it, interacted with the same media in very different ways. During Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, listeners who accessed radio stations through their online stream or social media tools actively participated in the discussion. Diaspora audiences called-in or commented on the livestreams in an effort to gather information about loved ones or offer help for relief efforts. These dynamics between social systems, media, and audience are the basic components of media dependency theory (Ball-Rockeach, 198516). The theory suggests that in contexts of societal instability, the dependency on a particular media will increase, and therefore the potential for media influence also increases.

Research Questions

Based on the discussion above, and informed by the precepts of gatekeeping theory and media dependency theory, we present the following research questions:

Question 1: What informational and non-informational roles did radio stations play during and after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico?

Question 2: How did factors at the individual-, routine-, and organizational-level influence the journalistic performance of radio newsmakers in Puerto Rico?

Method

Data Collection: Interviews

Data were collected using in-depth interviews with 16 radio reporters, producers, and executives. One of the researchers, Yadira Nieves, traveled to San Juan, Ponce, and Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, in December 2017 for data collection. Because of the extreme circumstances in Puerto Rico, specifically limited road access to field sites, we used a purposive and convenience sampling approach based on our professional network to select radio reporters and producers. Interviews lasted between 25 and 45 minutes.

We began interviewing people working for WAPA Radio, the only radio station that broadcasted during Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico (Figueroa 2017). Next, we used our professional network and a snowball sampling process to arrange interviews with additional individuals. Interviewees include the president of the radio network UNO Radio Group, and news directors, producers and journalists of WKAQ (Univision), Radio Isla, (commercial), and WIPR (public).

Semi-structured interviews loosely followed a script of questions aligned with gatekeeping theory. For example, we asked: What type of information did you prioritize during and after the disaster? What sources of information did you rely on? How did the extreme circumstances affect you both personally and professionally?

Interviews were audio recorded and later transcribed (by a Puerto Rican translator) for qualitative analysis. The analysis followed an inductive approach to identify emerging themes related to journalistic practices, personal challenges, and media functions.

Data Analysis: Textual Analysis

Interview transcripts were qualitatively analyzed by two coders using the qualitative software Dedoose. An inductive approach was first used to extract primary codes that were later re-coded following the conceptual and theoretical considerations outlined above.

Results

Puerto Rican news and talk radio stations offer a combination of news, politics and entertainment talk shows, and call-in programs. Generally, most showcase morning newscasts and news bulletins throughout the day. Newsrooms have been downsized and stations have invested in political commentators that provide higher ratings instead (Nieves-Pizarro 201817). Thus, this study focuses on radio workers in general, rather than journalists specifically, since they are a scarce resource in the Puerto Rican radio scene. It should be noted, however, that during emergency situations news/talk stations hand over the baton to their newsrooms for ongoing coverage. Radio workers abide by journalistic routines and norms throughout the special coverage.

Below we describe the main preliminary themes from the interviews with radio workers:

Preparedness. Despite previous experiences in disaster coverage requiring news radio stations to develop preparedness plans, these did not work. Radio workers were supposed to follow a news coverage plan that had been established for the hurricane season at each station. The plans, which are similar to each other, included having reporters in key locations in San Juan, where the National Weather Service, regional emergency management offices, and the government’s command center are located, thereby providing access to top officials and the governor. The plan ordered personnel to move to the nearest station antenna in the instance that the main studio structure was affected in order to keep broadcasting. Most interviewees agreed that the plan did not work because the magnitude of the hurricane caused a power and communications blackout and forced media practices to shift. Radio stations had to adapt their routines to the extreme conditions. For example, WKAQ’s studios suffered severe structural damage and after 24 hours, personnel moved to their antenna site in Cataño. The place was not suitable for broadcasting because of flooding, yet they continued to do so in the first few days.

The lack of fuel during the first two weeks of the recovery was another limitation to journalist’s mobility. Most gas stations were damaged by hurricane force winds, and the ones that were not were crowded by citizens buying fuel for personal cars or generators. Although the government had extended journalists first responder status, one respondent experienced a citizen’s outrage when he or she tried to skip a line to fill a station-owned vehicle in San Juan. In addition, most were afraid of driving on dangerous roads, and because of the lack of electricity some even feared that if they didn’t return before sunset they might have an accident or fall victim to crime . These challenges are similar to those identified in a previous study in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan (Tandoc and Takahashi 2016).

Overcoming lack of power and disrupted communications. Newsrooms were cut off from reporters assigned to towns outside the San Juan metropolitan area during the first 48 hours after hurricane landfall. These reporters could not use their mobile phones or return to the metro area because of blocked or collapsed roads, landslides, flooding, or other obstacles. All except one radio station, WAPA-AM, remained on air across Puerto Rico. Other stations broadcasted in a limited range due to fallen or damaged antennas or had to migrate to the FM band within their network and some audiences could not find them. Information was broadcasted the next day because mobile phones only worked in the San Juan area. Stations were also only broadcasting until 5 p.m., because of low fuel supply for power generators. Some journalists regretted not having older technology such as satellite phones and were sure that many communication issues would have been solved by having it.

Since there were no phone communications, the governor, FEMA, and other emergency officials had to physically travel to the stations to share information. The city mayors became prized news sources because they knew first hand their town’s needs. Since they were cut off from the studios in the capital city of San Juan, they arrived at the networks’ local stations to communicate with citizens.

Radio workers as victims. Similar to journalist experiences in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan (Tandoc and Takahashi 2016), Puerto Rico media professionals became emotionally or physically affected as a result of the emergency. Most were worried about the well-being of loved ones and their personal safety as they remained in-studio during the hurricane or scouted the island during the aftermath. Furthermore, they coped with not having electricity and running water in their own homes, scarcity of food, and lack of fuel to power generators. These challenges often led to a conflict between personal and professional responsibilities. For instance, in the face of hours-long lines in gas stations, some journalists debated if they should fill the station’s or their own cars when going into the field.

Responsibility. There was a consensus among radio workers that their responsibility towards their community was paramount, since they were the only source of information available. Their sense of duty overpowered physical symptoms of exhaustion, concerns about personal security, and a general uncertainty. Most persisted on-air or in the field until they lost their voices or broke down emotionally. Radio workers noted that helping people who were in danger was also one of their responsibilities. For example, radio workers in San Juan and Ponce relayed the need to evacuate after flooding on La Plata River in Toa Baja and the Toa Vaca dam collapsed in Villalba. Others highlighted the importance of giving emotional support to audiences during the hurricane. Finally, radio workers stressed that radio’s primary function is to serve the community by keeping them informed so they can raise arguments and solve problems. This sense of responsibility towards the immediate well-being of the community was reflected in the limited alignment of reporting with the value of objectivity.

Radio workers as first responders. Although the government had extended media workers first responder status, both radio workers and citizens had mixed reactions to this role. In many cases journalists were the first to arrive to remote communities and were overwhelmed by citizen questions about the possibility of traveling through the International Airport in San Juan, government recovery efforts, shortages of food and fuel, and concerns about the safety of loved ones in other towns. However, they felt they were of little help as they themselves were not able to gather government information and had limited communication with their own newsrooms. Stations in San Juan, Ponce, and Mayaguez not only satisfied the information needs of the public, but allowed citizens to use the electricity to recharge cell phones necessary medical devices at the stations. Journalists and announcers functioned as first responders when their place of work became collection centers for food, water, and medicine that were later distributed in the absence of timely local and federal government response. Other radio workers reported going back to the affected communities they reported on to deliver supplies for the victims.

Relationship with local and diaspora audiences. Local audiences were able to follow the events related to Maria thanks to battery-operated radio receivers. Nevertheless, the power and communications blackout reverted radio to a one-way communication medium. Thus, individuals went to radio stations to either relay that they were okay or find out about loved ones. The local station WUNO in the southern city of Ponce received as many as 500 people daily. Radio workers in AM local stations WPAB 550, also in Ponce, and WPRA 990 in Mayaguez had made lists and read names during programming because there wasn’t time to allow everyone to talk on the air that wanted to. The stations’ limited internet service allowed Puerto Ricans outside of the island to access and interact with radio stations using online streaming or social media tools (e.g. Facebook Live)—something not possible for local audiences. Diaspora audiences called-in or commented on the social media livestream trying to gather information about loved ones or offering to help with relief efforts. Radio workers report uniting families on-air through this dynamic.

Discussion and Implications

The proposed research expands theoretical understandings of the normative role of the news media during crisis. Under regular circumstances, journalistic routines are in place to ensure media cater information to the interest and appeal of their audiences while remaining competitive and profitable (DeFleur and DeFleur 201618). In radio, audience participation is a key component of programming, particularly for news and talk stations. Generally, radio producers and presenters have more power than callers (Higgins and Moss 198219; Pinseler 201520). Listeners have little influence on which conversations are conducted on-air. Underlying power structures such as routine practices, ownership, and/or they type of media institutions reinforce mainstream arguments (Pinseler 2015). However, with no Internet or immediate access to official sources, a spontaneous communication dynamic took place where audiences filled in the details of evolving emergency situations or raised important questions about response management.

The advocacy role taken by most reporters is aligned with findings from previous studies. Although this appears to be a common process in disaster reporting (see Usher 2009), the situation in Puerto Rico shows a more extreme case of advocacy journalism. This could be partly because of the extreme nature of the disaster or because of the island’s cultural context.

The electricity and communications blackout that followed Hurricane Maria made radio the only media with the ability to reach audiences to communicate relief efforts. In a macro-level disaster such as Maria, radio became an exclusive resource to Puerto Ricans. Thus, audiences’ media dependency on particular radio stations intensified irrespective of demographic characteristics (Hirschburg, Dillman, and Ball-Rokeach 198621). Moreover, during the emergency phase, limitations in communications caused a scarcity of information. When the telecommunications infrastructure collapsed, personnel in radio stations were impeded from verifying information with journalists in the field, through online news sources, and with the government officials they could usually reach via mobile phones. Thus, radio workers prioritized information given by audiences reporting on the destruction in their towns. This was the case for WAPA Radio, which remained on air during the hurricane and received phone calls on one landline that remained working. Journalists reflected that if that landline had lost service they would not have had anything to report. Later, radio stations decided to move to the government operation center that showcased official sources. Still, audiences criticized the local and federal government response management through the airwaves.

The study has also important applications for future emergency response procedures. Despite the welcomed role of online services such as Facebook’s Safety Check and Twitter Alerts during emergencies, this study highlights the need for reliable communication practices for media in the context of a disaster. During and after the hurricane, when other communication channels became unavailable, radio workers regretted the elimination of satellite radio from newsrooms. They were sure older technology such as this would have maintained the flow of communication between journalists in the studio and the ones in key outposts. In addition, emergency plans were not planned as extensively as they needed to be because media administrators underestimated the impact of the hurricane. The diesel shortage affected radio station operations since they had to rely on power generators to broadcast for up to three consecutive weeks. Some stations suffered infrastructure damage due to high winds and flooding and workers were forced to evacuate to their nearest antenna site, which wasn’t equipped to broadcast. In the long term, some radio administrators commented that stronger structures should be built on higher ground to prevent damages from flooding.

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Suggested Citation: Takahashi, Bruno, Yadira Nieves, and Manuel Chavez. 2018. Radio Practices and Their Impacts during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant Report Series, 272. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at: https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/radio-practices-and-their-impacts-during-hurricane-maria-in-puerto-rico

Takahashi, Bruno, Yadira Nieves, and Manuel Chavez. 2018. Radio Practices and Their Impacts during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant Report Series, 272. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at: https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/radio-practices-and-their-impacts-during-hurricane-maria-in-puerto-rico