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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Victoria's bushfires: radio to the rescue

Who would have thought Radio would become the media hero during Victoria's bushfire tragedy. But radio, that old-fashioned medium my grandparents called 'the wireless', has proved to be the most vital media of all, in fact, far more useful than the Internet and television. That's partly because the radio has become a quasi 'bush telegraph'. The bush telegraph being that magical means of communication (AKA 'the grapevine' or 'rumour mill') that spreads news across vast distances through word of mouth - something that was already alive and well in rural Australia, enacted daily via the mobile (or satellite) phone, text-messaging, the Internet, Facebook and Twittering. However, on the weekend when phone lines were congested, power was cut, and checking websites or email was the last thing on the mind of people escaping infernos, radio was what everyone relied upon. It was via radio that the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and it's excellent rural radio service more precisely, communicated updates and advice from the Country Fire Authority as to when people should activate bush fire survival plans, when they should evacuate, which areas to avoid to stay safe, which roads were open or closed etc - information that saved the lives of those able to listen. We listened constantly. And we've left the radio on ever since. On Saturday, the day the most devastating fires hit Bendigo, I was checking the CFA's website for more detailed advice, but the website was often updated too late - in a couple of instances, several hours after the radio had broadcast the important information we needed. The radio proved to be a lifesaver to so many. And in the wake of the disaster it's been relied upon to get news of loved ones separated while evacuating; reporters have been broadcasting from community centres across the state, giving airtime to individuals to let their family know their location. They've allowed people to get on air and make announcements: from government reps telling victims where to access funds, food, shelter and free mobile phones, to op shop staff thanking people for donations but calling for volunteers to help sort those donations. One man offered up accommodation at his caravan park to people now homeless. Equally as important, reporters have handed over their mics to people simply to allow them to tell their stories, to share their horrific experiences, their loss, and their grief. That shared experience, that shared mourning, will no doubt help the healing process of individuals, of the community, and of the country. Radio has demonstrated it's still very much a vital part of people's lives here in Australia. That's not to say people haven't been using social media, they have; read this article on ABC News: Social media explodes in wake of deadly bushfires. It's just that radio came to the rescue in a way no other media could.

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