COMMENTARY: The power of radio

by Greg O'Brien

OUR UTTER DEPENDENCE on electricity left those of us in Ontario yesterday at the mercy of our local radio stations if we wanted any information at all on just what the heck was going on. In my region, those stations didn't disappoint.

There was no Internet, no TV, and only basic phone service. In our house, there almost wasn't even radio, until I tracked down six D-sized batteries for the dusty, musty, ages-old boom box buried in my basement.

I was on my way home to Hamilton on the 407 yesterday when the province's hydro spigot was shut off. I was listening to Toronto's 680 News when it suddenly went off the air, switched back to FM and found many of those stations off the air, too - or really fading.

My first inkling that it wasn't just my car's stereo going haywire was when I tuned to 97.7 Hitz FM in St. Catharines and their afternoon jock Iron Mike Bensson told listeners just how far the power outage extended, from Detroit to New York.

It dawned on everyone soon that this would be longer than a short interruption and fortunately, no one panicked and most grabbed a battery-powered radio (if they could find one) to hear what was going on. I can't remember the last time I've seen so many people in their back yards all at once, all tuned into the regional radio stations, from CHML here in Hamilton, to CFRB in Toronto, waiting for word on when the power might come back.

Judging by the number of families packed into their driveway-bound cars listening to that radio, many of us are so power-dependent we don't even keep a battery-powered radio in the house. Ready for emergencies, we're not.

Many of the stations I dialed into were taking listener phone calls, some of whom were pointing out important things such as where open gas stations were and which 24-hour Shoppers Drug Mart was still open, so that folks could still get needed gas and prescriptions. Others were playing music and updating the situation between songs.

The radio stations were fonts of information of what to do and what not to do - and a constant reminder to, above all, stay calm. It was weird to realize that without radio, we'd know absolutely nothing - and staying calm would have been really difficult. The folks who buy and run the backup powering systems for the radio stations suddenly, certainly earned their keep yesterday.

To me, what this incident confirmed is that despite the sexiness of television and the newness of the Internet, power of radio is still enormous.

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