Meister: Radio noise that mattered post-quake

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After the earthquake of Oct. l7, 1989, commercial radio stations performed an invaluable public service and justified, if only briefly, the bright hopes when radio broadcasting was introduced 75 years ago


By Dick Meister

(Dick Meister is a longtime San Francisco journalist)

To me, and doubtless to many others, commercial radio is nothing more than highly unwelcome noise. Turn the dial, and what do you usually get? Advertising. Lots and lots of advertising. Inane music and talk shows. News headlines conveyed with great speed and false excitement in hopes you will stay alert for yet another commercial.

It is radio designed primarily to deliver listeners to advertisers. But it can serve nobler ends. I know, as do millions of others in Northern California. We found out within minutes after the earth began the 15 seconds of terrible shaking that brought such great devastation to the region on Oct. 17, 1989.

First came the rattling, the windows, the doors, and the swooshing sound. Water sloshed wildly to and fro in the fishpond outside my study. Out went the lights, my word processor, the television. I'm a native San Franciscan; I know the rules. I jumped from my desk chair and ducked under a door frame. But as soon as the shaking stopped, and the sloshing, off I dashed in search of the battery-powered radio.

Click. It was tuned to a commercial station. Out of the tiny speaker came the words I and so many others desperately needed to hear. The sound was tinny and harsh, but incredibly welcome, our only contact with the outside world. No electricity, no telephones. But emergency generators had enabled most radio stations to continue broadcasting.

What had happened? Was there damage? How serious? What would come next? What should we do now?

The answers kept coming, non-stop, hour after hour, day after day. It was solid, vital information gathered by talented reporters who had been given a rare opportunity to exercise their skills to the fullest, whose jobs had become much more than leading listeners from commercial to commercial.

We were fortunate -- no damage to our house, no injuries. But what of others who suffered harm, including those who fled from shattered and broken homes and apartment buildings? Where could they find food, shelter and other relief? How could the rest of us help them? The radio told us.

Severe damage had closed the Bay Bridge and several major freeways. Which routes were open, which closed? Where was it safe to drive? Where dangerous? Where was traffic heavy? Where light? What should we do to avoid traffic jams? What of public transit? Was extra Service being provided? Where? When? The radio had answers.

What had happened to water supplies? To gas and electricity? When would service be resumed? Where could people get candles, suddenly in great demand but very short supply? Where could they find bottled water? What of people in damaged areas where the water was still running? Was it safe to drink? Was it safe to turn on the gas that had been shut off? The radio voices knew.

How was the community reacting? The radio made clear there was no panic and no reason to panic.

What were political leaders saying? The radio carried their words, and informed listeners of the eager willingness -- the desire -- of people to help one another, buoying flagging spirits and projecting a true sense of community.

We heard of extraordinary repair and rescue efforts, of the millions of dollars in cash, the tons of food and clothing, and all the other help that was going to the thousands of earthquake victims from thousands of individuals and businesses. We heard of many heroic acts, large and small. Of people who stepped in to direct traffic at busy intersections after the earthquake knocked out traffic signals. Of others who risked their lives to save victims trapped in the rubble. We heard of exceptional courtesy, understanding and good will shown by so many people.

The reaction of those who did not hear the broadcasts or, if they did, could not understand them, was sure proof of the invaluable role radio played in averting panic and in bringing people needed information. The area's foreign language stations did not have the emergency equipment necessary to resume broadcasting before power was restored, and thus left the many non-English speakers among San Francisco's immigrants without any information on what was occurring and what they should do about it.

"We have no earthquakes in our country," a Cambodian refugee told a local newspaper reporter. "There was only one thing it could remind us of -- the war .... We heard rumors that the water was undrinkable, that there would be no food."

The result was panic. Thousands of Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese in San Francisco's Tenderloin District made a run on the neighborhood food stores, nearly emptying them of meat and vegetables to carry as they fled their homes, some leaving the city entirely, others camping out near City Hall.

Many of the immigrants who stayed needlessly exposed themselves to danger and hardship for lack of essential information.

There were reports of dozens of elderly Chinese who sat in the dark for two days waiting for electricity to be restored, of families turning on gas stoves in areas where that could easily have been fatal. Nine Latino families evacuated from their homes on a badly damaged block lived in their cars for six days because there was no one to tell them where they could find shelter. In another neighborhood, a Salvadorian family of 12 took turns sleeping in a van after being evacuated, because they were unaware of available shelter.

Many local residents could tell you of the panic created among their friends and relatives outside the region by the outrageous network TV coverage that made it appear as if the whole of the Bay Area was in ruins. Telephone lines badly needed for emergency calls were clogged with calls from the many anxious people whose only information came from the sensational network reports.

Local TV stations returned to the air shortly after the earthquake, and local newspapers managed to put out abbreviated editions thanks to exceptional efforts. But radio was the primary and essential source of vital information throughout the crisis for those who had no electricity in their homes for more than a week, surely, but also for the many others who needed information more immediate than a newspaper could provide but who were not able to watch TV.

The commercial radio stations went back to dismal normality after the emergency passed, squeezing the news of the day between seemingly endless commercials, insipid discussion of current affairs and clanking, clattering Top 40 tunes.

But in a time of crisis, the stations performed an invaluable public service, justifying, if only briefly, the bright hopes that accompanied the introduction of radio broadcasting three-quarters of a century ago.

Dick Meister is a longtime San Francisco journalist. You can contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.