Major natural disasters call for timely and accurate information
Radio is the best communication medium in case of disaster or conflict. Receivers are cheap, light and do not necessarily have to rely on a power network, but can run on batteries, small solar PV cells or a winding system. Likewise transmitters are not necessarily very large; they can even be portable and run on small generators.
The role of a number of radio operations in two major natural disasters illustrates the irreplaceable contribution radio can make to mitigate the impact of such disasters and to support recovery by informing local populations and helping emergency services and aid agencies coordinate their operations.
The tsunami provoked by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake on 26 December 2004, which washed over parts of Indonesia, mainly in the province of Aceh, resulting in the death of over 125 000 people, also caused the loss of a number of radio stations and of their staff.
Dutch international broadcaster Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) rapidly developed mobile radio studios that fitted into shipping containers and sent three such stations to Indonesia to help local broadcasters get back on air.
RNW engineers also decided to develop mobile radio studio sets, so-called “Radio in a box”, for use in countries where radio transmitters have been partially or completely destroyed by a conflict or disaster. The radio station, less than a cubic metre in size, is equipped with an FM transmitter, a mixing console, microphones, headphones, two recorder sets and a laptop computer for editing. An extra, smaller box holds a power generator and cables.
Some of these self-contained studios were sent to Padang, the capital of West Sumatra (Indonesia), in September 2009, following another earthquake, and a few months later to Haiti, after the earthquake that killed between 100 000 and 200 000 people and destroyed a large part of the infrastructure, including power networks and radio stations.
Information is critical in emergencies
In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, international broadcasters, Internews – a media NGO already active in the country – and foreign governments quickly put together technical means to inform the population.
Local information was critical: people needed to know if it was safe to go back to their homes or villages and where they could get medical treatment, food and water that was safe to drink.
International broadcasters play a special role in such emergencies as they often broadcast in local languages in zones of crisis or conflict. Voice of America (VOA) and Radio France Internationale (RFI) increased the volume of their Creole broadcasts and the BBC World Service also introduced short daily broadcasts in Creole to provide practical information and public health advice.
Many local stations that used to rebroadcast VOA and RFI programmes on FM had suffered extensive damage; as a result, shortwave and medium wave (AM) broadcasts were used, with VOA broadcasting on AM to Haiti from a local station in Florida.
To help survivors listen to radio messages, the US military flew in 50 000 solar-powered, crank-operated radio sets for distribution to survivors and started relaying VOA broadcasts and public service announcements from a Commando Solo aircraft flying near Haiti.
For its part, Internews started its “News you can use” programme to provide vital information to Haitians. It was copied on CDs which were distributed to local stations for rebroadcasting.
All these broadcasters helped survivors find emergency services, food distribution centres and medical facilities; they were also used extensively by the Red Cross, international agencies and medical aid organizations like Doctors without Borders (MSF).
In cases of conflict, international broadcasters and local radio stations run by media NGOs like Fondation Hirondelle and Internews try to counter hate messages from partisan media and to narrow differences between communities. They have also run so-called lifeline programmes aimed at reuniting members of families separated during a conflict.
Constantly evolving, thanks to IEC standardization
Radio broadcasting has been around for nearly a century.
In 1926, shortly after it was introduced, the IEC created Technical Committee (TC) 12: Radiocommunications.
Initially radio was broadcast in the short- medium- and long-wave bands using amplitude modulation (AM). AM is still in use but has largely given way to frequency modulation (FM), which is less sensitive to interference from electrical equipment, lightning and other sources. FM was rolled out after World War 2.
Over the years a number of features have been added to FM radio, such as stereo and Radio Data System (RDS), a digital signal transmitted on a subcarrier which is used to show text (such as a station’s identity and frequency or songs’ titles) on the radio set’s display. RDS can also be used to display traffic information on certain automotive navigation systems.
RDS started as a European Broadcasting Union (EBU) project but has become an IEC International Standard, IEC 62106:2015, Specification of the radio data system (RDS) for VHF/FM sound broadcasting in the frequency range from 87,5 MHz to 108,0 MHz. Another IEC International Standard, IEC 62634:2015, covers methods of measurement for RDS receiver products and characteristics. Both Standards were developed by IEC Technical Area (TA) 1: Terminals for audio, video and data services and contents, of IEC TC 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment. Dietmar Kopitz, convenor of IEC TA 1 Maintenance Team for IEC 62106, and CEO of the RDS Forum, received the IEC 1906 Award in 2010. This recognizes experts’ exceptional current achievements.
Radio depends entirely on electricity as a source of power for transmission and reception, and on electrical and electronic components for its broadcast and receiving equipment. A number of IEC TCs and Subcommittees (SCs) develop International Standards for such components and systems; they include:
IEC TC 100, IEC TC 103: Transmitting equipment for radiocommunication, and IEC TC 108: Safety of electronic equipment within the field of audio/video, information technology and communication technology.
Radio reception can be subject to interference from a variety of sources, which include electrical equipment. IEC has been involved in reducing that interference to radio (and later TV) broadcasts, initially in the 150 kHz to 30 MHz frequency range – which includes long-, medium- and short-waves.
That is handled through its International Special Committee on Radio Interference (CISPR), which was created and first met in 1934.
Reinventing itself in the digital world
AM and FM, which are analogue systems, are gradually being replaced by a variety of digital audio broadcasting systems, which require audio signals to be digitized and compressed before being transmitted.
Digital audio compression has been developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), a working group of experts formed by IEC and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to set Standards for audio and video compression and transmission.
The four international digital radio systems recognized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – namely Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB/DAB+), Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB), Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) and in-band on-channel (IBOC) – rely on digital audio compression Standards developed by MPEG.
These include MPEG-1 Audio Layer II or MPEG-2 Audio Layer II (or MP2), defined by ISO/IEC 11172-3:1993, and various codecs based on MPEG-4 Audio profile, such as High-Efficiency Advanced Audio Coding (HE-AAC) defined by ISO/IEC 14496-3:2009.
Digital radio makes it possible to add new services and applications such as relevant visuals alongside audio content, metadata or interactivity, in what is called hybrid radio, or traffic and travel-related information, using specifications like that developed by the Transport Protocol Experts Group (TPEG).
IEC standardization has been supporting the development of radio technology for 90 years, thus playing a major role in the expansion of a medium that is more dynamic than ever, constantly adapting to new environments by reinventing itself and proving essential in times of emergency, disaster and conflict.