Suspicious Minds

It was never only a test. Not to me, anyway. Is there a more quintessential postwar American sound than that jarring, interminable beep? Or that text: "This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test." The words are committed to that part of the memory that houses "Yankee Doodle" and the Lord's Prayer. The EBS is so peculiarly familiar, so paradoxically comfy; even though it signifies the ongoing possibility of annihilation, it belongs in the company of such free-market sonic archetypes as Snap, Crackle, and Pop, or the first five notes of "Louie Louie."

So when I read an AP wire story about how the EBS was being put out to pasture at the end of the year as "a remnant of the cold war," I got nostalgic, as if they were suddenly taking away M&M's or ballpoint pens. The EBS began as a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis; the goal, said the FCC, was "to provide the president a means to communicate with the public in the event of a national emergency." The AP said that "the high-pitched tone is about to be replaced by a few short buzzes, and the 'this is a test' warning may be dropped altogether as the system ... is modernized." Some people get annoyed when Bob Edwards or All My Children get interrupted by those harsh tones. But I always found them sort of sentimental, suggesting that there were a few civic-minded optimists out there who believed that in the event of a nuclear attack, if we all just tuned to the right station and followed instructions, everything would be all right.

It turns out that the new warning method, the Emergency Alert System, won't sound completely unfamiliar. The AP exaggerated the differences between the two systems. I set out to tell a story about being robbed of a fundamental landmark of the American soundscape and all I got was some lousy reassurance. The boring details: The new computer buzzes will be part of weekly equipment tests conducted by each radio station. According to KCBS's Ed Cavagnaro, who's the volunteer chairman of the Local Emergency Communications Committee, listeners "may or may not hear an electronic burst of digital information lasting one to two seconds." But there'll also be a monthly test, which will sound not unlike the one we grew up with: The digital buzzes at the beginning and end will be new, but we'll still get an abbreviated dose of that audio whine we know and love, plus the traditional message, more or less intact. An FCC information pamphlet even plays on our nostalgia: The two-tone beep, it says, "was preserved because it is well-recognized by the public and will act as an attention getter."

So the innovation of the EAS isn't aural, but organizational. The original system was a station-to-station chain: If one station goofed passing the torch, then all the stations down the line would not be notified. Cavagnaro calls the new digital system "more like a network." The EBS's dependence on one or two primary stations in each area -- in the Bay Area, KCBS -- has been broadened to now include the National Weather Service, an intelligent decision considering that the EBS has been employed only because of storm clouds, not the mushroom variety.

Finally, the old system was manually operated; the new one allows stations to automate the process, so that tests and alerts work without staff intervention. This is a huge improvement; I should know. I used to be one of those college station DJs who worked in radio not because of any talent for civil defense procedures but because I kinda liked records. Whenever one of those surprise EBS tests screamed out of the studio monitors, I would panic and run out of the room looking for someone who knew what to do. One minute I'm wondering what would sound good after John Cale and the next I'm a failure at citizenship.

While the automation of the EAS will make it easier on college stations, they'll be among the hardest hit in terms of cost. Sandra Wasson, the general manager of UC Berkeley's KALX, contends, "It's always hard to find the money. The unit costs anywhere from $1,300 to $4,000." As Steve Runyon of KUSF, the University of San Francisco station, points out, "Like a lot of things the government mandates, they don't pay for it."

Ironically, my flaky college station, KGLT in Bozeman, Mont., has just been designated the primary station in its operating area; the more high-powered commercial outfits have changed owners and formats so often that it's the closest thing to reliable around. My old comrade there, Barrett Golding, says, "It's comforting that during the holocaust KGLT may retain sole license to broadcast. I want to go down listening to Fastbacks, Faron Young, and Frank Sinatra, and KGLT can do that for me." He's only half-joking. Now that the EAS practically runs itself, it's nice to know that whatever oddball is running the board can focus on the important end-of-the-world question: Which songs to play?

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

 
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