Community radio volunteers worked around the clock to give fire updates
Written by Gordon Waters on December 22, 2019
Olivia Calver, 22 Dec 2019, 8am.
in the world of apps, Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle, some would argue community radio’s news value is declining.
But the town of Braidwood found during the recent bushfires in the region that Braidwood Community FM was nothing short of a lifeline.
Station manager, Gordon Waters, station president, Rod McClure and their team volunteered around the clock for weeks to give local, accurate, up-to-date information on the bushfires.
The information, particularly for those in isolated parts of the bushfire-threatened area, was invaluable.
“We whipped into overdrive and started to provide hourly updates from the RFS, from the Saturday and that has continued to happen until Wednesday the following week,” Mr Waters said.
“Normally we would run updates from 9am to 6pm, but there were some days we were here till 11.30pm broadcasting during those real hot spot days.”
Mr McClure said the RFS’s Darren Marks and Daniel Osborne went above and beyond to keep them informed so they could pass accurate information on to the community.
“If something had happened inside the hour they would tell us; if we found out something we would tell them, it was a great partnership,” Mr McClure said.
But it wasn’t just the radio station volunteers who provided the updates; listeners also gave observations on the fires from their vantage points, becoming, as the days progressed, local identities coined Phil on the Hill, Matt on the Flat and Vera in the Village (located in Mongarlowe, east of Braidwood).
“Many people said they were basing their decision on whether to stay or leave on the hourly updates we were giving.
Mr Waters said it was the listeners who took that initiative themselves, starting with Phil on the Hill, otherwise known as Phil Anderson.
“I was getting ready to do an update; I’d known Phil for a while and he rang me and said ‘look, I’m out here and I have this vantage point that looks across a wide area of the fires’ he said, ‘can I tell you what I see so you can let listeners know?,” Mr Waters said.
“I said: let’s take it one step further, let’s get you to tell listeners what you see.
“Somehow he coined the term Phil on the Hill.”
Matt on the Flat was the next listener to provide regular updates, climbing up to his roof for a vantage point.
“I suggested he take a lounge chair up to the roof but I don’t think he ever did,” Mr McClure said.
Mr Waters said they had just begun to realise how many people were relying on their updates days into the fires.
“It was when people were coming to the studio to drop food off, to drop gift baskets off, to come and hug us, to thank us,” Mr Waters said.
“Having lived in some of these isolated areas that the fire has touched, I understand it is frightening; you’re seeing smoke over the hill but you have no idea what is going on.”
But it was lucky the radio station was able to reach more isolated areas, their broadcast area quadrupled in just the last few months after a two-year campaign.
“One of the reasons for doing that is we wanted to reach people who otherwise do not get any communication at all because of the terrain,” Mr McClure said.
Mr McClure said community radio was also crucial for getting information to the older population.
“Modern technology is wonderful when it works and when you can access it,” Mr McClure said.
“There is an older generation out there that is not involved in that technology.
“Radio is also very personal; for example we had a lady that was recently widowed, she phoned up and said ‘I’m frightened, I can see the smoke, what do I do?’
“We were able to talk to her, get the RFS to give an update. I actually broadcast and said ‘everything is all right, why don’t you have a friend drop in for a cuppa, everything is going to be ok.’
“That kind of personal aspect you can’t get from an app.
“People feel safer when they’re in touch with other people, real people.”
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