Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
May 4th, 2008

The Migration from Mass to Micro Media is Now Complete

Growing up as part of the baby boom generation, a distinct memory is the air raid siren tests.  Every Tuesday, if I recall correctly, at 10a there was the test of the air raid siren blaring across the entire city of Chicago.  This was to prepare us for the possibility of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union (so we could crawl under our desks as instructed by our teachers).  Since it happened each week at the same time we knew it was a test.  If it had happened on any other day, I might not be writing this column today.

The other thing I remember were those times, while riding in the family car, of listening to the testing of the national alert system via the AM radio airwaves: “This has been a test of the emergency broadcast system”.  What examples of communicating to the populace; sirens that pierced the air of every population center in America and the then ubiquitous AM radio band.  The air raid siren being the industrial age amplification of the town crier and the AM radio being the most widely distributed form of electronic media at that time.

All this came back to me a couple of weeks ago when I read that the FCC had approved a plan for an emergency alert system that would send text messages to cell phones. This system is expected to be in place by 2010. Now that 75% or the population have cell phones and we carry them every where we go, what better way to inform us of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack?    The good news is that these text messages should be able to be geographically directed so if there is a tornado in Oklahoma on a specific path, those in the way can be sent text messages.  The only hope here is that with more than 1.5 billion text messages being sent daily in the U.S., this text message would not get lost in the clutter.

This evolution of warning system fits the times.  A nuclear attack would have been national in scope in the 1950s and 1960s, so a mass media national warning system made sense.  A terrorist attack or natural disaster will not be national in scope. 

So, the 50 year media history of the emergency alert system:  Air raid sirens and AM radio to text messaging. 

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  • Jim

    One day in spring 1975, the alarm went off at the non-standard time (not at Friday 11 AM if I remember correctly). It was about 2 pm in math class. I expected the teacher to get nervous– I was the only one in the class to be seriously shaken.

    Pangea Day is May 10th– pangeaday.org

  • Caleb

    I live in San Francisco, and they still do air raid siren tests on Tuesday at Noon. Coming from the tornado ridden MidWest it’s not something that struck me as unusual at first, but I can’t seem to figure their utility now. Tsunamis? Earthquakes? Missiles? If they rang it right now I wouldn’t even know what I was supposed to be fearing! In fact, according to the SF government website, that’s kind of the point. Apparently I’m supposed to freak out enough to turn to another media outlet. One can’t help but hope for a warning that also clearly communicates the problem and the proposed solution..


  • Good post, David. However, I suspect that the migration from mass to micro is far from “complete”.


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