City goes on air with emergency radio station

Tina Peng

Evanston has its own AM radio station, but it’s not something to dance to. Its primary purpose is to distribute information to residents during emergencies and severe weather.

Most of the time, AM 1650 plays a looped 15-minute tape of community information.

During emergencies, severe weather, power outages and high-profile non-emergency events, the station will broadcast live emergency information, according to Max Rubin, director of facilities management and the emergency services coordinator for the City of Evanston.

“This is the lowest common denominator of communication,” Rubin said. “Most people can get their hands on an AM radio.”

The station equipment cost $10,000 and the 10-year, renewable license for the radio frequency was less than $100, Rubin said. The money came from a fund that normally finances communications and operations at 911 centers.

“It’s a low-power informational network,” he said. “This is not considered a commercial station.”

It took two years to start the station because its original frequency was bought by a commercial station that was willing to pay more, Rubin said.

After the equipment had been purchased and keyed to the original frequency, the Federal Communication Commission sold the frequency. Evanston had to scramble to purchase a new frequency and retune its equipment, Rubin said.

In past emergencies, people without access to cable television or the Internet would call city officials and the Evanston Police Department, Rubin said.

“At a very bad time we’d have hundreds of phone calls,” he said. “It goofs up the 911 center. … That hasn’t happened very often, but it has happened.”

Residents should be aware that the station exists, said Donna Stuckert, Evanston’s community information coordinator. She encouraged residents to tune in once or twice a week for local updates and to put the station in their radio presets.

“Hopefully once we get the emergency information procedures in place, they’ll know, ‘Oh yes, turn to AM 1650 and find out,'” Stuckert said.

Since the station is a government-sponsored information service program, community organizations won’t be able to advertise their services on the air, Stuckert said.

“We have to follow FCC guidelines,” she said. “(The organizations are) all wonderful but there’s no possible way that we can coordinate all of that information,” she said.

The radio station is still getting started and it has not been publicized, Rubin said.

“We want to make sure it continues to work before we go full-blown,” he said. “We’re still learning how to make recordings and stuff.”

Learning to operate the station will take time and effort, but it will be well spent, Stuckert said.

“I don’t think anybody is opposed to making sure that we have a way to reach the masses quickly because there really isn’t a way to do that around here,” she said.

The city has a cable news station, Channel 16, and a Web site, www.cityofevanston.org.

Reach Tina Peng at [email protected]