FIVE YEARS AFTER: Their job done, interim FM radio stations going off-air in Tohoku

An announcer, right, reads the names of victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in the studio of FM Aozora in Watari, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 11. (Misuzu Sato)

An announcer, right, reads the names of victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in the studio of FM Aozora in Watari, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 11. (Misuzu Sato)

March 19, 2016

By MISUZU SATO/ Staff Writer

The airwaves over Tohoku will soon be a lot quieter.

Small FM radio stations that sprouted after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami disaster are gradually going off-air–having fulfilled their role as emergency stopgap providers of local news and information.

Three of the nine stations, called “Rinji Saigai FM” (interim disaster FM), will call it a day by the end of this month. One of them, FM Aozora (FM blue sky) in Watari, Miyagi Prefecture, will shut up shop on March 24.

On March 11, the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the announcer, wearing black, switched on the studio microphone just after 1:30 p.m. to read the names of 306 victims of the disaster along with their ages and other information. Many of the victims were residents of Watari.

“We must not forget the fact that each of the victims had his or her own name and lived his or her own life,” said Kei Yoshida, 55, a representative of FM Aozora.

The radio station first began to read the names of the victims in April 2011. Initially, the program was intended to convey residents that people they knew had perished. The names were read once in a month until March 2013. Since then, they have been read once a year.

FM Aozora opened 13 days after the disaster. In those days, its staff members went about by bicycle to gather information on food availability at supermarkets, fuel supplies and electric power outages.

Later, the broadcasts expanded to include information about emergency preparedness drills at elementary and junior high schools and other matters of local interest.

Some information was offered in other languages.

The annual operating costs of around 16 million yen ($143,440) were mainly covered by subsidies from the central government and donations. However, town authorities decided to close the station when they reviewed projects for fiscal 2016 starting in April.

Media reports of the planned closure led to a petition campaign to keep the radio station going. Already, 9,358 people have signed their names.

FM Aozora is now looking for ways to survive as a commercial FM radio station.

Another radio station, Onagawa Saigai FM, in Onagawa, also in Miyagi Prefecture, will terminate its live broadcasts on March 27.

The radio station came to nationwide attention after it was featured in a TV drama. But it is difficult to keep going due to a shortage of funds and staff.

After March 27, the Onagawa town government will continue to air programs once a week by buying a time slot from TBC (Tohoku Broadcasting Co.) Radio based in Sendai, capital of Miyagi Prefecture.

Another radio station, Otsuchi Saigai FM, in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, delivered its final broadcast on March 18.

“The radio stations are witnesses to changes in the areas affected by the disaster,” said Tomoko Kanayama, a professor of media and communication at the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences, who has studied the roles that the radio stations played.

She noted that it is not so easy to gather sponsors and supporters to survive as a commercial FM radio station. It is also difficult for local governments to provide sufficient financial support.

“Given that more natural disasters could occur in the future, it would be necessary to discuss ways to maintain local radio broadcasts,” she said.

By MISUZU SATO/ Staff Writer