“All major roads from the Blue Mountains into the city are closed,” said the newsreader at the end of ABC Radio’s flagship 7.45am news bulletin on 702 Sydney this morning. Except that for most Blue Mountains residents, and certainly most commuters, this simply wasn’t true. ABC Radio failed them, and it failed them from the time presenter Robbie Buck’s shift on air started at 5.30am right through to that bulletin.
Sydney, the Blue Mountains and much of New South Wales were hit by a severe storm last night. There was flooding. It snowed in places. Road, rail and air transport was disrupted. Some 30,000 homes lost electricity.
So as the city awoke this morning, we needed accurate information to plan our day. In my own case, that included knowing whether I could still catch the train from my Blue Mountains eyrie into the city.
Alas, ABC Radio’s combination of geographical vagueness and inaccurate advice left everyone with a picture that was just plain wrong. The Blue Mountains was described as “blanketed in snow”, the rail line as “closed”, and the Great Western Highway as “closed”. Yeah, kinda.
Yes, there was snow, but only in parts of the upper Blue Mountains and further west, down to Lithgow on the Central Tablelands. In the rest of the upper mountains, and the entire lower mountains, there was only endless rain. That’s the usual pattern.
There were road and rail closures, but the Blue Mountains line and the Great Western Highway were only closed between Katoomba and Lithgow — a point that was made repeatedly in official advice. Sure, that meant that trucks were queued up at Katoomba, waiting to head further inland. But from Katoomba down through the lower Blue Mountains, through Springwood and Blaxland and the rest of the 50-kilometre run to Penrith, everything was open.
The key problem was that the ABC made almost zero attempt to treat “the Blue Mountains” as anything but an amorphous here-be-dragons blur of ignorance, much like “western Sydney”. It’s further from Blaxland to Katoomba than from the ABC’s Ultimo studios to either Liverpool in the south-west or Hornsby in the north, yet the ABC’s advice was that a highway closure at one end of this vast swathe of territory would screw up the lot.
Sometimes I wonder whether the ABC should be honest with itself and just say “somewhere past Glebe”.
Frustrated, I sent them a map.
The one glimmer of awareness happened just before 7.30am, when Buck took a call from a listener who’d just driven from Springwood to Penrith without problems. Maybe it’s just the upper mountains affected, Buck mused. Yes, maybe. That’s what officials have been saying all morning.
I don’t want to make this about the ABC. The commercial channels were no better, giving the impression that the Blue Mountains were totally cut off from rest of Sydney and blanketed in snow. Both sectors suffer from having to “do more with less”. Production teams are more overloaded than ever before. It’s impossible to be across everything.
The question is more this: what is the point of such local radio in the internet age?
I knew the ABC was wrong because I had detailed, official transport advice at my fingertips on three different devices. I knew where it did and didn’t snow from the photos being posted on Twitter. Via Twitter I also learned that the trains were only four-car sets, because the eight-car sets normally used in peak periods were stranded on the other side of Katoomba. Smartphone apps told me, specifically, which trains were running late or cancelled. Google Maps could give me live traffic conditions, if I needed them. Power outages? I got that information directly from Ausgrid. And so on.
Sure, I’m an infovore. I wake to streams of digital data. I know where to find this stuff. But smart personal assistant software is already emerging with Google Now and Microsoft Cortana and, of course, Apple’s Siri. Give it a couple of years, and my smartphone will know what to tell me in the morning, interspersed with music from my own favourites.
Given all that, why would I listen to someone telling me vague, inaccurate information? Companionship? Well, that smartphone also links me to my actual friends, colleagues and family. No really, what will local radio be for any more?
*Stilgherrian was a producer with what’s now ABC 891 Adelaide from 1985 to 1991.