• Radio can keep citizens informed, ward off isolation, and help first responders coordinate efforts during hurricanes.
  • Infrastructure and end-user requirements are lower for radio broadcasts, and some radio stations remained online while other forms of communication were down.
  • Lack of fuel, damage to transmitters, and physical and emotional burden on staff were the major contributors to loss of radio coverage.
  • Amateur radio operators assisted first responders when other means of communication were lost.
  • Long range, reliable communications can be achieved with relatively little equipment via near-vertical incidence skywave (NVIS) propagation, which may be useful for emergency response.

For Citizens

Usefulness of Radio

Having been in use for decades, radio provides a proven, robust means to receive information about ongoing hazards and events, as well as a general news source for over a quarter of Puerto Rico’s population. [1] Importantly, radio does not require infrastructure between broadcast transmitters and people receiving broadcasts. Moreover, devices for receiving radio transmissions can be acquired relatively cheaply, with units powered by batteries or hand cranks available for between $5 and $20. Radio signals themselves are unaffected by wind and cloud cover, allowing for communication regardless of weather conditions.

Figure 1: QFX’s R-9 radio receiver, available for $10 online and battery-operated. After Maria, 10,000 were donated to Puerto Rico. [2]

Although information such as early warnings, weather predictions, and locations of nearby resources and shelters can more expediently reach people by televised, online or cellular means before storms, radio is a reliable fallback for ongoing coverage if other services are rendered inoperable. Up-to-date information helps plan post-disaster response, and radio, with its accessibility and lower infrastructure requirements, can provide this during and after hurricanes.

Having contact with the outside world can also bolster the psychological well-being of individuals otherwise isolated from remote family members’ communities. In the wake of Maria, “neighbors [sat] together drinking coffee and listening to the news” via radio as a source of stories and entertainment, [3] perhaps hoping to hear of relatives and friends—hundreds of people per day in regions near radio stations were able to transmit messages to other parts of the island by visiting their local studios or, if landlines were functional, calling in. [4] Stations with counterparts on the U.S. mainland participating in simulcasts also enabled one-way communications to Puerto Rico from concerned relatives on the mainland. [5]

Figure 2:
1.) Although many areas may lose cell and internet service, most places can still be reached by radio; each station can often be heard for many tens of miles around, topography permitting.
2.) People near enough to travel to one of Puerto Rico’s many radio stations, or with the ability to call in (blue), can and did send messages to dark parts of the island via broadcast.
3.) Simulcasts (green), where the same program is broadcast simultaneously in different places, occurred between P.R. stations as well as their mainland counterparts. Mainland listeners were able to get messages to people on the island either via social media or calls to stations with working phones (red).
4.) Unfortunately, radio is not completely invulnerable, and for various reasons soon to be explained, the majority of Puerto Rican stations went dark after the storm.


In Puerto Rico, despite many stations being equipped with generators as part of the existing emergency alert system, winds and heavy rainfall manage to down radio communications by interrupting power, causing electrical issues or by destroying broadcast infrastructure, leaving only a handful of stations online, and their staff struggling to keep up with events to help Puerto Ricans remain informed and connected, as occurred notably in the Maria incident. Stations with backup generators which remained undamaged eventually depleted their supplies of scarce and costly fuel, without advertising revenues being available. [2] Moreover, without other forms of communication, officials from FEMA and mayor’s had to visit stations in person to disseminate information, delaying updates. [4] Even coverage for dedicated weather radio is also limited, as the NOAA transmitter serving the southeasternmost sector of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands remains damaged. [6]

Figure 3: A downed radio mast at Puerto Rico’s WIPR. A large number of other stations suffered damage[2]

Only radio stations with reinforced antennae and generators with sufficient fuel managed to continue broadcasting despite hurricane force winds and airborne debris. [7] These powered stations became hubs for journalism, emergency responders, and even resource distribution, as seen in Mayaguez. [3]

Our suggestions

All this in mind, we propose that transmitting sites be retrofitted with more debris and wind-resistant transmitters as available and affordable, or as less resilient equipment is destroyed. Stations could also be integrated into independent energy microgrids as they appear, and equipped with solar power and storage capacity for deployment after storms to supplement their generators and conserve fuel. We also propose annual inspections of equipment be established, and several weeks’ supply of emergency diesel fuel be annually replaced so as to avoid post-storm fuel scarcity. We suggest AM radio stations be the initial focus of modifications, as their lower frequencies can achieve longer ranges, requiring fewer surviving stations for island-wide coverage after a hurricane.

Figure 4: A sturdier radio transmitter site may use reinforced structures with oscillation damping mechanisms for antennae. To ensure power, fuel for generators should be maintained and solar energy systems may be deployed; integrating into independent microgrids may be another viable option, although electrical transmission lines can be vulnerable.

We also advise that, if not already done, local emergency plans be developed by organizations providing power-dependent and logistical services. These plans should include provisions for shifting operations to sites with generators and communications before major hurricanes. Such sites could include radio stations. We recommend that the plans be advertised in anticipation of major storms, so citizens are better aware of where relevant services may be available if storm impact is severe. The services transferred as a storm approaches could include medical care, police/emergency response, and collection/distribution of food, water, and medicines.

Another consideration may be to provide satellite phones to radio stations, allowing for mayors and officials, many of whom are now equipped with satellite communications, to directly contact broadcasters and distribute information to the general public without needing to physical travel to stations, as was often necessary following Maria. A number of people in the broadcast industry “were sure that many [other] communication issues would be solved by [older technologies such as satellite phones].” [4]

Figure 5: WKAQ 580 studio, beginning to flood during Maria. The station continued broadcasts in spite of losing a roof, thanks to resilient equipment and dedicated staff.

On the human side of the issue, journalists and broadcast staff were valuable in relating to communities, talking with leaders, spreading information, and delivering supplies with their official first-responder status. Unfortunately, they experienced enormous stress in their missions, sometimes suffering emotional breakdowns and physical harm. [4]

We suggest that radio station management consider recruiting a support network of volunteers who could aid in outreach and other duties during emergencies, so regular broadcasters can more sustainably continue their service. Non-binding volunteer recruitment might be advertised during broadcasts and done online on station websites, or perhaps organized among the collaborative “journalism collaboratives” which have formed in Puerto Rico. After Maria, television journalists and hosts sometimes joined radio stations serendipitously after hearing their broadcasts. [3] With some preparation, more such help may be available to radio stations from external sources. 

How will it be paid for?

Many of our proposals can be implemented relatively quickly, on the timescale of several years, given funding. It is worth noting that only a fraction (on the order of 10) of the 140 stations in Puerto Rico would need to be made storm-resistant to make communications to all parts of the island reliable. The most significant costs would be associated with equipment purchases and retrofits for these select stations. Radio masts (the tall, metal structures which serve as the antenna in AM radio) suitable for the broadcast powers of most Puerto Rican AM radio stations (under 50kW) generally cost $180,000 to purchase, ship, and install. [8] This would be a reasonable lower bound for costs per station for reinforced versions. Costs for acquiring and installing solar power systems, depending on size, are on the order of $10,000 per station. Recurring costs for annual inspections and replacement of 2-3 weeks’ supply of diesel fuel amount to approximately $6,000 per maintained station per year, based on an inspector wage slightly over 5 times Puerto Rico’s minimum, and an estimated average power consumption of 30kW. An aggregate cost figure is available at the bottom of this page, based on 10% of Puerto Rico’s stations.

Although we don’t expect growth in radio revenues, some annual profits might be diverted for equipment upgrades if management can be persuaded to pursue investments which will likely offset future repair costs, especially with increasingly frequent hurricanes. Fundraising campaigns could also be better publicized and explained by and for organizations supporting radio in Puerto Rico, [12] Given the value which many Puerto Ricans have seen in radio, private donations may provide some of the necessary funds. Donations from mainland radio organizations have also occurred. [2]

For Responders and Logistics

As recovery efforts progressed, many first responders were aided by amateur radio operators, who helped coordinate actions such as fuel resupply runs and insulin deliveries. So-called ham radio provided battery-powered communications which were mostly independent of storm-vulnerable infrastructure, and saw regular citizens become directly involved with relief efforts. Operators around Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S. were able to exchange messages, creating alternative, decentralized communication pathways for Puerto Ricans. Operators sent by NGOs such as the Red Cross also helped coordinate their respective efforts. [9]

Figure 6: Amateur (“ham”) radio operators in the field, as documented by the American Radio Relay League.

We believe it would be useful to train a subset of first responders in using amateur radio equipment, independent of their organizations’ existing communications systems. This training could be conducted by volunteering ham operators, and would allow radio’s valuable service to continue even if a knowledgeable citizen isn’t available. Otherwise, we suggest that the opportunistic activities of local amateur radio enthusiasts continue, as keeping ham radio decentralized might conceivably help operators respond flexibly to circumstances, and is generally in the spirit of the hobby.


Many radio communications signals primarily travel near the surface. However, longer ranges on the order of hundreds of miles can be achieved while using low power via a different method, in which radio is transmitted upwards to be returned by the ionosphere, a zone in the Earth’s upper atmosphere which interacts with radiation, including radio waves. This technique, which works for near AM radio frequencies, is referred to as “near-vertical incidence skywave” (NVIS) propagation, and is commonly used by militaries and ham radio operators. [10]

Figure 7: NVIS propagation, radio signals ‘bounce’ from the sky, traveling hundreds of miles beyond line of sight.

Signals can be reliably, albeit weakly, broadcast over hundreds of miles, even in mountainous regions such as those found inland in Puerto Rico, without requiring large power inputs or particularly specialized equipment. We suggest that organizations and authorities responsible for storm response, along with any which may need to contact other municipios, consider NVIS technologies for communications across the island.

Summary of Proposals

Our radio proposals aim to ensure power to 10-20 geographically distinct radio stations (focusing on AM radio), with periodically replaced generator fuel, solar energy systems, and/or connection to microgrids, to improve chances of whole-island coverage. We also recommend that stations replace damaged antennae with reinforced, oscillation-damped versions, or retrofit existing infrastructure. This may be economically convincing with increasingly frequent storms. We suggest that radio stations encourage people, in particular members of other media, to sign up to volunteer as part of a support network in case of storms, when radio station workloads increase drastically. Emergency response organizations could designate personnel to be trained on amateur radio equipment not associated with their existing communications architecture. Municipios and organizations can consider near-vertical incidence skywave (NVIS) for general long range radio communications post-storm. Our proposals can provide satellite phones to stations, to facilitate less inconvenient communications with officials and other organizations. Plans can be made in regards to pre-storm movement of power and communications-dependent services, like police or supply collection/distribution, to powered sites such as radio stations.