Since helping the hardest-hit areas and victims of the now half-year-long disaster of Typhoon Yolanda has apparently overwhelmed the government’s capacity for action, or for that matter, actual concern (an impression that one tends to form after reading, for example, an admission in a joint oversight committee hearing last week that only 50 houses have been built for one million displaced families), it is no surprise at all that much of the damage caused by the biggest storm ever to hit the Philippines eludes official comprehension.
In the aftermath of the typhoon, one of the vital lifelines for people in the Visayas was the local media, who exerted sometimes tragically heroic efforts to keep their newspapers and radio stations operating.
While the national media made stars of a few of its drop-in reporters “braving” the storm, that was for the benefit of an audience in far-off and completely unaffected Manila; it was the local media throughout the Visayas who mattered most to their shattered communities, passing along vital information to survivors and disaster responders. Six months on, however, those media outlets that withstood Yolanda’s fury (and many did not) are facing grim prospects in a ruined market.
Even before Typhoon Yolanda, the media market in the Eastern Visayas was not what anyone would consider a gold mine. Relatively small and widely-scattered population centers and competition from the internet made capturing advertising revenue – the primary source of funding for any media outlet, and for many of them, particularly radio stations, the only source – difficult at best. According to Rommel L. Rutor, who for the past six-and-a-half years, has been the production supervisor at DYMS Aksyon Radyo in Catbalogan City, Samar, the circumstances prior to Yolanda were challenging, but not unmanageable.
“Our bread-and-butter comes from national advertisers,” Rutor explains. “These businesses are trying to reach their customers directly, and we give them an opportunity to do that. It works out well, because in most cases they are willing to pay more than we can normally charge local advertisers. It’s better for independent players than it is for stations like ours [DYMS is part of the Manila Broadcasting Company’s Aksyon Radyo Network] because we are restricted a little in accepting direct placements by the mother network, but we are able to work around those well enough for the most part.” Without the national advertisers, many of the local media outlets would simply not survive.
“Local businesses are quite willing to support their local community media, but frankly, the number of businesses capable of shelling out a budget for advertising is much too small compared with the number of media outlets in the region,” Rutor says. “Whatever we can generate locally is of course a big help to sustaining daily operations, but more than that, it’s important to the media practitioners, who need the product or business endorsements to supplement their meager salaries or allowances.” In many cases, media workers are not paid a regular salary at all, relying entirely on commissions or revenue-sharing from advertising for their income.
Naturally, Typhoon Yolanda completely wrecked this tenuous environment. While many stations were literally erased from existence, Rutor’s own DYMS was comparatively lucky. “We were out in the field when the typhoon hit, expecting it would come our way, but it passed farther to the south,” he recalls. “We were knocked off the air due to damage to our antenna cables, but in any case, as soon as we heard how bad it was in Tacloban and other areas, how many media outlets were simply gone, we proceeded at once to those places to lend our colleagues any assistance we could,” he says.
Those who survived the storm, however, may not survive the aftermath. “Our national advertisers pulled out in January,” Rutor says, “And even though they said it was temporary, we have no idea when or if they’ll be back. Their biggest market in this region was the Tacloban area, and even in areas where people weren’t as affected, businesses are still struggling and not placing orders for the products that made up the bulk of the advertising before the storm, things like cosmetic products, health supplements, alcohol, and other beverages. And it makes sense, because who’s buying those things? People need basic necessities right now.” Local businesses are obviously unable to fill the gap. “The effect on the economy was huge,” Rutor says. “Some businesses are gradually opening, but spending is very tight.”
The real danger now is that the Eastern Visayas region will lose much of its own media community; with no support at all from the government and only limited assistance available from media groups or NGOs elsewhere, most media practitioners are struggling to even meet basic living costs. “Most of my colleagues succumbed to political patronage just to survive with the respective media outlets gone,” he says.
“People protest against media corruption, but when the owners are not providing decent salaries in the best of times so people have something to fall back on when something like this calamity happens, the media practitioners almost have no choice. That’s the sad reality.”
I can’t bring myself to follow them. I hold on to the hope that this will pass, but I’m starting to think I’m wrong,” he adds. For now, Rutor is getting by with cutting expenses and juggling what little cash he can generate from part-time work as a photographer and driving a passenger tricycle in his spare time, and has plans to apply in a call center rather than give in to the temptation to work for one of the local politicians. “I worry, though, how long do I have to wait in the absence of a concrete rehabilitation plan from the government?” he asks. Without clear plans for getting Visayan consumers and businesses back on their feet, and with the President’s point man on the reconstruction apparently having decided that “rehabilitation czar” actually means “spend all one’s time behaving like an ill-mannered, gossipy teenage girl over a case that has little to nothing to do with one’s assigned office,” that wait, sadly, may be very long, indeed.