What's a weather radio, and why do you
The term "weather
radio" actually has two different meanings. First, weather radio is a
service provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
that puts out a constant stream of updates about upcoming weather events and
other emergencies. In addition to weather, NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) issues
alerts about natural disasters such as earthquakes and avalanches,
environmental events such as oil spills, and public safety emergencies,
including 911 service outages and Amber Alerts about abducted children. These messages
go out on seven VHF frequencies specifically reserved for them, so you can't
pick them up on a standard AM/FM radio. That leads to the second meaning of the
term: A device capable of receiving these NWR broadcasts. When a natural
disaster is on the way, a weather radio can make the difference between being
trapped and making it to safety.
Types of Weather Radios
Desktop Weather Radios
A desktop weather radio costs between $25 and $60. It can be plugged into an outlet most of the time and supplemented with backup batteries if the power goes out during an emergency. In addition to their NWR function, some weather radios can double as AM/FM radios; if you're listening to music when an NWR alert comes in, the radio will automatically interrupt the broadcast to give you the news. To keep your listening from being interrupted with alerts that don't affect you, the best weather radios include a feature called Specific Alert Message Encoding (SAME). With SAME, you can elect to only hear the alerts that apply to your specific location. Some weather radios also let you filter out alerts that are of no interest -- such as a frost warning for someone who lives in the city. Cutting down on irrelevant alerts helps make sure that you pay attention to the ones that could directly affect you.
One specialized type of weather radio is an emergency radio. While a standard weather radio informs you about emergencies as they develop, an emergency radio helps you keep abreast of the situation while it's in progress. Most of these radios can run off battery power, but also include crank-driven generators (and sometimes solar panels) that can keep them running during a prolonged power outage when no batteries can be found. Most crank radios cover standard AM and FM bands, as well as the weather bands, and some include extra features such as a flashlight and a cellphone charger. These radios can be lifesavers during emergencies, but they're also useful for more pleasant occasions, such as camping or hiking trips. However, most crank radios do not include features like SAME or selectable alerts. Emergency radios cost about the same as desktop weather radios -- between $25 and $60, depending on features.
Finding The Best Weather Radios
"The Best Emergency Preparedness Supplies"
"Receivers: Weather Alert"
"What You Should Know About Configuring Your Sangean CL-100 Clock Radio"
Expert reviews of weather
radios are hard to come by, but we did see some helpful feedback at
TheSweethome.com and elsewhere. Instead, most of the recommendations in this
report are based on feedback from retail sites such as Amazon.com and
BestBuy.com, user forums such as eHam.net and WXForum.net, and enthusiast
Desktop weather alert radios that keep you in the know
Among desktop weather
radios, no model gets more consistently positive reviews than the (Est. $55). It includes nearly every feature you could ask for in a weather
radio: Public Alert certification (see the Buying Guide for more
information), SAME technology, selectable alerts and a memory function that
stores the last 20 alert messages. Users especially appreciate the fact that
the CL-100 automatically shuts down at the end of a broadcast alert, rather
than waiting for you to get up and turn it off.
Moreover, reviewers say
that the Sangean CL-100 is not just a great weather radio; it's a great radio,
period. Users at Amazon.com say it has good FM reception, and its sound quality
is far better than you'd expect from a weather radio. Radio enthusiast Jeff
McMahon even uses the CL-100 as his bedside clock radio: AM reception in
particular is "amazing for a radio this small," he writes on his
The Sangean CL-100 also includes RBDS (Radio Broadcast Data System) compatibility, which
provides additional information in text form about radio broadcasts, and
functions as an alarm clock (in either music or buzzer mode). Owners are
impressed with the CL-100's build quality, and most of them describe it as very
easy to set up and use. However, the few owners who ran into problems say that
Sangean's technical support is disappointing.
The (Est. $40) receives far more feedback from reviewers than the Sangean CL-100, but that feedback is more mixed. Like the
CL-100, this weather radio is Public Alert-certified and SAME-equipped, with
selectable alerts. However, unlike the Sangean, it doesn't shut off
automatically at the end of an alert message, a feature many users say can be
really annoying in the middle of the night. Also, while the Midland can double
as an AM/FM clock radio, most users say these additional features don't work
nearly as well as its weather alerts. But the main weakness of the Midland
radio is reliability. Some users say the device stopped receiving alerts after
a period of several months, while others say it never worked properly.
The (Est. $55) doesn't have nearly as much feedback as either the
Midland or the Sangean from experts or users at retail
sites such as Amazon.com. However, it's the most recommended weather radio at
sites for radio buffs, such as eHam.net and WXForum.net. Users there praise its
sensitivity, easy setup, reliable performance, and wealth of features. While it
has lots of key features, such as the end-of-message (EOM) response that the
Midland so annoyingly lacks, other useful features, such as the ability to
receive standard AM/FM broadcasts, are missing. Reliability appears high based
on the feedback that's available at Amazon.com and elsewhere, but with a caveat
-- the few users who had problems say that Reecom's representatives are rude
and unresponsive, and it's all but impossible to get them to honor their
If you just need a cheap,
reliable weather radio, the (Est. $25) is your best bet. This
stripped-down version of the WR-300 actually gets better overall reviews from
owners than its pricier sibling; there are still a few complaints about
malfunctions, but most owners describe it as very accurate and reliable. Their
biggest complaint is that unlike the WR-300, the WR-120 doesn't let you block
unwanted alerts—a frustrating feature for owners who don't want to be
awakened in the middle of the night for a non-life-threatening weather event. It
also lacks AM/FM/clock radio functionality, but given how poorly those features
are regarded on the WR-300, that might not be all that much of a loss. Users
generally have less trouble programming the WR-120 than they do with the
WR-300, but a few owners still find it difficult.