It seems like every time there's a mega-crisis, a former unknown comes out of nowhere, jumps into the limelight, and becomes an instant phenom.
Go all the way back to Watergate in the 70's and take your choice between Senators Howard Baker or Sam Ervin, both of whose personalities defined those hearings. Or maybe it was star witness John Dean or boy reporters Woodward and Bernstein.
Fast-forward to the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and correspondent Arthur Kent comes to mind. Perhaps you remember him by the handle he acquired during his reporting – the “Scud Stud.” The erudite Brit briefly became a media sensation in his own right.
And then during 9/11, New York's chief executive, Rudy Giuliani, vaulted to national fame when he became known as “America's Mayor.” That seems like a long time ago.
And now it's COVID-19 – an event that promises to have “legs” unfortunately – especially given the nature of the 24-news cycle and the Internet. And like other crises of past years, it will undoubted spawn its own star – or even two.
In fact, the global pandemic already has generated several nominees.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has become the scientific face of this event. He has knowledge, credibility, presence, and exudes calm and confidence.
Meanwhile, many governors have become familiar names, from California's Gavin Newsome to newcomer Gretchen Whitmer here in Michigan. But it's New York's Andrew Cuomo who has distinguished himself since his state became the epicenter of COVID-19 several weeks ago.
While many cable news personalities have jockeyed for prime time position, Dr. Sanjay Gupta has easily earned the most screen time. It seems every time you turn on CNN. Dr. Gupta is providing observations, perspective, and advice to a population still trying to get its head around what's happening.
Earlier this week, I highlighted Jimmy Fallon's cute little girls, Winnie and Frannie, who have photo-bombed “The Tonight Show,” and in the process, created a lot of buzz and viewershsip.
But aside from the virus itself, there is another star that has become front and center since we've been cooped up at home. Now that so many of us are incessantly watching Netflix, the 8-episode “Tiger King: Murder, Madness, and Mayhem” has become the highly bingeable, viral hit of the Internet, and by extension, social media.
If there were still water coolers, the totally whacked Joe Exotic (along with a supporting cast of truly bizarre characters) starring in this weird combination of true crime series and documentary, would be the talk of the workplace. If any of us was actually going somewhere to work.
AdWeek calls “Tiger King” the “COVID-19 Lockdown's First Smash Hit.” And last week, Netflix provided the metrics. The offbeat series has drawn more than 34 million viewers in the first 10 days after it dropped on March 20, nearly a record.
Talking about timing. Would “Tiger King” have been as big a phenomenon if America wasn't hunkered down in their living rooms and dens? AdWeek's Kelsey Sutton suggests our isolation has been a contributing factor to exponentially exploding viewership as the pandemic has expanded all over the U.S.
She also suggests “Tiger King's” incredible ratings may have also been aided by the near total absence of sports programming, and other big TV shows and series. Simply put, it hasn't exactly been very competitive in TV land these past couple months. Still, this Netflix hit is whacked out and different enough to make a large, albeit weird footprint.
And that brings me to the sketchy topic of radio in 2020, and why a COVID-19 superstar couldn't emerge from the AM or FM airwaves.
I'm not talking about one of radio's national syndicated stars. Why couldn't a local personality distinguish him or herself in their hometown market, based on their show content, a great promotion, or off the air exploits?
Yes, it's been a challenging and nerve-wracking time for the industry, especially with so many jocks and hosts broadcasting from jerry-rigged “studios” in their homes. And with listeners unable to gather, the idea of rallies or get-togethers is off-the-table, thanks to the virus.
But now that the staff has settled in to our new COVID-19 reality, and growing more accustomed to doing shows from unusual environs, the time could be right for creative, innovative radio, capable of making a mark in a city, town, or community.
Radio personalities have pulled this off before – seizing a moment where an entire market has become captivated – whether it was Steve Dahl‘s “Disco Demolition” way back in the summer of '79, Bob Rivers‘ Baltimore Orioles marathon broadcast in the spring of 1988, or any number of Howard Stern's antics in the 1990's that electrified audiences in major markets like New York, Philly, Cleveland, L.A., and others. s.
Now, many of you be thinking, “Fred, that was long, long ago in a radio industry far, far away.”
You may fire back that radio just isn't the same medium it was “back in the day.” But at this amazing inflection point in our lives, the shared experience of COVID-19 – an event that has forever changed our lives, our lifestyles, and companies – opens the door to virtually anything happening. I mean, would you really be surprised if more amazing weirdness occurred before this year is out?
Far be it for me to challenge anyone to step up, and go for it – especially in this climate where radio is reeling from pre-virus budget cutbacks, intensified by the recent spate of furloughs, firings, and layoffs. A lot of truly talented people are on the beach, and realistically, many may not find their way back into radio, given the current environment.
Creative, innovative ideas can come from any corner of the radio station. Or the community. We have learned from our Jacobs Media COVID-19 research study, conducted for 170+ commercial, public, and Christian music stations just a couple weeks ago, we're living through a truly off-the charts, anomalous event.
While listeners In all three studies didn't agree on everything, one common finding rose to the top of the list – something more radio listeners would like to hear stations do more of than anything else:
“Support local workers (first responders, grocery store workers, etc.)”
Health care workers and police and firefighters have been stuck with a Herculean task since COVID-19 began. And they have selflessly risen to this challenge in truly remarkable ways.
But then there are the millions of unsung heroes – workers in supermarkets, pharmacies, delivery people, and fast food attendants working the drive-thru windows – often earning hourly wages. Now these same people are putting their lives on the line every day so we can all get through this “stay at home” ordeal – for $12, $15, or $18 bucks an hour. They didn't sign up for this, but they're doing it nonetheless.
If there is a zeitgeist of this pandemic here in the U..S., it's about how so many regular folks have stepped up to become hometown heroes at a time when governments and other organizations have floundered or been hampered by a lack of resources, mountains of red tape, and incessant finger pointing.
As trying as this crisis has been, there have already green shoots and silver linings. Regular Joe's and Josephine's have stepped into the fray, distinguishing themselves and all of us in the process.
Can radio do a little carpe diem action – seize the moment – and gain some much needed prominence at this terrifying time in American history? Can a radio star emerge from all this angst and confusion?
As far as getting sucked in by the pop culture stars of the moment, enjoying their 15 minutes of fame, I think most of you know by now, I'm not that guy. I don't get caught up by the madding crowds, the momentary trendiness, or the disgusting superficiality of it all. You won't find me wearing the hot new men's fashions or even being first in line to buy that new, must-have gadget.
I'm never the first to download that hot new app, see a movie on its opening night, or try a new restaurant when there's a line out the door. Nor am I one of the early adopters every time a new social media platform emerges. Even the phrase – “the next big thing” – is repellent to me.
You can bet that if a star is born out of the COVID-19 outbreak, I won't get sucked in by the hype, change my profile photos, or emulate the nation's newest flash in the pan in any way.
No, that's just not me.
Join Jacobs Media & the RAB for a fast-moving, free webinar: “Radio & the COVID-19 Crisis” – the top-line results, takeaways, and action steps from our new flash national web survey. It's today at 12 noon ET. Use this link close to “kickoff time” and you'll be in: Sign-In. – FJ