One of the more vexing aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that there is no clear finish line. This is a sharp contrast with other national tragedies. While 9/11 was horrific, by 9/12, there was a general consensus that the immediate threat had passed, and we could move on to grieving, healing, and preventing future incidents. But the end of the pandemic, by its very nature, is much harder to identify — a problem that is compounded by the inability of civic leaders to build trust amongst one another and with the general public.
The CDC's announcement last week that people who have been vaccinated are safe to gather with others both indoors and outdoors came as a surprise to many Americans. While this is cause for celebration, the announcement also comes with a fair amount of confusion. The CDC offered little guidance on how people should behave if they are surrounded by family members, co-workers, or friends who aren't vaccinated or have other at-risk factors.
Complicating the issue, there's no easy way to tell if a stranger has been vaccinated or not. Is wearing a mask now a sign of compliance or defiance? I can't help but think of the “The Sneetches” by Dr. Seuss, the story of star-bellied and blank-bellied creatures who eventually have no way of telling themselves apart from one another.
As a result of the confusion, the transition to a post-pandemic world is going to be a long and bumpy ride. Americans have a wide range of different beliefs, information sources, and health histories, so everybody is going to return to “normal” at a different pace. If you're expecting a lifeguard to blow a whistle and give the “all clear” sign, followed by everybody diving back into the pool, well… it's not going to happen that way.
With feelings about the pandemic running hot among audiences, this re-entry period will be a challenge for radio stations to navigate. Most radio stations steer clear of controversial topics in an effort to avoid alienating listeners, a feat that has proven challenging in the news environment of the last few years. But if on-air personalities thought that avoiding politics was tough, avoiding talk of in-person events without implicit judgment may prove even harder. After all, live events are at the core of what radio stations do: concerts, festivals, live broadcasts, promotions, etc. As broadcasters, many of us are chomping at the bit to return to in-person gatherings even if some of our listeners may not be.
One way that broadcasters can avoid alienating listeners who are reluctant to go out is to use digital technology to offer inclusive options. As events return, broadcasters can use the same digital tools that we used during the pandemic to create digital content that people can consume at home. In other words, as the pandemic winds down, it's not time to stop using Zoom; it's time to use Zoom to add a new dimension to in-person events.
The key is for broadcasters to ask themselves before every event, “How can we use this to generate digital content?” Frankly, it's a question broadcasters should have been asking even before the pandemic, but it takes on more importance now.
To get your radio station's staff thinking about how to do this, here are some ideas:
- Does your radio station host acoustic performances for a small group of contest winners when a band comes to town? Livestream these events. Take a mix of questions from the in-person audience and through the comments on the stream.
- Does your radio station use remote broadcasts to drive traffic to client locations? Offer realtime digital incentives to listeners. For example, “I'm Johnny Fever from WKRP and I'm broadcasting live from the Hungry Heifer. Come by and spin the prize wheel, or for the next two hours, use the code ‘WKRP' when you place an order for delivery and we'll throw in a free t-shirt!”
- Does your radio station use van stops to interact with listeners? Instead of condensing these to two-hour affairs and trying to reach listeners in concentrated numbers, park the van in front of a local landmark for the day. Encourage listeners to take selfies in front of the van and post these to social media with a specific hashtag. Everybody who does so can be entered into a contest.
These are just a few examples. The key is that your radio station can use digital tools to spread events out, to generate on-demand content, and to create additional opportunities to participate without needing to be present in person. Adding these elements as events return will enable radio stations to make everybody in their audiences feel included, regardless of the pace at which they're willing to return to in-person events.