The great Motor City philosopher, aka the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin (below left) asked an important philosophical question back in the 1980's – “Who's Zoomin' Who?” It a question many of us are asking ourselves with each passing day.
Case in point – the graphic above. That's “Hollywood Squares,” a popular TV game show that debuted more than 50 years ago. If it looks familiar to you, that probably because you've participated in a Zoom meeting in the past. Or perhaps even yesterday. On the Zoom video chat (right), it's Vince Richards, Operations Manager for Entercom Sacramento (Vince is second row from the bottom, third “square” on the right taking this photo), and his team of isolated, WFH teammates finding a new way to communicate as radio experiences its toughest challenge ever.
We're learning a lot about ourselves, our co-workers, and our bosses as this COVID-19 nightmare unfolds. As more and more stations are broadcasting thanks to patchwork setups, slapped together remote gear, home studios, and video links, we're beginning to adapt to not being in the friendly halls of the radio station. And still getting it done.
Of course, morning shows and engineers may be the exception. By and large, many are still making the trek to the home office – at least for now. For everyone else, it's every DJ for herself. Some already had working studios in their abodes. Others have cobbled them together in just the past few weeks.
We're not just scrambling to learn how to work from home – outside the station environment. We're also in the process of adjusting to not being with other people, or at least those outside our families. Radio stations are, by nature, very tribal. Even in buildings where a half dozen stations are crammed together, there's a culture that develops over time and shared experiences. You don't need me to tell you how competitive radio people are – in their quest for ratings, sales, recognition, and respect. When you have that group experience of winning, losing, and then winning again, it brings you together.
But when that harmony is disrupted in the most profound of ways, it's tough on everyone in the building, from those in the corner office, to the cubicle denizens, to the studio folks, to the back end staffers, all of whom are part of a workplace community.
In this cruel transition everyone in radio is experiencing, it's becoming a greater challenge to stay in touch with staffs and teams. And of course, stress levels are high, the pressure to adapt is constant, and nerves are often frayed. That's precisely the time managers need to make sure everybody is OK. Or as OK as they can be.
I've spoken to a number of programmers and managers these past couple of weeks. Besides checking on they're holding up, I've been asking how they've been communicating with their staffs. Most tell me it's become a much tougher task, and they're on the phone a lot and/or texting with their teams.
When you're out of the building, and many others are in foreign spaces as well, a phone call or text can be helpful, but doesn't quite fit the bill. Now that we've had years with tools like Skype, Facetime, and other visual interfaces, we've become used to having Jetsons-like conversations on our screens. And because we're a pretty smart species, we know how to read faces and body language. You just can't do that when voice chatting or texting on a smartphone.
That's why one of the interesting trends taking shape from the COVID-19 crisis is the move to video chat platforms that allow managers to meet with groups of people virtually. The photo at right is of CMG's Tim Clarke with one of his many teams one afternoon last week. Bringing together a group of disparate managers via Zoom (and turning it into “Happy Hour”) is a very effective way to meet, laugh, brainstorm, commiserate, and celebrate together – in short, a morale booster as well as a an opportunity to compare notes.
And of course, connect, during an especially difficult time when everybody needs to be using the same playbook.
More and more managers are using video chat platforms like Zoom (there are a lot of them out there, and Seth Resler is test driving them this week, so stay tuned for that) to virtually bring people together in a format that strangely resembles that old TV game show. There may not be anyone on your staff as witty as Paul Lynde or as homespun hilarious as Charlie Weaver, but the Zoom format lends itself well to staff get-togethers.
And Zoom is trending. A Priori Data study, covered by Statista, illustrates the meteoric growth of Zoom just last month when the coronavirus crisis began to take hold in state after state, city after city.
As the chart below shows, other video chat services like Skype and Houseparty also experience impressive growth in March. But nowhere near the scale of Zoom, a platform that allows users to customize their backgrounds, so it looks like you're talking from a sandy beach Hawaii or directly from Pee Wee's Playhouse. Yes, the novelty of Zoom meetings will wear out after a while, but the longer managers can forge better communications in the midst of an existential catastrophe, the better.
Note that downloads for all three apps – Zoom, Skype, and Houseparty have recently skyrocketed more than 100%. That suggests this may be a trend, as long as the COVID-19 crisis persists. Skype (owned by Microsoft) is the big dog in this category, but there's no mistaking this surge from Zoom.
Many metros are entering what's being called “the peak” of this pandemic, when the worst of COVID-19 will take place. During his press conference last night, President Trump predicted, “We're going to go through a very tough two weeks.”
By the looks of the CDC models, that's an understatement. The time to get out in front of this period is now, while it's still relatively calm (unless you're in New York, New Orleans, or other “hot spots”), because your staff will need your leadership, and your audience will need your presence. Test-driving one of these platforms isn't hard, and it might provide a nice diversion for people who are already stressed to the max.
Why stop with the staff? This might be the perfect time to use Zoom, Google Hangouts, or other video chat tools to hook listeners up with a favorite DJ during the crisis. Or perhaps hosting a watching party for a favorite concert documentary or pop culture film. This concept of enjoying something together – even when you're apart – is becoming an accelerate trend, thanks to the virus.
For some stations, it might be a way to create a chat and an acoustic moment with a favorite artist on music stations (they aren't performing in concert anywhere – a virtual “meet & greet.” On sports stations, there's no shortage of retired athletes twiddling their thumbs. And on the news talk format, special local guests and newsmakers would make great guests on town halls via video chat.
One thing is certain: many of the changes wrought by this global pandemic are likely to last well after things return to “normal.” Many of us are learning how to actually get things done while working from home, as well as how to effectively exercise without going to the gym. Students (and their teachers and professors) are mastering the art of online lessons and lectures, while doctors are learning it's possible to develop a bedside manner without being the same examination room with patients, via the growing telehealth platform.
Really smart ideas will remain and evolve long after this virus is in the rear-view mirror. Interestingly , many of these trends were bubbling under well before this year (think Peloton). But “stay at home” and “work from home” have accelerated their popularity in just the past two weeks, changing the way we exercise, learn, call mom, or have a staff meeting.
The coronavirus crisis reminds us we need to find new and innovative ways to do old things. Or come up with innovative new things that lead to better ways to communicate and conduct our business.
By the way, there's a stealthy feature on Zoom called “Touch Up My Appearance,” a visual gimmick that softens your image. As going to the salon, the barber shop, or the dermatologist become rarities or just plain impossible. I've been told it takes years off your Zoom appearance.
A unintended consequence of these meetings is the realization, “Do I really look like this in these Zoom meetings?”
Go ahead and try it – I won't tell.
Thanks to Steve Goldstein and writer John M. Cunningham for their deep knowledge of classic TV game shows.