Last Friday, we showcased air personalities, tasked with delivering information and entertainment during the difficult conditions imposed on all of us by the COVID-19 virus.
But what about the people in charge – programmers trying to maintain consistency and quality, as well as leadership during this test of radio's mettle? In today's post, we tracked down a number of PDs – radio's content experts who were kind enough to take a few minutes while on the battlefield to share their experiences, their concerns, and their sense of their new missions. Many are in charge of multiple brands, trying to keep their systems in place, while making up new rules and coming up with novel solutions as the crisis unpredictably plays out.
I have seen comments from radio's critics these past few weeks, taking shots at an industry that has lost revenue, staff, and yes, even stature. And yet, against all odds, today's radio programmers are showing incredible leadership – and heart – at a time when radio and American life needs it now more than ever. PDs like the ones in this group are scrambling, innovating, and calling audibles on the fly. And in my conversations with many of these folks the past couple weeks, they all share on thing in common:
They are working harder now that at any point in their careers amidst all the uncertainty and fear.
And as you read these profiles, you'll hear stories from radio pros who care – who are giving it their all to keep their stations on the air, while catering to unsure staffs, and entertaining and informing scares listeners. There's a lot of learning in today's stories for programmers of all levels. And hopefully, managers, corporate chieftains, and station owners will develop an event greater appreciation for what their “field marshals” are accomplishing during this unprecedented time.
Here are these profiles, culled from commercial, public, and Christian radio, in markets as diverse as New York and Tuscaloosa, in formats as different as Classical and Classic Rock. – FJ
—Matt Abramovitz, VP Programming, WQXR/New York
The first big challenge was operational: we’ve always prided ourselves on being live and local, but now we are mostly voicetracked and entirely remote. The scramble to get every host equipped and trained to use a home studio setup was a huge lift for our engineers and ops team – and they had to get it done in less than a week. From there, our whole routine shifted: all our logs, production and live reads need to go out much further in advance so tracks could come back and get loaded into automation.
It’s been a sea change for us. The second big challenge is more philosophical and it’s about our role in the classical music ecosystem in New York. We’re trying to figure out how WQXR can support the organizations, orchestras and artists that are so vital to what makes the city special and make sure they can still survive in this new reality.?
I doubt there’s anyone in New York right now who isn’t stressed out, but I’d say the staff is coping pretty well, all things considered. We have regular video calls; we’re on the phone, Slack and email all day, too. But you realize how important informal, unscheduled interactions really are. There can be long stretches where you don’t hear from anyone and it can be lonely. So I’m trying my best to check in with every team member just to say hi – not for a formal meeting or anything. Our whole business is making people feel that they’re not alone, but now it’s on managers to make sure our internal teams feel that, too.
For so many listeners, classical music offers an oasis of calm in a crazy world. That’s always been true, but it’s really meaningful now. Every day, we’re hearing from people saying they are coping with the stress by tuning out the news and reconnecting with the music. As it happens, we also launched a “listening challenge” where we ask kids of all ages to send in their creative reaction to a particular piece. The artwork, poems and videos we’ve received are so inspiring! It’s a good reminder that even when you’re homebound, classical music still lets your imagination roam free.
Words of wisdom? Stay home. This is a real emergency and we have to do our part to keep our staffs and employees healthy. My family has been self-quarantined for 10 days now and, honestly, we’re going to be laying low for a while. Having the station on all day is probably the last bit of normalcy in our lives and we’re really grateful for it.
—Beverlee Branngian, SVP/Programming, SummitMedia
The biggest challenge is the unknown. It's not a flood or a tornado or fire where the movement to recovery is predictable, albeit painful. We don't know how far we're into it, how serious it will be, when it will end, and if we're doing the right things. It's like disaster vertigo.
I'm beyond proud of our SummitMedia teams. They understand their jobs are to keep “taking the temperature” (figuratively, of course!) of the listeners and respond with NOW content. No two days have been the same yet. Some outstanding ideas and content have come from responding in the moment to what's happening. They're serving their audiences in every way possible.
This is part of the vertigo I mentioned—we don't know. Just today, some PDs were telling me their humorous posts are seeing more engagement than the newsy ones on social media. What that really MEANS for our programming – if we deliver what people need and want, we don't know yet. Hashtag “TOO SOON.” We'll have to look back later and judge if we were really connecting well.
I'm doing great. My cat wishes I'd go back to work. Words of wisdom? Tomorrow will take care of itself. Keep your head where your feet are. Deal with today. We haven't even scratched the surface of the ingenuity and goodness of people. Hold my beer – and watch this.
—James Derby, Chief Strategy Officer, Federated Media
In many ways that tragic event of 9/11 helped prepare us for unprecedented events like this. We were able to plan and act quickly (and in advance) for technical and staffing needs.
Challenges we’ve reacted to quickly include getting our on-air talent equipped to broadcast from home, prepping in advance relevant and needed content for our community and working closely with sales to best help our clients many of whom find themselves in distress.
Our teams are unbelievably resilient! They pride themselves on being the source for live, local information and entertainment. Every PD and every Jock has stepped up – wanting to get behind the mic. Whether to make people laugh, give them the very latest critical information on the virus or play their favorite song…they’ve been there to be the companion of every listener we have.
In terms of managing them, there are more “check-ins” to make sure they’re getting what they need and want. A great PD gives the tools to the talent and lets them go do their job. In many ways we're managing our PDs the same way.
I’ve always thought Federated Media’s connection with the community and its listeners is unique and special. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen that bond tighten. We’ve heard directly from listeners thanking us for continuing to come in every day to entertain and inform them. They, in turn, have rallied around our messages of asking them to join us in supporting local restaurants, businesses, health care workers, elders and each other.
I’m truly as proud as ever to work in Radio and Digital. We are the medium that connects one-on-one, and truly listens (thank you social media and digital!) to our community’s wishes and needs. We in turn deliver relevant content that keeps our listeners informed, makes them laugh and lifts them up when they need it most.
Our core values at Federated Media are: Integrity, Passion and Innovation. All so important, but especially during a time like this.
—Lance Hale, Director of Rock Programming, Community Broadcasters, Watertown, NY
It's a ghost town. Everyone else is working remotely from home. And I'm close to that. But with no one here, I'm not interacting with anyone. I'm getting work done.
Everything has changed. We have businesses that have had to shut their doors. Advertising is put on hold for most. We've had to deal with furloughs and cuts, short term. And our focus is not on promotions and the spring book. It's now getting local officials on and updating listeners on facts (which are constantly evolving).
In the same breath, we realize we're an escape from the constant barrage of information and misinformation from the news channels and social media. We try to keep it light as well with sweepers, encouraging listeners to wash their hands. We're also balancing information on where to get testing and how they can help (many, including my wife, are sewing masks for local nurses/doctors/police) with tastefully hilarious memes.
It's the new normal. But hopefully, if we all follow the plan of physical distancing (we prefer that to social distancing) and try not to panic (stop hoarding)… we'll be back to going to concerts and watching sports this summer. Be safe everyone.
—Colleen Jackson, Director of Programming: Curtis Media Coastal Carolina, PD V103.3 and Hot 99.5
We’re navigating unknown waters. Nothing is normal. Ticket/event/trip promotions cancelled/postponed with no way to know when we can begin executing again. We’re evaluating all promotions and considering if they may even be appropriate.
And, we put much thought into how we disseminate the enormous amount of information without creating fear and panic. Plus, no support staff in the building, try getting immediate help from someone working from home!
Our stations have faced many difficult days in the past, including Hurricane Florence, so they have experience working through challenging times. They understand the role we play for our communities.
However, Coronavirus vs. hurricanes: completely different! I’ve asked the programming staff to think outside the box and create new ways we can assist our communities and what we can do on the other side of this. And, I’ve made concessions to expectations: appearance, community service, altering work hours, etc.
Other than adding North Carolina News Network updates, we have carried on with our regular programming. Our philosophy for on-air is to pass on the important information and embrace our “Be kind, share resources, check on friends, family and neighbors. We will get through this together because we are ENC Strong.” We are looking for the positives to share and asking listeners to share, too.
As for me, I’m taking it day by day, trying to accept that which I cannot change and remain positive for my staff. I have a great consultant, Jim Richards, who listens!
For now, think “Random Acts of Kindness”. The little things pack a powerful punch and can provide comfort and “normal.”
—Jamie Mac, Director of Programming/New Media, Zimmer, Columbia, MO
The biggest challenge has been dealing with the unknown. You come up with a plan, and then the next moment you’re throwing it out the window. Thankfully, when you work in radio you become good at adapting to crisis at a moment’s notice. We had worked pretty hard on a “Social Distancing” schedule that complied with CDC guidelines, then got word that a host who filled in on a couple of our stations tested positive for COVID-19. This essentially took out two news/talk and one country station in one fell swoop. We quickly adjusted, pulled resources from our other stations and our team pulled together to make the best of an unfortunate situation.
As with many small market operators, we’re just not equipped for every employee to work from home. We’ve had to break up morning shows and distribute talent to other dayparts to not have more than one person in the studio at a time. It’s a different experience for our listeners, but the positive is we’re able to be live and local throughout more of the day to engage with the audience.
Since we had a case within two of our buildings, it definitely made this pandemic more real for our employees. Many staff members who came into contact with the person were understandably nervous. Some weren’t happy about being forced to self-quarantine, but they understood the need to ensure everyone’s safety.
It’s just a different situation than we’ve ever encountered. With severe weather or other crises, we see the light at the end of the tunnel. With this the hardest part for our employees comes back to the unknown. We try our best to be empathetic to what they’re going through at work and at home, but I know I need to improve my internal communication and listen more, talk less. Personally, I’ve tried to make some emotional deposits with individuals who we’re asking to do things that are outside their comfort zone.
Day-to-day, much of my time is spent in crisis meetings to help with programming and advertisers, so I’ve relied a lot on our veteran staff to execute our plans. It’s comforting in moments like this to know you have a lot of passionate people who truly care about serving our community and advertisers. It’s a rare circumstance when everyone — listeners, advertisers and staff — are going through many of the same challenges and insecurities simultaneously.
While we still want our individual stations to maintain their identity, the struggle is to balance informing listeners while not losing “stationality.” We’re running additional local and national news throughout the day but it’s important to not forget laughter and fun are great medicine. With everyone craving a sense of normalcy, we can’t lose sight of one of the key findings from Techsurvey; it’s personal connections listeners feel with our talents and stations that matter and this is an opportunity to experience the full gamut of emotions with them.
As for me, I forgot to grab 100 cases of toilet paper like everyone else did, but I did remember to fully stock up on whiskey. I’m happy… my wife, not so much.
Kidding aside, I’m struggling with the same anxiety and fear of the unknown as our staff and listeners. Learning about the positive COVID-19 case in our building threw a twist into my personal plans since I had also met with the individual. I had to self-quarantine for 14 days and that created even more insecurity for me and my family – especially with a one-year old toddler stumbling around the house.
Not to get overly spiritual, but maybe these trying times are meant to be a reset for society. With all the divisiveness that’s been going on for years now, maybe this is an opportunity for us to recognize what’s truly important: Our faith, our family, our health. If nothing else, it’s been a good reminder for me to try to be more present in the moment with my family at home and my family at work. And, don’t forget to grab extra TP because “happy wife, happy life.”
—Patti Marshall, Operations Manager, Hubbard Cincinnati, PD Q102
The challenges change from day to day. At first it was getting the information out in an appropriate way, then it was how do we serve our clients as promotions change, their business changes. Phase 2 was getting equipment together to get talent out of the building into a safer stay at home environment and today, it’s staying connected with each other now that we are not coming into the station.
I am so blessed with my team. They didn’t hesitate to jump in with a whatever it takes attitude. The staff is staying positive but I suspect we are early days on the time line of this crisis. It feels as if substantive communication amongst the staff has increased. We talk all day via email sharing ideas. Yesterday would have been Opening Day…instead of ignoring it we’re going to have #openingdayanyway.
Finding the right balance between what people come to us for and the tone of what’s happening into world is the trick. In some ways, not much has changed for us. We still offer the great music recipe people have come to expect from us with personalities to deliver topical content while looking for ways to serve the community.
So far, we’ve connected an after school food program with a group of listeners to help provide meals, posted links to people who need assistance so our listeners can take this helpless feeling and turn it into action. Now our morning show show has new characters, like Fritsch (pictured below) one of our co-host‘s two-year old, Penelope, who wanders into mommy’s closet to ask what’s for breakfast. When you have the “Tiger King” to talk about, who needs the typical ENews?
I am healthy and isn’t that saying a lot right now? I am also hopeful. For radio I am hopeful that when we get to the other side of this that we will come out stronger and more confident…That we will have made new friends, grown deeper relationships with each other, our clients and our listeners.
—Michelle Matthews, Operations Manager, Saga/Columbus
The biggest challenge? Keeping everyone healthy and in the right frame of mind, and keeping team communication with those working outside the building.
It isn’t different, just much more hands on and trying to be there. I’ve always felt a bit like Momma Bear, never more so than right now. None of us have done anything quite like this before, so it is something that helps everyone talk through.
It is different with each station, but the underlying theme is real, and LOCAL. Our hourly news updates are local and state focused, based on the daily local press conferences and other events happening locally. On Sunny, our AC, Bobby and Stacy are really tuning into the quarantine side as a parent, talking to local counselors and experts on homeschooling with your kids, keeping everyone on a schedule, and the personal stories coming from their own families.
On Qfm96, Torg and Elliott are really plugged into our local first responders. This is such a great opportunity for us to connect to our community and show how local radio is more relevant than ever to both our listeners and advertisers. No other medium can respond and pivot, by the moment, with live and local talent. That is what all of Saga is focused on at this time.
This is why we do what we do. It’s literally train for and talk about internally. Live and local, and now we get to prove it once and for all. But we do need to take care of ourselves. Get good rest. Take your vitamins. Exercise. We absorb so much info during the day and need to be able to process it all. I have started meditating in the morning.
Take some time for your family. It is a challenge for them as well.
—Tommy Mattern, Operations Manager/Hubbard St. Louis
Many air-talent are transitioning to home studios in an effort to reduce exposure in the building so learning how to use new technology has been a new challenge. Without live sports, developing content for 101 ESPN has been a daily focus. We have had to get a lot more personality-driven than we normally would.
Live concerts are such a big part of our brand and we have had to re-schedule major events like Pointfest. We have also had to move other events into third and fourth quarter.
The staff has had a great attitude in such a stressful situation. I have been impressed with their ability to “inform and uplift” on a daily basis. Our audiences look to us for a break from what is going on and I feel like we have been delivering on a high level.
I don’t feel like I have managed any differently except that I’m checking in more often than normal to see if they are OK, and comfortable about being here. They are probably sick of me on that level.
I feel like the listener mindset is different but they are still coming to us for what we do and how we make them feel. For example, KSHE is familiar, comfortable, we are like a family member and it feels normal for them. If anything, we are engaging more on all platforms and taking this opportunity to re-connect.
For me personally, so far, so good! We have great people and great brands that are going to continue to do what we can for the community during this time.
–John O'Connell, Operations Manager, Entercom, Miami
Fortunately, I am set up to work from home so the challenges have been minimal on my end. The biggest challenges involved staffers who have not worked remotely and who do not have home studios of any kind. It took superhuman efforts from our engineering department to get all seven of our stations up and running but they did it and now everyone is tracking their shifts from their closets and bedrooms.
Other than going stir crazy, our people are doing quite well. I touch base with each jock multiple times a day to talk about social posts, show ideas and more importantly to feel them out and see how they are handling this mentally. I never come out and ask. I just listen to see if I can hear a change in them. I also pay close attention to the things that they say to try and detect any changes from their normal behavior.
The listener feedback has been very positive. I check out social feeds more now than ever and I see people thank us for being there for them. We are still mentioning small businesses that are open and getting the word out about testing centers, grocery stores where the supplies have been replenished and so on.
This is when radio outshines every other medium and when live and local truly matters most.
Personally, I’m good but I have asthma and when I hear about how this virus affects your lungs it makes me want to crawl under my bed.
My advice?Be caring, be kind, love your family, love your neighbor, and make America compassionate again.
—Todd Stach, Network Program Director WAY Media
This is an interesting time; a moment where we really have no playbook to help us navigate. There are so many uncertainties that it can cause fear and worry to overcome your thoughts if you’re not careful.
When I decided to do this radio thing, in Christian radio, I wanted to help share love and hope with people. Currently at work (mostly working from home), we’re constantly collaborating with each other on digital, social and on-air messaging, cleaning the studios, collaborating with artists and labels, and serving each other and our listeners.
Logistically, two of our on-air talent are set up to do their shifts at home, and you can’t tell a difference between who’s in the studio and who’s not. As far as our brand, we’re really striving to replace fear with hope and trying to see this very moment in time as an opportunity.
In times of crisis, many don’t want to experience pain and instantly go into self-preservation. So, conversations at home are about the reality of buying Clorox wipes, our 401k, and other worries.
We’re praying and trying to trust in God to make sense out of all of this in time. Yet, we’re also enjoying each other in this weirdly-slower-pace existence. I’m hoping that many who call themselves followers of Jesus, including myself, churches, and the Christian radio format, will run toward the pain and offer an indescribable peace.
—Meg Summers, Operations Manager, Townsquare Media Tuscaloosa
Our priority now (and our mantra always) is live and local. We’re working tirelessly to ensure that the information our listeners need to keep themselves and their families safe is delivered quickly and accurately, and with an inundation of rapidly changing headlines, doing so can seem like a Sisyphean task.
I know I am asking a lot of my staff, but they are all rising to the occasion. We’re seeing an unprecedented amount of brand engagement online and on-air, and most importantly, we’re hearing from listeners who let us know that the work we’re doing matters to them.
Making a true connection with listeners is more important now than ever. We’re airing some truly creative imaging to reinforce listening in-home, and we’re reminding our listeners that we’re in this together. We air an hour-long simulcast at 5 p.m. on all our stations, and during this “Town Hall,” we provide our audience with an in-depth look at the latest headlines and what those headlines mean to them. We’ve interviewed Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, Congresswoman Terri Sewell, and many more local business leaders and physicians while allowing our listeners to call and directly ask questions or talk about how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting their lives.
I think the biggest challenge now and in the days to come for myself and my team is self-care. I’m putting in close to 80 hours weekly, and I know my staff members are working around the clock as well. How do you manage that workload and the uncertainty and anxiety you feel by just scrolling through Twitter and seeing the latest news? I’ve told my staff to prioritize self-care. We’re going to get through this, but we have to be healthy to do it.
—Bill Weston, Program Director WMMR & WMGK, Philadelphia
Not knowing when it will be over and when will the return be to some semblance of normalcy weighs heavily. With a major snowstorm- you know it will be a day or two- three at the most. This could be weeks (months?) of shifting jock schedules, promotions, postponed concerts events – there’s the assisting of other departments off-site- a lot of extra work that is falling to the essential personnel here at the radio ranch.
So far, the crews have accepted the challenges and stood tall. Admirably, Beasley Media Group is doing a number of initiatives to support local businesses that programming is putting into effect.
Some staffers are fine- while others are nervous. I am trying to reassure them on a regular basis that we all must do the smart things to stay healthy- so we can be there for our listeners.
We have received many emails, texts & calls from listeners who are so appreciative that we are on the air.
As a leader- I have to be positive, confident, have an understanding of our employees’ differing levels of acclimation to this crazy new world and remind them of radio’s important mission. It’s an incredible opportunity for them and the industry to shine, provide emotional support, serve as a touchstone and be a familiar voice and friend, whose job is to entertain and inform in the communities we serve.
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