Sometimes, things don’t go the way you planned. But you know that.
Today’s post was supposed to be my weekly layup – a “Throwback Thursday” edition of JacoBLOG, digging into our 17 year archive.
But today, I’m calling an audible. That’s because earlier this week, I wrote a post about the “unhinged Elmo,” that lovable “Sesame Street” character whose loss of temper became an Internet meme that resonated with millions. I used this social media moment as a jumping off point to make the point that all of us are going through a stressful time, and turning on the radio and hearing a friendly voice can be comforting and even therapeutic.
Throughout the day, I watched reactions to the post pour in on my various social pages, as well as in comments directly on the post. Interestingly, those off the air talked about the pressures they’ve faced over the last 22 months, and mostly liked the Elmo metaphors.
But I also heard from talent who have been behind the mic throughout this entire ordeal. And their stories were invariably more poignant and painful. Some publicly left comments on Twitter, Facebook, and on the blog itself. But others contacted me privately, via email and DMs. They talked about the seriousness of the situation, how mentally sapped they’ve been, and how little gas is left in their tanks. Some told me they just don’t see how they can go on much longer. Others feel they’re simply at the end of their rope.
One is Billy Pilgrim, air personality on Q97 in Reading, California. In response to the Elmo post, Billy opened up about the pressures he (and other air talent) is facing.
I admitted to our listeners that I was at a loss for words today. After having Public Health on our show every day for two years talking covid, I didn’t see any point in it anymore. The new surge has been so defeating. I don’t have any good news. Can’t find and share the light.
— billy pilgrim (@bpilgrim75) January 12, 2022
Should you or I be surprised about this? After all, air talent have played the (mostly) thankless role of being “radio’s first responders” since the pandemic began on that crazy mid-March day when the lockdowns and cancellations fell like dominoes. While pretty much everyone else was allowed to work from home, they made the daily trek into work and back, even in those early days when just leaving the house felt unsafe.
And over these many months, they’ve been radio’s main contact people with the audience. They’ve endured the madness on the phones, and especially on social media – places where their jobs demand they engage with listeners. You only have to scroll through your various feeds to have an appreciation for what it’s like to directly communicate with a polarized, angry, and frustrated populace. But of course, that crazy person on the other end of the phone or leaving a nasty comment on Twitter just might have a diary or be in the panel. You’d better be nice.
So, while many DJs and hosts may be dying inside – going through the same life travails we all are – like many in the medical community, they are dealing with the insanity up close and personal, day in and day out. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised the Elmo post resonated personally for so many.
Ironically, I have the data to back it up. Last summer, we fielded our third survey among commercial radio air talent in the U.S., the first study since the pandemic. And the telltale signs of stress and even instability were everywhere. Responses to a very direct question about stress levels since COVID spoke volumes:
A strong majority told us they’ve had a lot of stress or more stress since the onset of the pandemic. In fact, nearly one in four report much more stress since March 2020. And when you look at the demographic breakouts, stress levels skew higher among women, Millennials and Xers, those who work for radio’s biggest companies, and those wearing the most “hats” – that is, doing more jobs.
This is a show-stopper of a chart. While I emphasized it during my presentation at Morning Show Boot Camp over the summer, the audience that day was made up of primarily air talent, who just nodded when they saw this data. Most market managers and corporate staffers likely haven’t seen it.
And keep in mind, this study was fielded in July – before delta peaked, and when omicron was just another letter in the Greek alphabet. Imagine what those stress levels are like today as the pandemic starts its “junior year” in just a few weeks.
I was reminded of the precariousness of the situation by Ramona Holloway, co-host of the “Matt & Ramona Show” (pictured) at Mix 107.9 in Charlotte. In the original post, I referenced how Britney Spears is bizarrely acting out her emotions on Instagram these days. And to that, Ramona posed this question:
“Though the story about her Instagram nudity was trending, I chose to not use it on the air… probably for the same reason you decided not to provide a link. I worry about a Britney breakdown fueled by a media feeding frenzy. We have to be so careful about how we talk about Britney and other celebs with noted mental health issues.
The same goes for the conversations about sports stars like Antonio Brown. With so many of our listeners, and even coworkers, facing mental health challenges that seem to be compounded by the stress of the pandemic, I want to make sure we are exercising sensitivity and responsibility.”
It is truly rewarding and encouraging to hear talent in-touch with their audience, aware of the fragility of the human spirit, especially these days. And then there’s the rare talent that can glean inspiration from being caretakers to audience members in need of encouragement and even escape from the pressures of everyday life in 2022.
I’ve worked with a pro’s pro, Pam Landry (pictured), in several incarnations, including WPLR (New Haven) and Vh1 Classic. These days, Pam is on that air at 107.1 the Peak, operating just north of New York City. As always, Pam’s “take” on live in the air studio is spot on:
“Yes, all our on-air types are human beings with our very own set of problems, feelings and emotions. It is our job – and, I might add, our PRIVILEGE – to keep our listeners company. Sharing our own feelings to whatever extent we are comfortable doing so.
I’ve always found being on the air somewhat cathartic. As we ‘entertain’ our listeners, we – as the entertainers – have that unique outlet. That ‘escape.’ Those of us who are lucky enough to be on the radio can make those who listen to us feel better while allowing that to flow back to us.
Be a compassionate companion. And use your unique position to help yourself as well.”
And that leads me to another JacoBLOG regular, Corey Tremere, on the air in Prince Edward Island.
Like other air talent I know, Corey makes it a point to be as positive as possible, on the air and on his social feed. Of course, this is always a great on-air disposition, but especially important right now today.
Sharing light & love on the #radio and on #social during COVID-19 sometimes has been very VERY difficult. I save all of these in a digital smile file to remind me sometimes how important what I get to do is important @stingraymusic pic.twitter.com/WVo0s7c5dn
— Corey Tremere (@PEICorey) January 12, 2022
But what happens when those coping skills just hit the wall? When I return to the mental state of radio’s hosts, and I think about those rising stress levels we quantified last summer in AQ3, it strikes me that if managers and owners haven’t done a “check-in” with their talent in a while, it might be a good idea. Sometimes, it’s as simple as pulling them aside, asking the right questions, and showing empathy and understanding.
We keep hearing we’re living in “unprecedented times.” But they are on the air in the middle of a spiraling situation that is truly off the charts. No one in radio was taught the coping skills necessary to deal with an unhinged audience, much less their own emotional states.
Maybe there’s an opportunity to give the especially stressed in the air studio a much-needed day off. Or “script” that can buy a dinner for two at the restaurant where you still have some trade left. Gestures and action go a long way at this moment in time.
I learned that from Tommy Braaten (pictured), co-host of the Tommy & Bell Morning Show on the Coyote in Sheridan, Wyoming. And Tommy is also the the director of programming and news for owners Sheridan Media. Like a lot of you, he’s wearing multiple “hats.” He left this comment to the Elmo post:
“Best read since the pandemic began. I was gonna give up until today.”
That gave me pause. If something as simple as a blog post from someone you’ve never met can provide a spiritual boost to a talent in need, imagine what a personal, direct gesture from a boss or manager could do.
Tommy told me this:
“I read your post before the morning show and it changed my day. Something happened to the energy and listeners called and texted more than ever before. I forgot how they count on us and I needed to hear that. Thanks again.”
Reactions to this post reminded me about the value of empathy and caring about the ambassadors of your brand, the voice that connect communities.
Maybe it’s time for a check-in.
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