Over the past month, we reached out to community radio broadcasters all over the country – with the help of our new national partner, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB) – to hear how they are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. The broadcasters we spoke with serve communities as varied as the map itself: migrant farmers on the southern border, music industry heads in central New Jersey, the Wasco and Paiute native tribes of central Oregon, retirees in northern California, resettled refugees in the Nebraska heartland. Despite the vast diversity in this space, community broadcasters are responding to this crisis in some similar ways.
Many of these radio stations are the only news source in their communities, but since the pandemic hit, listeners are turning to community broadcasters for, well, community.
“Radio is a lifeline for folks,” says Dan Rigney, general manager at WJFF in New York’s Catskill Mountains. “There are plenty of places where you can’t get cable service. Radio is really important in keeping people connected.”
Built-in social distancing
Many community broadcasters serve communities where, as Rigney puts it, “Social distancing is part of the culture to begin with.” You might think legally mandated social distancing might pass unnoticed in lonely mountain ranges or desertscapes. Not so, say community broadcasters.
KWSO broadcasts on tribal lands in Warm Springs, Oregon. “We already have social distancing here,” says its station manager, Sue Matters – but this is no status quo, it’s widening the gaps between the haves and have nots in her community. Especially the digital divide. “Not everyone has access to the internet. There is no free TV here, except for one channel, and a lot of people can’t access satellite dishes,” she says.
KZUM in Lincoln, Nebraska, broadcasts across wide open spaces speckled with clusters of people that face barriers to connecting even in good times – resettled refugee communities from Vietnam and Sudan, Spanish-speaking immigrants and creative professionals in a college town, isolated ranchers and farmers. Kerry Semrad, the station’s general manager, hopes to bridge these divides through community engagement – and community building. “I’m a hugger,” she says. “I try to bring that back to their lives through the station.”
Public radio is public service
“As a leader of this organization, you think, what is our role in this?” asks KZUM’s Semrad. “For us, it’s service.”
Elise Pepple, general manager at Marfa Public Radio in southern Texas, concurs: “This is why public media exists: to be public service.” Marfa Public Radio broadcasts across 30,000 square miles of mostly desert along the Texas-Mexico border, and its pandemic coverage has garnered national media attention.
Many radio stations are airing more public service announcements, more frequently. KZUM is playing PSAs every 20 minutes. KWSO’s Matters says they’re repeating PSAs “like a broken record. Repetition is important for the attention span.”
Protecting frontline communities
PSAs have also become a central pandemic response strategy for Radio Bilingüe in California’s San Joaquin Valley. “A very important segment of our audience are the so-called essential workers,” says Samuel Orozco, the station’s news director. Many are grocery workers, custodial staff in hospitals and nursing homes, or farm workers in fields. And many are undocumented – unable to access aid through the federal relief programs, and targeted by hostile federal immigration policies.
“There is a tremendous amount of fear, anxiety, confusion. There is panic within these communities,” says Orozco. “Our job is to determine what is the most essential information needed out there.” Information like how to disinfect groceries, how to protect children from being infected if parents must work, and fact-checks countering medical disinformation.
A local voice, a trusted voice
As only radio can do, community broadcasts not only connect a scattered, isolated community, they reflect that community back to itself – in its own voice.
Matthew Brown, executive director of WTIP in Grand Marais, Minnesota, says national and state public media are meeting his listeners’ news needs. “They are totally focused on the pandemic, so we are switching to give relief to people.”
WTIP has launched a live evening program, interspersing music shows produced and dropboxed by local volunteers with community chatter. “People want to hear a local voice. We found a niche there.”
The theme of KVNF in Paonia, Colorado, is “Come Together.” Ashley Krest, the station’s new general manager, says they’re giving more airtime to listeners calling in to ask questions. “There’s something about your friends and neighbors being on the air that makes people feel less isolated, gives a sense of community. We’re that voice on the air that they can trust and that they know.”
A different kind of emergency
Many of the community broadcasters we spoke to tell us they are used to dealing with emergencies: wildfires, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes routinely bruise the earth surrounding community broadcast towers. Others speak of endemic poverty, mental health crises, epidemics of suicide and addiction. But the pandemic is a completely new kind of emergency.
Says Pepple at Marfa Public Radio, “We have learned how to function in a state of emergency with wildfires and mass shootings. But pandemic is next level to everything I’ve done before.”
“This is the biggest emergency we’ve had, and we’ve had many – the aftermath of Sandy, the aftermath of 9/11,” says Ken Freedman, general manager of WFMU in Jersey City, New Jersey, another community broadcaster that has captured the national eye for its response to the pandemic. “But this is the first emergency that’s put an existential threat to the station.” WFMU has broadcast since 1958.
Ali Lightfoot is general manager of KVMR in Nevada City, California, which lies in the wildfire zone. “We are not used to covering an emergency like this, so we had to beef up our reporting and cover what this means. We have to keep people informed, and our community keeps us going. We’d better serve them better now.”
Matters at KWSO says that their track record in previous emergencies, like wildfires or snowstorms, is what has helped them serve their communities better in this crisis. “We have become an institution,” she says. “If people want to know something they call us directly. We have access to tribal leadership. We are a quality of life thing.”
Threats and strains
Beyond the threat to the stations themselves – all community broadcasters we spoke to describe the financial impact of lost revenue from underwriters, reduced membership fees, and delays in planned fundraisers – the pandemic has put a strain on how stations generate content. Most stations have now moved toward automation in production or remote content generation, which raises real challenges in communities with inconsistent internet service and digital inequity.
In some cases, the pandemic poses an existential threat to their communities.
Grand Marais lies on the banks of Lake Superior in Minnesota, right next to lands belonging to the Ojibwe Nation, and is a treasured Midwestern vacation destination. Brown says there’s just one area hospital, with just 16 beds and no ventilators, and speaks of a rise in tensions between local residents and second-homeowners fleeing epicenters in Minneapolis and Chicago.
WJFF serves Sullivan County, where the Borscht Belt once studded the countryside with grand old hotels of the type lovingly remembered in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” remains a small-scale hospitality destination for vacationers from New York City, including ultra-Orthodox Jewish visitors summering in bungalow colonies throughout the county. The Catskills region has one hospital, and the pandemic has created tensions between locals and second-homeowners. Rigney is also concerned that reports of high infection rates in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities might contribute to anti-Semitism toward Jewish vacationers.
Music is the message
Like WTIP in Grand Marais, KVMR in Nevada City is finding that, in crisis, music is as important a service as news. Nevada City hosts up to 15 live music festivals each year. “We are known for celebrating live music in a time when no one can gather,” observes Lightfoot. So the station has pivoted to air recorded concerts and playlists their DJs make at home. “Music is the thing that is taking people through this nightmare,” she says.
Freedman at WFMU says music is helping keep listeners sane. “They want companionship and entertainment,” he says, and adds, “In a way, it’s a broadcaster’s dream: a global captive audience.”