Radio is easily taken for granted, in part because it’s invisible and, in most cases, ubiquitous. Program hosts and DJs keep us company in rush-hour traffic or during the workday. They keep us informed when the power’s out or the internet’s down, but the transmitter’s still going. Radio is as essential as it is entertaining, and as the COVID-19 pandemic goes on, so must the shows.
Local stations are taking safety precautions like limiting studio access and suggesting hosts wear masks and gloves and wipe down mics, headphones, and other surfaces with disinfectant before and after their shifts. But each station is unique, and other tweaks vary depending on a station’s size, reach, and what sort of programming it offers.
Since March 12, WNRN 91.9 FM jocks have worked almost exclusively from home, says station General Manager and Program Director Mark Keefe. The locally owned nonprofit station broadcasts from multiple transmitters—in Charlottesville, Richmond, and Lynchburg—and already had a system in place, as well as enough spare mics, consoles, and cords to get DJs on the air from anywhere with an internet connection. (Volunteer DJs did not get a rig, so on-staff folks are now covering those slots.)
In the absence of the live in-studio sessions with Virginia bands, WNRN upped its play count of local acts like Lowland Hum and David Wax Museum. It’s not the same, says Keefe, but it’s something.
Things haven’t changed much at WCNR 106.1 FM The Corner, another adult alternative station, owned by national media company Saga Communications, which is headquartered in Michigan. Morning show host and Program Director Kendall Stewart, as well as her counterparts, could work from home, but are still going in. Stewart’s “Community Corner” segment now highlights creative ways folks are helping each other out during the pandemic, while news breaks are solely about COVID-19, and pandemic-related PSAs by major label artists like HAIM and Leon Bridges are aired.
She’s had to re-think the station’s “Corner Lounge,” which previously brought touring artists into the station for a live set before a show at an area venue. Now in the “Long Distance Lounge,” she hosts bands like Best Coast and Illiterate Light over the phone or via Instagram Live. “I’m not about to let that go away,” says Stewart.
Nathan Moore, general manager of WTJU 91.1 FM, a non-commercial station owned and operated by the University of Virginia, agrees that continuing to provide a sense of normalcy to listeners is paramount, though it’s taking a bit of radio magic.
WTJU is a freeform station, which means individual DJs in the jazz, classical, folk, and rock departments have complete control over what they play on their shows. It broadcasts live 21 hours a day, with the help of six paid staff members and dozens of volunteer DJs (including this reporter). Some DJs go into the station, while others create their shows in advance and stream that file into the on-air studio. Some broadcast live remotely, using personal computers and headphones, in addition to pretty intricate tech workarounds developed by station staff.
WPVC 94.7 FM, a progressive nonprofit community station that airs a variety of news, talk, arts, and music programming, including Spanish-language material, may be one of the hardest hit of our local stations—it’s had to adjust both its show schedule and its personnel. “A lot of our volunteers are either in the high-risk category due to age or pre-existing conditions, or they care for someone who’s high risk,” and have to avoid the station, says co-founder and manager Jeff Lenert. Instead, WPVC now carries a mostly automated, non-commercial stream from Free Speech Television, which includes some of the shows already familiar to WPVC listeners, such as “Democracy Now!” and the nationally syndicated “The Stephanie Miller Show.”
But the station—which has seen its already lean rainy day fund depleted by legal fees incurred in an ongoing FCC lawsuit brought against it and four other locally owned, low-power stations last fall by Saga Communications—is “struggling,” says Lenert. “We might not be on the air next month.”
Lenert’s in a difficult position. He doesn’t feel right asking for money from underwriters who are in dire financial straits themselves, or asking for donations that could go to a food bank instead. If WPVC goes off the air, there will be fewer black and brown voices on local airwaves, and the community will be without its only Spanish-language radio news outlet. “I lose sleep knowing that,” says Lenert.
The other stations we spoke with are bigger than WPVC and don’t yet share Lenert’s financial worries. And both WTJU and WNRN, who rely on listener donations for much of their operating budgets, held rather successful fundraising drives in April.
“People want something reliable” right now, says Keefe. When “the reliable disappears, it becomes even more bleak.”