By Michael Harrison
JUPITER, Fla. — This past weekend seems to have marked a tipping point in America regarding public anxiety over COVID-19, still commonly referred to as the coronavirus. Fears and near-panic have infiltrated the beleaguered heath care systems of our communities, the stock market, and a number of inter-connected industries and public events. Add to that, discourse about the problem in our politically oriented media have included the “weaponization” of issues per the troubling practice of each side tending to seek victory at the expense of truth.
We must rise to the challenge
One of the biggest challenges facing the talk media industry is to demonstrate a thoughtfulness in responsibly walking the line between spreading undo alarm versus under-reporting the seriousness of this still-murky threat.
That being said, hoping not to appear opportunistic or exploitive, most radio industry practitioners agree that this crisis provides radio both the mission and calling to provide a significant degree of comfort and helpful information to the public – thus showcasing its pertinence as a vital medium in the 21st century.
Satellite radio gears up
SirusXM Satellite Radio president and chief content officer Scott Greenstein tells TALKERS, “Around the globe, and here at home, the coronavirus outbreak has millions concerned about their health, and we’re grateful to have the world-class physicians from NYU Langone Health on our ‘Doctor Radio’ channel to support and educate listeners during this time.” He adds, “This kind of direct access to important fact-based information from the best experts is vital right now.”
On the front lines in Seattle
Bonneville Seattle director of programming Mike Salk checks in with TALKERS, “We have had a three-pronged approach to handling this. First, has been internal preparation. We have made sure our hosts and anchors have the capability to broadcast from their homes in case of an extended quarantine. We sent home extra Comrex and Tieline systems to be used in that event. Our building is currently operating with only essential personnel while everyone else is working remotely. Second, our news team has kicked into high gear with reporters at major new conferences and reaching out to local decision makers and our editor’s desk taking in non-stop information. We even created an hour-long special (which we ran at 6:00 pm) with one of our news anchors hosting an informational program littered with sound and interviews. Finally, our talk shows have had a tremendous number of guests – experts and decision makers – and have taken on the mission of informing the public (while entertaining them along the way).
On the front lines in Los Angeles
KFI, Los Angeles news director Chris Little tells TALKERS, “Here’s what we’re up to: Reporter Steve Gregory is our ‘czar’ who is responsible for all things coronavirus. He files stories and appears on all of the talk shows on the station. He and our other reporters have been producing fact-based (obviously) features to keep listeners informed. We air all news conferences on the virus. We produce a coronavirus update for our five FM stations. We have a clearing house online for all coronavirus stories and push to it in all of our newscasts. And we do a daily five-minute live interview with the director of LA County Public Health at 1:50 on the Gary and Shannon show.
Protecting the elderly in the Sunshine State
WFTL, South Florida midday host Joyce Kaufman says, “Living in a state that is home to more people over the age of 80 than most puts me in the middle of this issue. I am not an alarmist by nature and have been in a position to encourage and comfort my listeners through hurricanes, terrorism, wars, opioid epidemics and disease. There are many safety precautions that we can all take which I remind them of each day. But the idea that healthy individuals under 80 should do anything extraordinary to prevent exposure is just ridiculous. For most of us, healthy individuals under 80, this is not a real threat if you do not travel to areas where there is mass infection, but even if you must, COVID-19 is most likely not going to affect you more than the flu.” Kaufman is telling her listeners, “If you are frail or older than 80, stay home until the worst is over. Publix delivers groceries and ask younger friends to shop for you. Those of us who are healthy should help seniors and they can listen to the radio for company. And buy stocks…this is a real buying opportunity. Hey, like Monty Python says, ‘Always look on the bright side of life.’”
KMOX, St. Louis late-night host Ryan Wrecker reports to TALKERS, “St. Louis had a weird turn of events this weekend. We had our first confirmed case of the coronavirus, and two members of that family (father and daughter who tested negative) decided to break the household quarantine and go to a daddy-daughter dance. Once the officials found out, they canceled the dance and went into damage control mode… and reminded the family it could turn into a non-voluntary quarantine.” Wrecker continues, “We’ve been mostly looking at the ripple effect, which is the closures, the economy, the short supply. But our health editor is keeping with daily updates on-air that emphasize the right level of concern, which is to not panic and just wash your hands.” He concludes, “As a company, Entercom has sent a few emails out regarding this. One letter from a corporate level, and also multiple from a local cluster level to remind the staff what they should do in case something does happen.”
Strike the proper balance
Harry Hurley, the 28-year “morning mayor” of Atlantic City, NJ and one of the radio industry’s leading on-air philanthropists, tells TALKERS, “This is a very serious matter that should be treated as such. It also should not be weaponized by anyone for perceived political gain. Our approach is to be intellectually honest, but stop short of the hysteria, which has led to panic buying of hand sanitizer, N-95 and N-99 face masks and toilet paper. Now, there’s a run on rubbing alcohol and aloe vera, now that people have found out that you can make your own hand sanitizer.” Hurley adds, “I believe in the approach of 1) identifying the problem, 2) work non-stop for a solution, 3) solve the problem. The Dr. Marc Siegel approach is sobering and intellectually honest. He’s telling it like it is, with no panic in his voice. We must respect the seriousness of the infection, now that we are seeing a rise in ‘community spread.’ However, let’s not scare our fellow Americans to death. Yet, we must tell the truth about what’s really going on. Strike the proper balance.”
Doug Stephan, host of the nationally syndicated DJV morning show says, “Being reasonable is always the hallmark of the DJV show, and stories… so we are telling stories about our personal experiences and listeners’ experiences, whether it’s me trying to find zinc (and not finding it), a listener saying not to kiss your dog because they can carry it, to travel and the BS from airlines that they are cleaning planes after every flight.” Stephan tells TALKERS, “We take a decidedly non-political approach, as we do with most issues. We talk about what is better, including our own hygiene, great time to buy stocks, get a new mortgage… and how to do those things, plus we have our two medical experts, Dr. Jack Stockwell and Dr. Ken Kronhaus on to debunk the nonsense, and underscore what do you really wash with and what does this stuff do to your body long term, if anything. We are healthy and don’t worry about getting it, but ask where is the focus on the regular flu that has killed almost 13,000 this year alone in America?”
From the medical perspective
Dr. Daliah Wachs is a widely respected M.D. who does a daily syndicated general issues/health show on the Genesis Communications Network. She offers the following advice to her fellow talk broadcasters: “1) Stick to the facts. I can add conjecture but my job is to give the latest updates in a non-judgmental and emotional manner. Then I can give my medical opinion and specify it’s an opinion. 2) Put things into perspective. Isolation during illness and good hand washing is paramount EVERY flu season and so I remind others that this is the proper type of infection control we should be doing with any deadly illness. 3) Remind the public that now that testing is being done ubiquitously, numbers WILL rise as we are identifying cases that were unable to be confirmed before. 4) Panic is never a good course during any medical emergency. Evaluate, assess and treat is the way we in the medical community combat any emergency. 5) Offer hope where there is some (vaccine in development, more funding allocated….)”
Heidi Harris, morning host at KMZQ, Las Vegas checks in, “I am giving people information as I am able to gather it. In a tourist town, we are obviously very concerned, and many large events and conventions have already cancelled. Musicians are losing gigs, banquet people are losing hours, not to mention the effect this is having on cab drivers, Uber drivers, etc. The people who work in the hotels are the least able to afford to be sent home for two weeks (most likely without pay). Even if they did get their hourly wage, many rely on tips to make ends meet. That’s what I’m worried about.”
Keeping it in perspective
Westwood One syndicated superstar Jim Bohannon tells TALKERS, “I agree that radio’s response is extremely important, not just for public health, but also to remind people, in radio’s centennial year, of our continued relevance. The Jim Bohannon Show has featured news and interviews on the growth of the COVID-19 coronavirus threat and, above all, on ways to stay safe as individuals. We’ve also tried to keep this whole thing in perspective. As I write this, there have been 21 U.S. deaths from the virus. Since last autumn, the common, garden variety flu, has killed 16,000.”
Real facts…calm over panic
Bob Lawrence, VP pf programming at Saga Communications tells TALKERS, “Saga Communications is focused on informing and serving our individual communities in all markets through hyper-responsible reporting. Anything in regards to Coronavirus which we relay to our listeners is based solely on factual information as reported by the CDC. Too many instill fear over facts to a point where the damage inflicted by misinformation can do as much, or more harm than the virus itself. We work on behalf of our listeners and advertisers and through real facts, aim to give those communities a sense of reasonable and rational calm over panic.”
Summing it up for now
Michael Berry, host at KTRH, Houston and a rapidly growing syndicated program sums it up as follows, “The ability to engage a respected talk show host, to offer personal perspectives and even share fears, is helpful during a time when anxiety is highest. Moments like these are where the talk format is at its best.”
Richard Neer, longtime host at all sports giant WFAN, New York tells TALKERS, “The specter of sporting events played in empty arenas looms large. The real world doesn’t often intrude on our fantasy land of sports, but when events of this magnitude take place, they cannot be ignored. We are an oasis from everyday troubles, kind of like Busby Berkley films in the Depression. Sadly, this has become such a major catastrophe that it is top of mind, and gives us perspective on what really matters.”
Again, this crisis provides radio with a huge challenge and an even larger opportunity to serve the public through not just words, but deeds as well, further cementing its position as a major player for the public good going forward into the wild and woolly media landscape of the 21st century.
Michael Harrison is the publisher of TALKERS. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.