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Monday Memo: Coronavirus Community

| March 23, 2020

By Holland Cooke


BLOCK ISLAND, RI — One hundred New Englanders died during The Great Blizzard of ’78.  Those of us who survived all have stories, many sad, others amusing, even wistful.  And, yes, nine months later, there was a baby boom.  We who covered that week are feeling déjà vu as the coronavirus pandemic story unfolds.


Be there or be square:

When normalcy is upended, it is human nature to take comfort hearing how others are faring.  It’s less misery-loves-company than we’re-all-in-this-together.

1978 was 20 years before mainstream Internet chat.  So radio was the social medium by which listeners shared cabin fever anecdotes and, literally, survival information.  WPRO-AM, Providence was still a Top 40 station, but music was mere garnish to the callers who buzzed my 7:00 pm to 12:00 midnight show.

Music stations: If you typecast this coronavirus phenomenon story as “talk radio,” and fail to acknowledge listeners’ lives-interrupted, you will sound oblivious, even if your strategy is to be an oasis away-from outbreak anxiety.

  • I’m NOT saying stop the music and open-up the phone lines for “What are YOU up to?” in the manner talk stations must. But a music station that, for instance, culls succinct sound bites from off-air request line conversation can seem like the soundtrack of self-quarantine chill time.  Be flattered that the cabin-fevered reach-out to you, a perceived friend.
  • Recently on my TV show, I interviewed a psychotherapist, something I recommend stations do (ICYMI:
  • Given the relentlessness of coronavirus coverage, he recommends occasional “news sabbaticals”; so music FMs that simply, thoughtfully, allude-to what listeners are going through can position as that sort of escape appliance.

If you’re expecting a consultant buzzword, here ya go: “community.”  Public health officials are warning against “community transmission.”  Taken literally, that’s our goal; and it has never been more important to sound like you’re part of listeners’ community.

Media habits are fragile

By automating, radio has lowered listener expectations.  Admittedly I will sound like a disapproving long-ago nighttime DJ recalling this, but when Michael Jackson died in a daypart voicetracked by many stations that played his music, those stations sounded unaware.  It was a lesson NOT-learned several years later when Whitney Houston also passed during robo-radio hours.  Monkee Davey Jones left us – too young – during afternoon drive, so radio at least sounded aware.

When this pandemic interruption has passed, a New Normal will emerge, like post-9/11.  When the 1978 snow drift melted, routines resumed.  But the local TV news landscape was forever changed.  During the crisis, Rhode Islanders were comforted seeing Governor Joe Garrahy, wearing a plaid shirt that now hangs in a museum, live from his State House command center.  The feed was provided by WJAR-TV, whose competitors didn’t then have the same liveshot capability.  From that moment on, NBC10 has consistently been Southern New England’s local news ratings goliath.  As Woody Allen mused, “80% of success is showing-up.”

How will your station be remembered for what you are doing right now?  If you’re a talker, here’s hoping that the information and interaction you’re serving-up now will be remembered more than the careless political denial radio righties were parroting earlier.

Holland Cooke ( is a media consultant working at the intersection of broadcasting and the Internet. He is the author of the e-book “Holland Cooke: Greatest Hits” from Talkers Books.  Click the ad banner in the right-hand column on this page for an instant download.  And he hosts “The Big Picture” TV show Friday nights at 7ET on RT

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Category: Advice