By Tom Tradup
Salem Radio Network
V.P. News/Talk Programming
2020 has presented talk radio with many challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic — which has personally impacted many in our industry including the amazing infection-through-recovery story of John McConnell. We’ve also been asked to cover nationwide riots — oops, I mean “peaceful protests”— following the senseless killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the contraction of the radio industry including layoffs and pay cuts, and operating day to day with masks and social distancing.
But nothing in the history of broadcasting has presented talk radio with more challenges to business-as-normal as the impact of the novel coronavirus on the 2020 national political conventions. Even the dastardly 9/11 attacks on America — which literally occurred as my SRN colleague Mike Gallagher was broadcasting live from the Empire State Building — happened within a framework of relative normalcy for talk radio. We paused for an instant as human beings and Americans to absorb the shock and anger, and then reflexively shouldered our responsibility to keep America informed of breaking news and what to think about it as America rebuilt and responded militarily.
As 2020 dawned and the Wuhan Virus bubbled up, we probably should have recognized what was ahead as panic swept many of the 17,000 of us who attended and/or broadcast live from the annual CPAC gathering in suburban Washington. A grand total of one attendee who later tested positive for COVID-19 was said to have met with and shook hands with American Conservative Union president Matt Schlapp, prompting hysterical news stories coast to coast. More recently, 2012 GOP presidential hopeful and onetime talk radio host Herman Cain attended the Juneteenth Dallas premiere of Larry Elder’s powerful documentary UNCLE TOM, then headed to Tulsa for President Trump’s first campaign rally during the pandemic. Cain — who declined to wear a face mask at that event — contracted COVID-19 and died last week.
With all that as a backdrop, pity the responsibility of my network as well as our colleagues at ABC Audio, CBS Radio, and the soon-to-be-defunct Westwood One radio news as we have dodged and weaved as COVID-19 impacted the venerable institutions known as National Conventions for both the Republican and Democratic parties. (Full disclosure: most of us have long understood that the actual “news value” of political conventions was zero, but we nevertheless turned out every four years to provide coverage of delegates from Wisconsin wearing dopey yellow foam triangles shaped like cheese on their heads as we dodged screams and urine from various protest groups.)
COVID-19 has flattened all semblance of normalcy. As the Democrats prepare to mee — sort of — in Milwaukee, presumptive nominee Joe Biden (who pledged to announce his running mate “the first week in August”, a/k/a now) has announced he might need another week in his basement vetting a potential Veep. (Spoiler Alert: whomever Biden picks won’t really matter as Americans don’t really vote for a running mate. Even Michael Dukakis’ 1988 selection of the solid Texas U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen bounced off voters like bullets off the Man of Steel. Bentsen lost his native Texas by 21 points.)
But the Democrats — who will hold a cobbled-together “virtual” convention beginning August 17th — still want media coverage of this year’s infomercial. They are not making it easy: instead of a well-planned media row for talk stations and network radio news, in severely limiting space, Democrats have just presented a menu of prices that would choke a horse: $618 for a “media seat”; hardwired Internet at $1,677-$3,051 depending upon speed; plexiglass barriers to help prevent exposure to coronavirus beginning at $375 per panel; etc. etc. all for the “privilege” of covering the DNC’s incredible-shrinking-convention. 50,000 attendees originally…which dropped to around 3,500 a few months ago…and now may, may include Joe Biden and an invited crowd of 300.
Meantime, the Republican National Convention — slated for August 24-27 in Charlotte, North Carolina — was thrown for a loop when President Trump and North Carolina’s Democrat governor Roy Cooper clashed over mandates on social distancing and mask mandates. The president then announced his acceptance speech would be delivered in GOP-friendly Jacksonville, Florida, which eventually mandated identical restrictions on social distancing and face masks. So Mr. Trump says he’s moving his acceptance back to Charlotte, but at an undisclosed locale.
And in a fitting climax to the festivities, word began leaking out over the weekend that the RNC may not allow reporters to cover the “convention” at all. The Democrat-Gazette newspaper in Arkansas is reporting that even C-SPAN (the nonpartisan government proceedings channel on cable) may be barred from live coverage. A “convention” with no reporters and no coverage — who says there’s nothing new under the sun?
Throughout all the dodging and weaving, radio networks and talk show producers have navigated Secret Service credentialing and hotel reservations and booking airline flights like rats in heat: quick, find rooms in Charlotte…nope, cancel those and book rooms in Jacksonville…wait…we’re headed back to Charlotte, but can AT&T and the Teamsters get us set up in time, and so on.
The unprecedented switch-pitching of these National Conventions promises to produce historic and — wait for it — unconventional coverage by talk radio and news. But if we all get through this alive, we’ll have given our listeners live access to the most monumental developments in American political history.
At least until (gulp) the fun and excitement of counting all those mail-in ballots on November 3rd!
Tom Tradup is vice president of news/talk programming for Salem Radio Network. He can be emailed at TTradup@SRNRadio.com.