Serious Purpose

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Several eternities ago, back on March 12, while I was on what was supposed to be a three-week trip to Minnesota, I tweeted the following: “As long as I’m not quarantined, my station’s building is open, and ICE/CBP isn’t outside my door with guns to keep me inside, I’m going to work.” But after the trip ended early, on Sunday the 15th, and once I got back home, the time came to decide whether to actually do it. And I wavered a bit. The Mrs. works at home; she’d been isolated for a week, and if I could keep from catching anything I hadn’t picked up already, maybe it was best for me to stay isolated too.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t. Ann and I talked it over, and radio people should do radio, especially in a time such as this. So I plunged back into the usual routine early last week, filling in on a couple of night shifts and a couple of middays. And this week, in keeping with the role I’ve had for these many years, I’ll be plugged in wherever they need me to be.

Like other radio stations, mine has taken whatever steps it can to protect the people who have to work. The studios are supplied with cleaning products, and we’re all keeping our distance from one another. I think we all know that it’s not going to be foolproof. People are going to get sick eventually. But we aren’t going through our days worrying about that.

(One might argue that’s what the nights are for.)

Old radio guys like me came up in the business when it was in the DNA of radio stations to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. When news broke or a crisis happened, we snapped into service mode automatically, if only by following the cues of the veterans around us. For younger broadcasters, there’s maybe a learning curve. If you view yourself mainly as an entertainer, it’s another thing entirely to become a conduit through which life-and-death information has to flow. A lot of radio stations don’t have news departments anymore, so it’s up to jocks to be the journalists. And who are the grizzled old veterans to serve as role models for them?

I guess it’s gonna have to be me.

You can take a cue from covering severe weather. When you talk about a tornado, blizzard, or hurricane, people are gonna be hanging on your every word, so you have to be credible. You have to get stuff right. You have to rely on good sources. Don’t hype, but don’t downplay the seriousness either. But unlike severe weather, which lasts a few hours in most cases, or a few days in the case of a blizzard or a hurricane, the crisis we’re in right now is going to last far longer. How are we to maintain that sense of purpose, that credibility, that seriousness, for months on end?

You’ll need to find the right tone, and to do that, don’t forget who you were before this all started. In my case, I always try to present information I think my audience will find entertaining and/or informative, although last week I leaned more toward informative. However, last week, I also couldn’t resist making a joke about how after Prince Albert of Monaco was diagnosed with the virus, he’d be spending his two-week isolation in a can. But when it’s time to talk about the impact or potential impact of the virus on our listeners, in our home towns, whatever we say needs to be delivered with an underlying sense of serious purpose.

A sense of serious purpose will have to be our lodestar as the crisis deepens, and as it starts to affect each of us personally. Somebody pointed out on Twitter on Friday night that jokes about the virus and about quarantine are going to be a lot less funny once people we know get sick or start dying. Right now, I don’t know how that’s going to affect me as a radio personality—how it’s going to change what’s appropriate to me to do on the air—but I suspect that by this time next week, I will.

Consultant Fred Jacobs collected some stories about life on the air in the early days of the coronavirus crisis. Read ’em here.

Also: I’m not going to write about Kenny Rogers, because other people have done it better, including Professor O’Kelly, and Tom Erlewine, and Kyle Coroneos, and Alfred Soto. Read them. 

12 thoughts on “Serious Purpose

  1. Excellent take as always, JB, and thanks for the signal boost.

    Your point about “what’s funny and what’s not” struck a chord with me. I don’t know personally anyone affected – yet – by the virus itself. But we’re all affected by the fallout. It’s not unlike 9/11 in that sense – I didn’t know anyone who was killed or injured that day, yet I’ve taken my shoes off in airports for eighteen years.

    When do the jokes turn sour? I think they already have. Some of the online memes that smack of reference to domestic violence just don’t feel so good when you think about them. (I even thought about a blog post about “songs about illness,” and decided that that may cross a line.) If we go by the time + tragedy formula for comedy, I think we’ll end up looking at a really big number.

  2. Wesley

    Good to hear from you again, JB. Seems like it’s been an eternity with all the events that have happened since your last post. We’re definitely heading into uncharted territory (no pun intended), and how younger deejays handle the ever-changing local and national conditions is definitely going to be interesting to see. As you mentioned, the decision of many stations to drop local news may end up backfiring on them in ways they never imagined.

    I do know that at least two oldies stations I’ve heard here in North Carolina have started adding COVID-19 updates occasionally, which was jarring at first but I’ve gotten used to them, since they’ve been short and informative. As to whether this format will change if the predicted frequency and severity of cases emerges, who knows?

    If nothing else, it’s been reassuring to hear the perspective from a veteran broadcaster like yourself. Wishing you strength and safety as you go about doing what you’ve done all your life while encountering this new curveball thrown along our way.

  3. Tuesday update: my company has decided to yank all of its part-time staff off the air effective immediately and cover all programming with salaried staff. I understand the reasons why they’re doing it, which are not entirely budgetary, and I’m not sorry to be sheltering in place for the duration instead of going out in the world every day. But radio guys do radio, and I’ll miss it.

    1. mikehagerty

      JB: I’m sorry and I’m not—sorry that you’re sidelined and not sorry that your safety just increased by a whole bunch. I imagine the budgets don’t permit them fixing you up with a home studio, but that’s what they should do.

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  5. mackdaddyg

    A friend of mine who still works in radio told me the technical people have it set up so he can do voice tracking from home so he doesn’t have to go into the studio.

    However, they still expect him to do a live remote from a used car lot this weekend, so…….

    1. Lots of companies are setting people up to be on the air remotely. I don’t know if my company is considering this or not.

      I suspect a few radio stations will try to go ahead with their usual weekend remote plans, especially in those places without stay-at-home orders. But unless they’re offering free hot dogs, balloons for the kids, and a free ventilator with every new car purchase, I wouldn’t expect any customers to show.

    2. Good Lord. It sounds like radio management hasn’t gotten any smarter since I stepped aside. I take it this is not in a “shelter in place” state? Here in Michigan that dealer wouldn’t be open unless they sold ambulances.

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