The COVID-19 pandemic hit the African American community especially hard, with cases 2.6% higher than white and non-Hispanic persons, along with a higher hospitalization rate (+4.7%) and death rate (+2.1%), according to the CDC. Not surprising, radio stepped up offering information, communications, and relief for the Black community.
“Our air talent was turned into first responders,” Skip Dillard VP Programming of WBLS/WLIB New York said Thursday during the Programmers Panel during the By Black Conference. “We became part of that group as we were called upon, especially in African American and minority communities to offer actionable, accurate information.”
Dillard said stations focused the information specifically for their community, relying on state and local officials. He said listeners wanted to hear what local mayors and the governors were doing in regards to the pandemic.
“When the world is at its worst, radio is at its best,” said Tony Coles, President of Black Information Network (BIN). The iHeartMedia-owned network launched during the pandemic so working remotely is all any of its staff knows. “It’s proven just how powerful radio could be,” Coles continued. “In a lot of ways, it’s been a great blessing, because we’ve got news anchors in small towns and we’ve got news anchors in major cities. It’s given us a different perspective on COVID, both personally and professionally.”
American Urban Radio Networks (AURN) Senior VP of Programming Adriane Gaines said her team quickly pivoted into a remote working environment. “We didn’t miss a beat,” she said. Comfortable that operations continued seamlessly, Gaines asked affiliates how the network could help. The network created a “Hope and Healing” series with pastors around the country, placing their remarks on AURN’s 24/7 web stream. AURN Inspirational offered gospel artist and radio/TV host Bobby Jones to gospel and contemporary-formatted stations alike.
“Being a smaller company allowed us to be nimble and allowed us to move quicker,” Superadio Networks President Eric Faison said. Seeing the way the pandemic was changing operations at many radio groups and stations, Faison also saw an opportunity to help. “We saw the need at the stations to help fill voids from furloughs and layoffs,” he explained. “We could help the stations by offering major talent and quality programming that might not be available to them – and we were able to do it at no cost to the station.”
As has been noted during recent months, Facebook Live, Twitter and Instagram and virtual events helped keep the connection between radio stations and their listeners. It also helped to provide new ways of community involvement.
WBLS has two Facebook Live forums during the week, Dillard said. “Those have been very effective.” A Town Hall style event was held after the death of George Floyd, “to address the unrest in our streets and where we go,” he added. The sessions are teased on air with short segments and then the audience is invited to the Facebook Live broadcasts.
“Six months of COVID has advanced technology six years,” Coles said. “More importantly, our adaptation to it. We are using more and video on our social platforms.”
Gaines said AURN conducted a “Praise in Place” across the networks’ platforms where they connected with four pastors and spoke about what they were doing locally and how they were helping their communities navigate the crisis. “This was very successful,” she said. “We are getting ready to launch another one.”
The session was moderated by Karen Slade, VP/GM at Taxi Productions adult R&B KJLH Los Angeles (102.3.)