New York City is known as The City That Never Sleeps, but like most of America, it came to a sudden stop in the spring of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the shores of America. “We thought we were in some type of ghost town,” Cynthia Smith, PD of Mediaco adult R&B WBLS (107.5) recalls.
The pandemic lockdown was followed in early summer by a groundswell of protests following the death of George Floyd, along with conflicting information about the COVID-19 virus that had to be addressed.
“We just had to continue to be vocal… We just kind of stayed on top of things,” Smith continued. “We did town halls, we had different leaders on, we had doctors on, not just making it pushing the vaccine per se, but just really kind of educating people on the vaccine… the benefits [there] were from it.”
From those days, Smith and fellow panelists, Black Information Network President Tony Coles, morning personalities Frank Ski and Nina Brown of “The Frank Ski Show” and consultant Tony Gray ruminated on lessons learned from the pandemic, as well as how to keep Black audiences engaged and growing and where the next generation of talent will come from. The reflections came during “Programming for Community During the COVID Era” at NABOB, held in-person and virtually this week at MGM National Harbor Resort & Casino near Washington, DC.
Skip Dillard, session moderator and Mediaco VP of National Community Partnerships, posed the question to the programmers and talent: Where do we go from here?
Gray said many stations are still dealing with the impact the pandemic had on revenue. Much of the revenue for stations that target a younger audience comes “from local direct business, meaning nightclubs,” he explained. “Because of the pandemic, a lot of these businesses were shut down and so urban stations who have traditionally had a difficult time generating the same amount of revenue as a general market station with similar ratings really suffered.” While there is some return of business as venues reopen, Gray said it continues “to be an ongoing concern in terms of [these type stations’] business model.”
How has the presentation of radio shows changed since the pandemic? If you ask Ski and Brown, they’d tell you, not much. “Being informative and entertaining and inspirational before the pandemic made it so that when the pandemic hit, when people wanted information, entertainment and inspiration, they knew who to go to,” said Ski.
Utilizing social media platforms to keep the conversation going after the mics were off helped Ski and Brown stay connected with their audience. Brown said, if anything, “we just became more transparent… when we’re hurt, we talked about it; when we’re happy, we talked about it; when we’re joyous, we share it. We also give the opportunity to our listeners to be a part of that. Whether it’s on the air or through social media, we always try to be where they can touch us, they can feel us and I think that will never expire.”
“I think that over the past 18 months, two years, people have felt unsettled,” Coles added. “Part of being a responsible broadcaster is making people feel safe, making people feel connected. And sometimes that’s a song. But as we’ve seen over the past couple of years, sometimes that’s just stopping the music, and talking about what you’re going through, because your listeners are going through the same.”
Moving Forward With The Next Generation Of Air Talent
The assembled panelists, and moderator, are all veterans of Black radio. Even so, they know they won’t be in their current position of influence forever. Who will carry the torch forward, and where will they come from?
While social media seems to be the shiny object that talent scouts often focus on, it’s not a sure-fire plan for finding radio air talent. “It's not just a matter of taking them from social media, and throwing them on the air, because there has to be a love for the job,” Ski offered. “A lot of times, people that come from social media, they don’t want to get up at six o’clock in the morning, they don’t want to do a morning show, they don’t want to be confined to going into work. They want to do what they do, because they’re creatives. And that’s what creatives do.”
Gray said when he searches for talent, “I still look for people who have a real innate desire to be successful in the business who love the business, who aren't necessarily driven by immediate financial gain. I have a lot of young talent that come along and say, ‘Well, Steve Harvey makes this, Rickey Smiley makes this,’ and I say, ‘Well, that that's true. But where did they begin? And what is the path that it took for them to get there.’ You’re not going to come out of undergraduate school and immediately make a six or seven figure salary.”