(By Matt and Lisa Miller) While many companies prepare for the COVID-19 outbreak and ask their employees to work from home, we ask the question if radio is an industry that can provide the same quality product with absentee employees? At a time when presumably more Americans will turn to radio for information, how do we balance the safety of our employees while maintaining the integrity of our programming?
Further questions arise: Is the sales staff fully operational remotely? Can the engineers and board operators work primarily by remote control, or is their physical presence in the station a must? Can the on-air talent broadcast from their homes or off-site locations? How do we make this all work? Is there a plan?
To get answers, we spoke with several market managers, programmers, sales personnel and engineers; all of whom asked to remain anonymous. We focused on the following areas: Overall Planning, Programming, Sales, On-Air Talent and Engineering.
The biggest concern was how do you operate a station without people? We learned that most of the major companies have a corporate plan. Some of these plans have been shared, but much of the timing of each stage of the plan is held in the hands of the corporate executives.
One Market Manager we spoke with who is part of a Major Market cluster owned by an independent said that a plan has been discussed. He said he foresaw a time when coming to work would be optional, and that those working from home could do so via VPN. He admitted that regardless, a skeleton crew of key team members would need to be at the stations headquarters and that he would be present throughout any time period deemed necessary.
One SVP of Programming for a large market cluster for a major broadcast company says absolutely a plan has been established as the need arises. As he says, “you have to be ahead of these things”.
We asked each of them their take on the following areas of responsibility:
One market’s cluster of stations, which belong to a large media group, are relying on the company’s deep infrastructure to provide programming from afar as needed. Nearly all of the programmers and managers we spoke with agreed that digital and social media can all be handled remotely. That said, the Program Directors and local group programmers also admit that their physical presence in the station or at the stations will be needed. Even if not daily, they said they would imagine that at some point they will need to be present to handle certain duties. But, as one said, with a greatly reduced staff at the station or company, health risk is drastically reduced for those deployed to the studios as well.
Another cluster programmer even suggested that stations without similarly formatted stations in other markets or internal access to national programming might want to align with a network immediately, which can provide a similar format that a station can tap into in lieu of live and local programming.
Many plan to provide hourly or periodic virus updates so as to service the public as a source of news and information, regardless of format.
While our sources claim sales staffs can work remotely, and that accounting and finance can also be handled remotely, there will need to be a physical presence to sign checks and make bank deposits. Several stations have already converted to automated traffic and billing; for these stations it’s a big relief at times like these. All with whom we spoke felt confident that between email, phone, VPN, etc. they would fulfill their sales duties without skipping a beat. As far as promotional and sales events, those that are currently scheduled are being assessed on a case by case basis; and planning for future events will most likely be on hold for the time being.
One market manager admitted that they are watching how other companies, both in and outside of the broadcast industry, are proceeding with their events and functions. While they are evaluating day to day how best to manage these during this crisis, they concede that there is tremendous exposure for employees and listeners at such events and promotions.
One of the biggest areas of concern is the air talent, but this too has some solutions.
If your station is in a building which is shut down, needed equipment can be moved to nearly anywhere from station remote vehicles to a rented RV. Your air talent can broadcast and be housed separately. Another idea provided by a major market engineer for standalone broadcast facilities housing one or more stations, is to turn the station into a virtual Airbnb with board ops and other crucial personnel able to live at work and who are provided beds, food and other essentials. Then there was the suggestion to take your “remote equipment” and put it at the air talents house.
The GM’s and programmers we spoke with are giving or plan to give the on-air talent the option of working from either the studios or home. One said the primary goal was to remain live during prime-time hours. He said that COMREX units will be deployed to those electing to work from home. Others agree but one said that key on-air personnel may not be able to work remotely on certain stations.
One programmer suggested that it is possible, and has been discussed, that the cluster could greatly reduce the number of people needed at the station if they decide to simulcast one station across the cluster. By doing so certain talent could work remotely or in an isolated fashion, but that it would greatly limit the need for station presence outside of engineers and board ops. In this case, they would select the News/Talk station and utilize key talent from other stations in the cluster to provide greater and enhanced programming. This would create a “superstar” presence of the best known air talent and allow them to participate, creating a new level of entertainment and information while serving to sustain the presence of talent and formats that will return once regular programming resumes. They could do remote cut-ins on their regular station.
In all cases our sources told us that production will need to be handled on site, but that it will be a “skeleton crew” so as to foster safety.
Whatever is automated is of less concern, but still requires a single human to “push the buttons”. Engineers have installed automation wherever possible, but where a human is required the engineer will be on-call as always. Our source tells us that Engineering and Board Operators are essential and will need to be physically present as needed. Needs at transmitter sites are usually without other employees around so that shouldn’t be an issue.
What we learned is that while an overall plan is in place, much of the particular details will be sorted out and executed as it progresses and needs arise. We also realize that while some planning is in place, a lot of this is new territory and will be determined subject to circumstance and opportunity, or lack thereof.
One thing is certain: This will test us as an industry in a way not tried or tested in recent history. While it is a difficult time for all, we have to imagine that much will be learned from this unfortunate experience as companies and employees pull together to make sure that their products, and their fans, continue to rely on radio as a means of information and entertainment.
While most admit that it could be a different listening experience than audiences are accustomed to, they believe they will continue to deliver a quality product that informs and entertains. Some even suggested with the teamwork needed to make it all work, that the overall engagement experience could actually be at a higher level than ever. As all industries and companies will realize, it is their best and brightest people who will rise to the occasion and, through tremendous individual and team effort, will see us through this time of crisis.
Contact Matt and Lisa Miller by e-mail at [email protected]