Leading Through A Pandemic


(By Deborah Parenti) It was supposed to be a year of reflection and anticipation. Reflection, as we are inclined to do at historic moments, on the 100-year anniversary of radio. Anticipation, as to what its future holds. 

And it truly is a milestone. Radio was the first electronic medium to communicate and connect with the masses, beginning with KDKA’s first commercial broadcast of the Harding-Cox election returns on November 2, 1920. Its power to create “theater of the mind” was never more apparent than Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, reported by a print press much intimidated by this new competitor to have caused great panic among listeners.

In the 100 years since those mics opened, however, predictions of radio’s demise have never been in short supply. While thought to be “doomed” by television, CB radio, tape decks, satellite, streaming, and a bevy of new digital platforms, radio can still kick butt with the best in terms of reach, efficiency, and brand-building. Still, there are those who always see the glass half-empty.

Since the Telecom Act of 1996, a great deal of well-placed criticism has been lobbed by many across the industry at those making industry- and career-altering decisions. It’s tough watching something you love being reconfigured, or in some minds, dismantled. Especially when you have no control. Similar to that wonderful child who grew up to become poles apart from you in everything from religion to politics. All that investment of time and energy for this?

Of course, radio people, for all their creativity and drive, are also inclined to be a contrarian lot. Perhaps it is an artistic characteristic. Visionaries also tend to be that way. What one mind creates is unique; therefore, no one else can possibly carry off the vision or paint the picture. Free-thinking individualism doesn’t always jibe with a team huddle.

So it is when we talk about leadership, especially leadership so powerful that it impacts more than just a single company’s direction. Rather, it permeates an entire industry. And our piece of the turf within it.

But that was pre-coronavirus, a crisis no one could have predicted. One of such proportions, it has insinuated itself into every corner of life. And no one has been immune to its impact. No business category. No home. Nobody. Instead of celebrating 100 years of innovation and creativity, the focus today is on the next 100 hours, the next 100 days, trying to figure out how to navigate a crisis of incomparable proportions, how to survive the unprecedented challenges it has brought, and how to operate moving forward into a world that will be forever changed. 

Radio is not, however, the only victim suffering the damage brought on by the pandemic. Across the board, businesses and industries have been shattered, shuttered, and shaken to the core. And have cut or canceled their advertising, including radio advertising, accounting for up to 50% declines in some markets. Let that sink in as you read through a list of recently reported losses outside the radio industry:

AT&T: laying off 3,400 and shutting down more than 250 stores
Hilton: laid off 22% of corporate workforce
Chevron: cutting 10-15% of workforce
Boeing: laid off 7,000
IBM: eliminated “several thousand jobs”
Virgin Atlantic: cut 3,150 jobs
Trip Advisor: 900 layoffs
Disney World: furloughed 43,000
Hertz: laid off 10,000 of 38,000
Tesla: furloughed all non-essential and 10% pay cuts for employees
JC Penney: furloughing significant portion of 85,000 workers
Under Armour: temporarily laid off 6,700
Class Pass (fitness platform): 22%laid off, 31% furloughed
Sotheby’s: furloughed 12%
Sephora: laid off 3,000
Macy’s: furloughed most of its 125,000 employees
GE: 10% reduction in aviation unit, three-month furlough impacting 50% maintenance and repair
Air Canada: 50% laid off
Cirque du Soleil: 95% laid off
Union Square Hospitality Group, NYC: 80% laid off
Marriott: “10’s of thousands” furloughed

In the midst of this storm, enter the 2020 Radio Ink Top 40. No matter what your opinion of their decisions or style, this is the group leading us into the next century. And over the past few months, they have faced challenges no one could have dreamed of one short year ago. Fortunately for radio, they are overwhelmingly “glass half-full” kind of people. They believe in their teams, and, in fact, fully credit them with the nimble adaptability, creativity, and spirit that have kept stations serving audiences and advertisers and supporting each other throughout the crisis.

Their reflections this year in our Top 40 print issue offer an unusually provocative read and a promising, if slow and measured, outlook for the coming year in terms of recovery. While acknowledging the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, especially when and how it will be conquered or at least reasonably mitigated, there is an underlying degree of cautious optimism. Much of that stems from the creativity and cohesive teamwork they see within their own organizations as well as across the industry as a whole.

Radio is often perceived as late to the table and its leadership more interested in profits than programming. But this pandemic has prompted quick, decisive action at all levels. And that started at the top or under its direction. And ironically, some of the technologies frequently cited as the bane of broadcasting have enabled radio to continue to serve audiences and clients without missing a beat since the virus found many doing their shows and working remotely. As such, radio was positioned to concentrate more energy on what to present than how to get it on the air.

While it’s comforting to wax nostalgic, the industry has responded admirably to the needs of its listeners, advertisers, and indeed, personnel faced with operating under this crisis. Credit where credit is due. In a world of ofttimes debated and second-guessed decisionmaking, radio leaders have led in this time of monstrous crisis. And they have some promising visions for the future.  

Deborah Parenti is Publisher of Radio Ink Magazine and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


  1. Deborah, your enthusiasm for radio is commendable. But I think that your views are based more on radio of the past.
    How exactly have radio leaders “led” during this crisis, or even during the last 5 years?
    Specifically, the huge corporate groups including iHeart, Cumulus, and now Entercom have killed the relevance of many of their stations.
    Just yesterday, Entercom laid off hundreds more, and is now voice-tracking prime day parts in many many markets. Just like iHeart does.
    And when you remove the live and local personalities, and the live and local promotions, you literally have just removed the heart of what differentiates and separates radio from other audio options.
    When radio is offering robotic voice-tracking– with no local real time relevance to the listeners- and cluster breaks of 10 or 12 commercials in a row, radio is no different, at that point, than the plethora of online streaming options. And actually the streaming options have more appeal to the listener, because they are not bloated with commercial cluster loads. Those intolerably long commercial breaks just drive listeners away!
    And for proof that voice-tracking is toxic to radio, one needs look no further than KIIS Radio in LA. …Ryan Seacrest has been “phoning in” his morning show in LA from New York, with much of it voice-tracking. And now KIIS, once #1 or #2 in the market, isn’t even in the Top 10. Imagine the revenue implications to iHeart.
    And no, I’m not a glass “half-empty” guy, lol. I’m a guy looking at reality. The reality is, radio in large part these days consists of overleveraged corporate groups, who are focused on debt service and executive compensation. …Airing LOCAL live programming, and paying solid salaries to talented LOCAL personalities, is not part of their mindset.
    Sad but true.
    Maybe the best hope is, some of these large groups go defunct– which they inevitably will, with the massive revenue slides now occurring- and local owners come back in, and buy some local signals for pennies on the dollar.
    Hopefully though, it won’t be too late for those stations.


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