No Jokes: How Radio Stations Should Talk About COVID-19

No Jokes: How Radio Stations Should Talk About COVID-19
Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash
Tune in to any radio station in Denver and beyond right now, and you're likely to hear hosts or disc jockeys discussing the devastating effects of COVID-19. The topic is so pervasive, so all-encompassing, that it's dominating the conversation whether an outlet's usual focus is news, talk, sports, music or anything else.

This situation presents plenty of pitfalls, especially for personalities not accustomed to tackling such a serious subject. Consider the fallout from a segment last week on a Radio 95.1 program hosted by Rochester, New York, personalities Kimberly and Beck. A caller to the show offered an "unknown fun fact.... Coronavirus, of all the deaths that have been going on around the world, they have mostly been white people, and very few black people have died from the virus." Rather than immediately cutting the line and changing topics, or noting that thousands of fatalities have taken place in China, Beck said, "That is a fun fact," with Kimberly chiming in, "See, see, it's discrimination from the virus." To that, Beck responded, "Listen, it's the KKK of diseases.... I'll tell you this right now: White people matter."

We haven't heard anything approaching this level of egregiousness on the local airwaves since the rise of COVID-19, and managers want their talent to avoid falling into a similar trap. Last week during the morning show on Alice 105.9, Westword Q&A participant Jamie White and co-host B.J. Harris discussed how they'd been trying to keep conversation about the virus light while noting that an all-staff meeting to discuss how to talk about it moving forward had been called for that afternoon.

Mike Henry would like to help radio pros avoid public-relations disaster. As the founder and CEO of Denver-based Paragon Media Strategies, as well as a recent Westword profile subject, Henry has helped shape the sound and style of ten radio stations in the greater metro area by way of either research or hands-on consultation, including hip-hop and R&B purveyor KS 104, now KS 107.5; oldies specialist KOOL 105; sports radio's 104.3 The Fan, currently dominating at 104.3 FM; and "music-discovery" outlets Indie 102.3, The Drop and The Colorado Sound. As such, he's an expert at striking the right tone on the air, and he's created a 24-item checklist for radio stations of any format to consider when it comes to COVID-19.

Prominent among the items is this two-word tip: "No jokes."

Henry came up with the advice because "local radio stations play a critical role in the lives of everyone within their coverage area," he notes. "This is a time for local radio to come together and for all of us to collaborate." To that end, he encourages program directors to visit Paragon's Facebook page "so we can collectively build a more robust list of action items and all local radio stations can benefit from everyone's best ideas and learned experience."

Mike Henry has helped shape the sound of ten Denver-area radio stations. - COURTESY OF MIKE HENRY
Mike Henry has helped shape the sound of ten Denver-area radio stations.
Courtesy of Mike Henry
This is Henry's starter set, which also offers a window into the ways stations may attempt to cement their relationship with listeners during this challenging period.

1. Communicate calmly
2. Be factual
3. No jokes
4. Give on air talent guidelines for do's and don'ts
5. News stations should ramp up their update schedules and focus their reporting topics
6. Music stations should continue to be a source of entertainment and a respite from the news, but also consider a branded hourly update
7. NPR News/Talk stations need to up their local game and preempt national shows that veer from critical topics with local programming
8. Relay local updates, closings, cancellations and resources on air
9. Let listeners know you will break into regular programming immediately with breaking news
10. Then...make sure you do break into regular programming immediately with breaking news
11. Build and promote a microsite with links to local resources
12. Always push listeners to
13. Use your social media as a platform for community storytelling and user updates (think Waze)
14. Reshape your e-newsletter content and increase the frequency of distribution
15. Notify local government personnel so they know you are there for immediate communications
16. Stop promoting public events
17. Stop giving away tickets
18. Share uplifting local stories of citizen actions on air
19. Pull advertising and underwriting that may be perceived as tone deaf
20. Utilize the NAB Coronavirus Toolkit with PSA scripts in English and Spanish
21. Have an internal plan for continued operations if your station or staff are quarantined
22. Partner with other local radio and TV stations and digital media for continued operations
23. Post employee guidelines for co-existing in common areas...go home if you feel ill, wash hands, no touching, clean workspaces, etc. 
24. Buy geo-targeted ads on social media letting locals know you are a live and local resource with real-time updates
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts