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First Informers and Bridge Builders

The image shows two standing microphones on a table in a studio. Two pairs of headphones with a surgical face mask in front of them sit on the table.
Aaron Henkin / WYPR
A new addition to a reporter's kit: a face mask.

When Maryland went into lockdown at the onset of the Covid pandemic, the region’s public radio stations were deemed ‘essential businesses.’ The staff at WYPR, WEAA, WTMD, and WBJC had a challenge on their hands: How do you stay safe and, at the same time, maintain a service that’s now more crucial than ever?

On the sixth and final episode of Wavelength, radio makers talk about navigating the pandemic. They also look ahead to the future of public radio in a rapidly changing media landscape.

Production and support for this podcast was brought to you in part by PNC Bank.

Episode Transcription:
Gov. Larry Hogan: I have issued a proclamation declaring a state of emergency in Maryland.

Maria Broom: This is Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey, from Your Public Studios, a monthly podcast series made possible by PNC Bank.

I'm your host, Maria Broom.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan issued that state of emergency on March 3, 2020. That morning, the first three cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in Maryland. We know all too well where things headed from there. Within two weeks, schools and libraries were closed, large gatherings were banned, and state employees were ordered to work remotely, if possible. Restrictions were mounting, and on March 23, Hogan took to his podium again, this time with a sweeping announcement.

Gov. Larry Hogan: This morning, I have enacted an executive order which closes all non-essential businesses, organizations, establishments, and facilities in Maryland, effective at five o'clock today.

Maria Broom: Among those businesses deemed essential by the governor: radio.

LaFontaine Oliver: So for us here at WYPR, the pandemic created a pretty interesting situation where we had to pretty quickly pivot and become what many of us call “first informers.”

Maria Broom: Your Public Radio President and General Manager, LaFontaine Oliver.

LaFontaine Oliver: Yes, we were going to maintain our normal programming schedule, but we would also inject into that as often as as appropriate information that quite honestly became life saving information

Danyell Irby: The general manager and I, LaFontaine Oliver, met and said, “What can we do to give our audience the news of the day, sans a firehose, in a calm, cohesive manner?”

Maria Broom: WYPR Executive News Director, Danyell Irby.

Danyell Irby: Because remember, there was so much coming out about COVID-19 then, there were rumors, there were rumors mixed with facts. And so that's when we decided to start up the podcast, The Daily Dose, as a compilation of our news teams reporting at the end of the day, and again, in a calm and cohesive fashion for our audience.

Aaron Henkin, hosting The Daily Dose: It's Friday, March 27. I'm Aaron Henkin. City council candidates scrambled to campaign in the midst of a pandemic. Teachers gear up for a long school shutdown, and scammers try to exploit an already bad situation. It's The Daily Dose brought to you by WYPR.

LaFontaine Oliver: People needed a place where they could go and get well researched, nuanced information that also did not sensationalize the situation. And that was not that was not easy for us here at WYPR.

Danyell Irby: There was no aspect of life or business that COVID-19 wasn't affecting. And so I think a lot of it was adrenaline and eagerness to do factual reporting, and to get it out to our audience. And I think that was our main driving force then. And of course, figuring out how we're all going to do that remotely.

LaFontaine Oliver: Folks found ways to record news spots from closets in their homes. We had to make investments in equipment and technology to allow for much more remote broadcasting than I think any of us ever thought would ever be necessary or possible. But it all I think worked out pretty well when you consider that we were able to maintain a high quality, daily, 24/7 news service that pivoted and really began to focus on that life saving information, especially during those early days of COVID when, you know, lives were being lost at a rate that no one was prepared for.

Dr. Karsonya "Kaye" Wise Whitehead: People were afraid, and we knew that the worst thing for WDA to do as a voice in the community is to not be on the air at a time when our community is most frightened, feeling very alone, not sure of what to do or who to trust.

Maria Broom: Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead is the host of WEAA’s daily live talk show, Today with Dr. Kaye.

Dr. Karsonya "Kaye" Wise Whitehead: We made the commitment to stay live as long as possible. So we would actually go into the studio, our general manager at that time, Malarie Pinkard-Pierre, cleared everyone out and only had people come in with routines. You have to wear your mask, go into your separate areas, so we can continue to bring the news. We tried to do all of our work from home. They purchased all this equipment, so that way I was at my kitchen table at that point, my son was helping me, but we tried to stay on to bring the live show every day. When the system kept collapsing, and it was really unnerving for people, for me to be on the air now go off and come back on, we then moved back into the studio. But we continued to stay live every single day. It was really challenging and emotionally draining to do so.

Maria Broom: Emotionally draining, yes. But also important. Dr. Kaye says that it's in these moments of crisis that public radio shines the brightest.

Dr. Karsonya "Kaye" Wise Whitehead: When every state in every county has their own different story, because it impacts everyone differently, you look to the public radio station in your community to bring you the truth about what's happened. Proximity matters. People were, they were concerned about COVID-19 in Seattle, Washington, but I want to know, is it here, and if it is here, what do we do? Don't tell me that they're closing parks in Texas. What about right here in Patterson Park? Do I need to be concerned? And this is what we did. We took the international, national focus and we really narrowed it to take it through the lens of Baltimore City and then through the lens of Maryland to help people make sense of it.

Taped broadcast from an episode of Today with Dr. Kaye: Welcome to Today with Dr. Kaye. I'm Dr. "Kaye" Wise Whitehead. I'm joined now by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top leading expert on infectious diseases. Dr. Fauci, let me begin by thanking you for your leadership, for your wisdom, for your steady hand during this very difficult time. And we truly appreciate you sir.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Well, thank you for saying that. I appreciate it. Thank you. 

Dr. Karsonya "Kaye" Wise Whitehead: So we're gonna talk about the impact of COVID-19 on the African American community…

Dr. Karsonya "Kaye" Wise Whitehead: We were able to secure getting Dr. Fauci as the first time he sat down with a Black radio station, because WEAA, We Educate African Americans, that's what our call letters stand, for but the first time he sat down to speak about COVID-19, specifically as it impacted the Black community, because early on when COVID first hit, there was a lie going around that Black folks couldn't get COVID. So part of the work we were doing was to counteract that live particularly when you saw the way it disproportionately impacted our community.

Maria Broom: While news stations like WEAA and WYPR scrambled to cover the story of the pandemic, public radio music stations had their own set of challenges.

Same Sessa: The pandemic hit events the hardest.

Maria Broom: When social gatherings were banned in venues shut down, Sam Sesa was in charge of live events for WTMD, including Baltimore's popular First Thursdays concert series. Sam's job as he knew it, evaporated before his eyes. So he had to pivot.

Sam Sessa: We took First Thursday's digital, we turned them into virtual First Thursdays, which became these really cool live streams on Facebook that we did that got a really great reception. We were pleasantly surprised by how many people tuned in and some of the performers that we could get because it was actually in the end easier to get some of them because all they had to do was record a video. They didn't have to come here and take time and book a hotel, you know, all that logistical mess that comes along with playing a live show for a nationally touring band. But I think one of the signature things that we did was we made a short documentary. And it turned out to be better than we could have possibly expected because because of the pandemic, all of these bands that we wanted to get were already in town because they couldn't tour. So we had Snail Mail, Beach House, Dan Deacon, Future Islands, like all these big Baltimore bands, we were able to get them and interview them for the documentary,

Clip from Do Whatever You Want, All the Time: Seattle in the early 90s, you had grunge in New York in the early 2000s, post-punk, but the beauty of Baltimore is there is no genre tying everyone together. There's not a sonic through-line in this town. 

Sam Sessa: It's called Do Whatever You Want, All the Time, named after this album from this Baltimore band Ponytail, and we feel like that title is a perfect way. That's the perfect beat for the vibe in the scene.

Clip from Do Whatever You Want, All the Time: Baltimore music shows are like Spotify playlists- there literally can be anything. 

Maria Broom: While WTMD found new ways to support and celebrate the local music scene, long running music station WBJC kept the light on for fans of classical music. As a part of Baltimore City Community College, the radio station was one of the few operations that remained staffed in person. WBJC’s Jonathan Palevsky remembers realizing that he and his colleagues were, in fact, essential workers. The governor was expecting them to report for duty.

Jonathan Palevsky: And we did, and the support people came in occasionally and the on-air people worked as they normally worked, which was great for us, frankly. I mean, that was, that was a blessing and I was so happy to have the luxury of doing our regular job. We were very careful. We, all of us both in our private lives and our radio lives. We maintained social distance. We wore masks when we needed to wear masks. We didn't go out, we were all very careful so that none of us got sick or got any each other sick, and during the whole period of time, one person got COVID post-vaccine, and he was, he was not seriously affected. And he was back to work in 10 days. And we were determined to be there. And we were there. And we maintained our regular service and we played music that was an incredible comfort to many, many, many people. And we were very proud of that. And people responded both financially, and also emotionally.

Maria Broom: Whether it was music programming or the news of the day, WYPR’s LaFontaine Oliver says the pandemic was a reminder to public radio to honor its roots.

LaFontaine Oliver: Overall, I think WYPR and many of the other stations embraced the spirit of the Communications Act of 1934, which talked about the fact that, you know, broadcasters were to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. And I think the health pandemic created immediately for all of us a situation where it was important for us to think about what our community needed from us in that time, which was, quite honestly, access to accurate, relevant, timely information during a period where there were a lot of unknowns.

Maria Broom: You're listening to Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. Coming up, we fast forward to the present, and cast our gaze to the future. What's next for public radio in the years and decades ahead? What are the challenges on the horizon in a rapidly changing media landscape? More in a moment.

Maria Broom: When LaFontaine Oliver looks to the future, he reminds himself of one of public radio's greatest strengths: connection to community.

LaFontaine Oliver: We are truly the last locally owned, operated, and governed media, really, in our country. And that's really important and that ties us to our community in ways that I think, are really powerful and are going to continue to offer us opportunities, if we prioritize that connection to community and that means listening to our community. That means reflecting our community, that means finding ways to let our community into the work that we're doing and have them do that work alongside us.

Wendy Williams: The knowledge that you get when you listen to public radio, you're going to learn something.

Maria Broom: Wendy Williams worked at WEAA in the 1990s.

Wendy Williams: When your community rallies around you and when your community depends on you, you become the voice and the conscience, I believe of your community.

Lamont Germany: I know the need is greater than ever.

Maria Broom: Lamont Germany was a student volunteer at WEAA when the station first went on air in 1977.

Lamont Germany: The information that is needed in a society in which there are so many varied sources for information, and the frankly, the credibility of that information is questionable. You need the foundational information conduit that public radio has provided and continues to provide. And because I believe the need is there and stronger than ever. I think public radio's going to be here, despite the current landscape, I think in many ways, it makes the need even greater than it's been in the past.

LaFontaine Oliver: You know, I've been thinking a lot about this, this concept of being a bridge, being a bridge between communities, being a bridge between different opinions and different thoughts. We are in some ways more divided than we've ever been, and I think the role of public media, both from a news and journalism perspective, and also from the perspective of music presentation is that we can serve as a bridge between communities. We can find ways through our content to bring people together, to have people see that, yes, we have differences, but that we share so much in common and, you know, part of that currency that we have in doing that, it is in fact built around trust. And I think that's really, really important as some communities continue to, to grow further apart is, you know, who's going to be that bridge to bring communities together? And I think for a long time, public media has done that. But I think we can do even more in that area. And I think if we do, we will be rewarded by our community with their support, with their trust. And I think that's important to our future as well.

Gary Levine: Everything that WYPR does now you can listen to right from your digital device in your car while you're on a walk. So my adage is, if you have a quality news organization, you have to deliver it in any possible way that they can get it

Maria Broom: Gary Levine is a WYPR Board Member. He's also an unapologetic tech geek. Gary loves what he hears on WYPR, but like more and more listeners every day he doesn't necessarily hear it on the old fashioned airwaves. WYPR’s Andy Bienstock understands that digital streaming and podcasts are now essential vehicles for public radio content.

Andy Bienstock: Radio listening habits are changing, the way people consume media is changing, and public radio is having to change with it. And we're trying to keep up with it. Radio numbers are still good. I mean, good heavens, COVID was a flaming disaster for listening. But numbers have pretty much returned to pre-COVID levels. So I think the future is, I wouldn't say shiningly bright– there's a lot of questions in the future, but I think the future is bright for public radio.

Dr. Karsonya "Kaye" Wise Whitehead: I think one of the biggest challenges that public radio is going to face in the years ahead is the increase in noise.

Maria Broom: Again, Dr. Kaye at WEAA.

Dr. Karsonya "Kaye" Wise Whitehead: In the old days, radio was your only option in the car. Those days are gone. And so I think for public radio, finding a way to cut through the noise to make it so that your show or your station or the work you're doing is so essential, it becomes what we call “appointment radio.” The way everybody's used to say, “I'm gonna go watch the Cosby Show.” “I'm gonna go watch Seinfeld,” like it was appointment television on Thursday night for the lineup. How do you make it so your radio show becomes appointment radio, that no matter what else is going on during the daytime? I've got to tune-in at this time because there's essential information that I'm getting.

LaFontaine Oliver: We will all continue to embrace the on demand future that is how do we make our content available when people want it, how people want it, on whatever platforms they may roam on. But the thing that will stay consistent hopefully for all of us, is what I like to call that high thread count of content, whether it is the presentation of music, arts, culture, whether it's the presentation of news and information, that emphasis on going the extra mile, taking the extra step, doing that with a certain level of rigor and intentionality is going to hopefully continue to set us apart and connect us to our community.

Judith Krummeck: We like to say when we have fundraising that you are the public in public radio, and I think that sense that people can be, certainly in our case, sponsors of the arts. I think that is one of the really, really strong calls.

Maria Broom: Judith Krummeck is the weekday evening drive time host at WBJC. She says the listeners who support her station appreciate consistency.

Judith Krummeck: They absolutely know what they’re getting because they've been getting absolutely pure classical music since 1986. And we've been around so long that they trust us, and that sense of ownership. It's interesting if they call the station, perhaps they want to hear about a piece of music they heard, the pride that you hear from them if they say “I am a member.” It's just that sense that they can actually contribute to the community that we have here in Baltimore in some way. And I think that's a very strong call of public radio, whether it’s talk or music.

Dr. Karsonya "Kaye" Wise Whitehead: As a public radio station, we rely on our members to give money.

Maria Broom: Dr. Kaye says when she first started at WEAA, the big question was, how do we get the community to give?

Dr. Karsonya "Kaye" Wise Whitehead: Well, I come from the Black church, and I know the research that shows that the Black community is actually the largest giving community in America, but we tithe more, we give to groups more, we give a lot of money. So to, in order for people to say, “I've got to give my $5,” for example, to WEAA to Today with Dr. Kaye, then it has to be an essential part of their life. It has to be appointment radio, and they have to have what I always say on the air, some skin in the game.

Maria Broom: For LaFontaine Oliver at WYPR, the future of public media in general hinges on a radical idea, an idea that stations haven't executed that well up to this point, but it may be their saving grace.

LaFontaine Oliver: I believe firmly that public media and our industry overall gets stronger when we learn from each other. So this may be wishful thinking, but I'm hoping that there's more collaboration in our future, across stations, across formats. We strengthen ourselves and we strengthen our connection to the community and our ability to serve when we start to work together. I also think the future of public radio in Baltimore really hinges on all of us, thinking about how we can attract and retain a younger and more diverse audience. I think it's vital to our future. I think it's vital to our public service models. I think it's vital to even our financial and our business models. And then I guess finally, I think the future of public radio is about, it has to be about community. It has to be about us strengthening our relationship with our family of communities here in Baltimore so that we continue to find more ways to be important and relevant and in more aspects of the lives of people here in Baltimore. And I think that's really critical to our success.

Maria Broom: You’ve been listening to Wavelength: Baltimore’s Public Radio Journey from Your Public Studios. I’m Maria Broom.

Production and support for this podcast and WYPR’s 20th Anniversary was brought to you in part by the PNC Bank.

Jamyla Krempel is the executive producer of Wavelength. Anne Kramer is our producer. Katie Marquette is our audio editor. Production and engineering support by Spencer Bryant. Research and production assistance by Maddie Bristowe.

You can learn more about the podcast and listen to other episodes in this six-part series at wypr.org/wavelength.

I’m Maria Broom. Thanks for listening.

Aaron creates and produces original radio programs and podcasts for WYPR. His current project is The Maryland Curiosity Bureau. Aaron's neighborhood documentary series, Out of the Blocks, earned the 2018 national Edward R Murrow Award. His past work includes the long-running weekly cultural program, The Signal, and the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings series, Tapestry of the Times. Aaron's stories have aired nationally on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.