Flash back to fall 2019 at a community station abuzz with activity. A DJ is in the studio, spinning records, while volunteers socialize, work in production studios and assemble donor gift packages. Training is underway for new recruits and anticipation is high for a co-promoted concert at a nearby venue. Hugs are exchanged along with “hellos” and “goodbyes.”
For much of 2020 most of these activities were just a memory, as stations adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What does community radio look like when the community isn’t necessarily allowed inside the station? How are stations that pride themselves on 24/7 live in-studio DJs doing radio when they must restrict access to their buildings? And how are volunteer-reliant stations adjusting to socially distanced engagement?
The Grassroots Radio Conference confronted these questions in October. Held virtually, the event was hosted by ARTxFM, otherwise known as WXOX(LP) in Louisville, Ky.
Dr. MarkAlain Dery has a unique perspective on studio safety, as an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist as well as founder of community station WHIV(LP) in New Orleans. He spoke as part of the online conference.
For much of this year, only one person at a time has been allowed at WHIV. Masks are required and a clean sock is placed over the studio microphone for each shift.
Importance is placed on handwashing and disinfection of surfaces, and the production booth is closed. Flyers implore, “Spread Love, Not Germs.” WHIV supplies washable masks, which show hosts drop into a container marked “dirty” upon exit. Dery emphasizes the aerosolized nature of coronavirus, pointing out that masks and ventilation are both critical.
Because of the challenges in keeping studios clean and safe for volunteers, many community stations have opted to limit access drastically, with some shutting down in-person activities entirely.
In the early days of the coronavirus, WXOX shifted to a staggered studio schedule so that on-air hosts were not running into each other during program transitions. The initial plan was to have one volunteer do a show in the studio, followed by a remote broadcast.
Even with that precaution in place, WXOX General Manager Sharon Scott grew increasingly worried about everyone’s health.
“Literally, I wasn’t sleeping at night,” she reflected. When the outbreak worsened, she closed the studio. By that point most hosts were already broadcasting from home.
100 Different At-Home Studios
While each community station approaches broadcasting amid a pandemic differently, many used archived programs and automation to fill schedules when live DJs cannot be in the studio.
This was the initial approach at WFMU(FM) in East Orange, N.J., near New York City, where only a skeleton crew of staffers is allowed at the station.
Looking back on the early rerun-filled days, Station Manager Ken Freedman said that “It was awful.” He described the awkwardness of airing pre-virus shows that felt out of step while listeners in New York and New Jersey were going through the crisis.
Quickly, priorities shifted to setting up home studios for WFMU’s sheltering DJs. Freedman described how “sobering” it was to be at an epicenter of the pandemic, knowing people who died and having DJs come down with the virus.
Although WFMU has been doing remote broadcasts over IP for over 20 years, Freedman said that in some ways it’s more difficult today because there are “so many more options.” With around 100 different studios in DJ homes, it can be “very challenging” to help orchestrate myriad options and troubleshoot all the permutations of breakdowns in the broadcast chain.
It’s a similar situation at WXOX, where live broadcasts are originating from home studios across Louisville.
One vintage record-loving DJ has taken over a dining room table with their turntable setup; another broadcasts from a front porch, with bands playing in his front yard; and some keep it super simple using just a laptop.
To facilitate live remote broadcasting, WXOX created a secondary stream that only the on-air hosts can access. Hosts broadcast live to this stream, which the station picks up to transmit over FM and online. Scott recommends that for this behind-the-scenes stream, stations obtain a plan with the highest bit rate and lowest cap on the number of listeners to save on costs.
Under current circumstances, stations also have been more tolerant of variations in sound quality to allow community radio hosts to work remotely. Even the voice memo app on a smartphone can be used to record audio, from interviews to public service announcements.
A new vocabulary
At cash-strapped community stations, home setups for DJs can be Spartan; but low-cost or free software platforms help. Minimal requirements are a computer, internet connection, and headphones.
Sharon Scott encourages DJs to connect with an Ethernet cable to help mitigate troublesome WiFi connections. USB microphones are also recommended, although not every DJ has one.
Software used by DJs to stream live at WXOX and WFMU includes AudioHijack, Rocket Broadcaster, LadioCast and BUTT (“broadcast using this tool”).
Pacifica Network has posted a discussion of software and strategies for remote broadcasting that includes Zoom, Squadcast, Riverside.fm, Ringr, Zencastr, phone interviews, Cleanfeed, split-tracking, Dropbox, Splashtop, VPN, Rocket Broadcaster and Radio Hijack.
In Ames, Iowa, KHOI(FM) show hosts have been doing live radio and interviews using Zoom video meetings. Station Manager Ursula Ruedenberg calls it the “simplest solution” for programs with co-hosts and guests, despite some audio sacrifices.
Listeners have been understanding. “It’s a COVID-19 sound … people freezing up or sound getting a little bit wonky just has become part of the way things sound now,” she articulated.
“There for each other”
Beyond technical glitches, the “COVID-19 sound” has unintended benefits.
In Albany, N.Y., Paul Smart of WCAA(LP) has led audio production workshops that eschew “professional gloss.” For him, providing access and building community are more important.
Hearing tidbits of extraneous sounds on the airwaves, like background noises from dogs barking and phones ringing, has sparked listener interest in making radio at WCAA. That has led to an uptick in home-produced shows, allowing the station to expand local programming.
Community building is at the core of these efforts. Scott said, “In the midst of political turmoil, civil unrest and a range of local disasters, community broadcasting is more important than ever. Meanwhile, the global coronavirus pandemic makes accessing our studios a formidable danger of its very own. Yet, as FM broadcasters, we have committed ourselves to being there for our local community in times of emergency. We must also be there for each other.”