If you wanted to learn how your community is handling the coronavirus pandemic but had trouble getting the information you needed, what would you do? If you’re like many of us, you’d probably turn to Google, send a couple emails and then, exasperated, call it a day.
If you’re Bill Trifiro, that would be an inadequate response.
Trifiro, a radio reporter based in Roanoke, Va., became frustrated last week when trying to report on the local situation. “I could get the Cleveland Clinic on the phone, but I couldn’t get our local hospital system to answer questions,” he explained in a Monday morning interview.
He also identified the absence of hyper-local information and a need for connection. With his background and professional network, Trifiro decided a coronavirus radio station programmed by volunteers was a logical solution.
Trifiro then reached out to Rob Ruthenberg, “the guy who knows everyone and can build radio stations,” as he put it.
Ruthenberg, who is a radio consultant and former GM, had been experiencing his own frustrations related to the pandemic and doing his part to help friends and neighbors navigate the situation. He noted the emphasis on national news and also was concerned about potential misinformation being spread on social media. Trifiro asked Ruthenberg to help create the format and recruit volunteers.
Next, Trifiro reached out to Flinn Broadcasting, which holds the license for WBZS(FM), a commercial station in Shawsville that had also just ended a local market agreement. According to Trifiro, Lonnie Flinn quickly agreed to let them use the 102.5 MHz signal and passed him onto the engineers who could make it happen.
“These guys are not just sharing their time and their energy and footing the electric bill, they’re sharing their license,” said Ruthenberg. He and Trifiro understand the gravity of this. “It’s important to stress that these people are trusting us, and we owe it to them not to damage that,” Ruthenberg said.
In order to ensure that their fellow volunteers are on the same page, they’ve instituted a training program to explain how to assess news sources and vet information, the standards talk.
About one-third of the volunteer staff are veteran broadcasters or have been trained so far, according to Trifiro. Both expect to get the rest up to speed quickly, and they also hope more people will join their ranks as the word spreads about the COVID Virginia project. As of Tuesday afternoon, COVID Virginia has about 20 volunteers who have signed on or expressed interest.
COVID Virginia is looking for more volunteers to host shows, screen calls, serve as producers, and do the innumerable tasks that keep a station running. They’re also asking people to do this work from their homes and with their own limited resources.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
In order to enable this collaboration from the technological side, Trifiro reached out to Backbone Networks Chief Technology Officer/Vice President George Capalbo. At Trifiro’s request, Backbone created a custom network and shared an app that enables volunteers to get on the air with uncompressed audio to ensure that the station’s audio is broadcast-quality. All for free for the next 60 days, or perhaps even longer.
“We’re planning on going through June 10, when Virginia’s emergency order lifts,” Trifiro explained. “But if it goes past that we’ll go past that, and George has already said he’ll go past that and it give it to us for free as well.”
Their appreciation for this generosity is apparent, and it’s not hard to understand why the pair sound a bit incredulous that they’re actually pulling this off.
“The hardest parts were outsourced and given to us for free! And people are giving of their time,” Trifiro said, explaining how some of their volunteers are also reporters from the local NPR affiliate or broadcasters who have come out of retirement to step up for their community.
Trifiro and Ruthenberg are also excited to partner with other radio stations and even a TV news team on the project, which will give them resources to cover news that would otherwise have gone unreported. Other stations understand that COVID Virginia isn’t “trying to be the competition,” Trifiro said, noting that it helps that the format has a designated sign off date (and they aren’t planning to run commercials).
WDBJ(TV) channel 7 is providing audio for the 5–7 a.m. time slot, and 24/7 News Source — which is owned by iHeartMedia and for which Trifiro is also a correspondent — has donated top- and bottom-of-the-hour news updates, in addition to other audio as the COVID Virginia volunteers require. “We want to be local, but it’s great to have the national information to ‘localize’ and lean on for comparison,” Trifiro explained.
WHY RADIO, WHY HERE, WHY NOW?
Ruthenberg is in charge of volunteer recruitment. So far, he’s taken an individualized approach, going through his address book and calling up colleagues and reaching out to local colleges. He’s gotten a communications professor and one student volunteer to sign on thus far, and he hopes others will follow.
“It’s a real opportunity for people who want to work in this environment to get a real first hand, brass tacks kind of handle on it. It’s one of those things in this industry, your biggest learning experiences are under fire. This is no exception,” Ruthenberg said.
He is also clear why the COVID Virginia station is so important to southwest Virginia. It’s simple: demographics. The area around Roanoke is popular among retirees and others older than 65, who are among those most vulnerable to COVID-19 — and those who can least afford to parse Facebook posts’ veracity.
“We have this aging population that has this inherent disconnect with different forms of technology,” Ruthenberg explained. But he is confident radio can make a difference here. “We’re bringing radio back to being the initially useful tool that it was intended to be.”
Trifiro agrees. “In times of crisis, when there’s epidemics, or now a pandemic, when there’s horrible disasters, people need local radio.”
For this project in particular, Trifiro said, “Part of what we’re going to do is help dispel the stuff that you’re seeing on Facebook that isn’t true, and we’re going to do it in a way that hopefully ties the community together and makes them feel not so alone in isolation, like the tag says, we’re together in isolation.”
As far as they know, COVID Virginia is the only station that will not only be covering the press conferences remotely and interviewing experts, but also taking calls from listeners who are seeking connection while practicing social distancing. (As of Tuesday afternoon, Trifiro was troubleshooting some issues with the phone system, but expected to have callers on the air by the Wednesday morning show.)
Ruthenberg is clear that the station will fight misinformation, but also seek to affirm people’s emotions, while learning from past mistakes. The fall out from the “war of the worlds” broadcast, for example, is exactly what they plan to avoid.
Just as Flinn, Capalbo and others contributed to getting COVID Virginia on the air, Trifiro and Ruthenberg want to help other broadcasters pursue similar initiatives.
“If there are other communities in Virginia that are in need of this kind of sharing and information to cut down the isolation, we are definitely up for adding on,” Trifiro said. He added, “We’re focused on southwest Virginia because that’s where the terrestrial stick is, but we’re all Virginians.”
Trifiro said he hopes the radio station can emulate what FDR did during the Great Depression with his fireside chats, providing information and hope with a steady voice. However, he knows that COVID Virginia’s audio signature will be quite different.
“We’re going to be as professional as possible because we’re running a radio station, and we have that obligation,” Trifiro said. “But at the same time, folks are going to hear my kid knocking on the door, the dogs barking, perhaps, and know that we’re going through what they’re going through, which I think is unique.”
It’s only been a week since he dreamed up the idea, but Trifiro says he’s already looking forward to taking the station off the air, which he and Ruthenberg say won’t happen “until we win. When we beat COVID-19.”
If you’re interested in learning more about COVID Virginia, visit https://www.covidvirginia.com, check out their Facebook group or tune your dial to WBSZ(FM) 102.5 in Roanoke, Va., area. If you’d like to volunteer for the station, email [email protected].