How One Midwest Station Is Facing the Pandemic

I asked a very successful public radio manager in the Midwest for his thoughts about how his station has adapted to the “new normal” with employees working from home and fundraising on hold.

While he wished to remain anonymous, I thought he made some very important points:

  • Making sure employees focus on self-care.
  • Having a strategy in place should a staff member become ill.
  • Employees need to have the equipment to continue to work from home.
  • Looking at alternative fund raising approaches
  • Keeping lines of communication open.

Here are his thoughts:

One of the first challenges we’ve encountered was not the issue of arranging for most of the staff with WFH (work from home) capability.  Our WFH implementation began on March 12, within two days, 75-80% of the team was able to work from home.

The more significant challenge is retaining the level, and quality of our newsgathering, reporting, and host personnel as the COVID-19 pandemic became more entrenched in our state with higher levels of reported positive cases and the corresponding executive order from the governor for “stay at home” requirement for non-essential personnel.

On any given day, the delicacy of addressing the substitution of personnel who require self-isolation due to a variety of factors and the matter of having “next up” personnel to take their place is the largest challenge.  While no one on our staff has tested positive to date, those cases, or new ones, could change the calculus of staffing by the day or hour.  Even with a proper size newsgathering operation, this pandemic reveals on-site staffing assignments that are challenged by the invisible spread of the virus.  We have managed the potential for the spread of the virus by keeping on-site staffing to absolute minimum levels, outfitting our staff with remote connectivity with laptops, keeping distance spacing a priority for the skeletal crew that comes into the station for a portion of their full day.

The next phase of WFH will be the potential implementation of some prime host shifts hosted remotely in “just in time delivery.”  While live anchoring remotely requires more gear and adaptation than we can provide right now, recording real-time breaks minutes before they are called on in the automation system, will give the air sound the live delivery with accurate, timely information.

Adaptation of host and news delivery focus on personnel resources and logistics issue that can be managed.  The more involved process of recording breaks and newscasts is undoubtedly not as effortless as live delivery in a studio, but it has been done in public and commercial media for many years.  The challenge for hosts and news readers is to make the adoption quickly and learn to make the execution as smooth as the expected flow and polish of the typical sound of the station.

Revenue generation and retention, on the other hand, can be more complicated.  

Loyal and connected major donors understand the circumstances that public media faces during this crisis and many have already made additional gifts or extended their current commitments during this turbulent time.  Because this period of economic uncertainty could continue for several months (perhaps 18-24 months) before settling into a plausible forecastable future, the way forward with fundraising at the conventional individual donor level as well as our corporate support clients is yet to emerge.  Many of these clients have jobs and businesses that are in suspension from their regular routines, causing the cancellation of client events, future projects, and pausing recurring institutional marketing messaging while all companies review their resources and re-model their financial standing.

Plans for fund drives are mindfully pivoting from their normal state of delivery in spring to new forms.  Many stations, like ours, will switch to an OES campaign of “soft messaging asks” to communicate our value, thanking donors of the current and past for their support, which allows us the resources to operate smoothly during unexpected stretches such as the C-19 crisis.  The uncharted course forward is the nature and level of donor response.  Gifts from individual households will be a leading barometer to follow during the peaking of the virus outbreak across the country and the many long months that follow, as people assess their financial horizon.  The assessment will come in the form of evaluations of employment status and prospects, and the perception of how their savings or investments are set back by the need to call on these standby funds.  Right now, the need for communicating to major donors through multiple, genuine contacts by mail, email and personal phone calls become the new normal on building their knowledge of the station’s navigation of this health crisis and building buy-in as to the essential nature of your local public media service to the community.

While some stations such as ours are fortunate to have financial reserves to stabilize the organization during these turbulent tides, others don’t. Those stations will be more reliant on the prospective special funding, whether it is the system-wide distribution of $ 75M from the federal stimulus package via CPB, or one-time grants from foundations or licensee institutions.  None of the financial aid will arrive as fast as real-time needs.  How to manage the gap in the timing and generation of revenue for content makers and providers, payroll and operations will require thoughtful budget analysis and adjustments that answer the current pressing situation but still retain plans, if even delayed.

The best approach in this unusual time is to be proactive in your communication with all your constituencies, beginning with your staff.  They need to hear frequent but useful communication.  In addition to an appreciation for their efforts and sacrifices, let them know what you see ahead.  Be honest that not all of the answers are clear or visible.  Invite their questions and ideas.  Make an effort to have individual contact with staff as feasible, making it a virtual “office hours”/open-door approach that may be more needed and possible during these times of altered schedules and less out of office travel.  It is conceivable that managers may be more ‘available’ right now.

In closing, our instincts of leadership are expected to respond and create an atmosphere of calm and confident reassurance alongside the transparent truth of the pending and evolving situation.  You can never be short of the levels of communication you make to your staff and your donors in times like these.

What challenges has your organization faced, and how are you dealing with them? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

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