Catherine Combs

April, 2020


Coronavirus and the Media – Mike McVay

Coronavirus and the Media Mike McVay

The Coronavirus has changed how we are living our lives at this moment in time. Social distancing, quarantining, sheltering … are all words that have become a way for us to describe our lives. Some of us are wearing masks and gloves when we must go out in public. Some never go out in public, while others continue to question if the restrictions on our lives isn’t too much.

How audiences are using media, and when they’re using it, has also changed. Morning and Afternoon commute times are non-existent. Even those who work from home are awaking later and they wrap-up work in time for dinner. Few people have in-home radios and much listening is being done on smart speakers, streaming on-line via laptops, apps or phones, and some listeners will time-shift their radio listening by using the on-demand listening that a radio show on podcast allows.

Many of us are working from home. Video conferencing is becoming a way of life for work and family connectivity. A large number of our fellow citizens are unemployed or on furlough. They’re suffering, dealing with anxiety, fear and the stress of not knowing what the future holds for them or for all of us.

Alcoholism, Drug Addiction, Spousal Abuse and Domestic Violence are all magnified in times of stress and panic. Suicide levels are predicted to increase. Recognize our first responders in the health sector as well as fire, police and military. Acknowledge them by name. Salute and honor them. Thank them.

There is the possibility that some of us, as members of media, have been exaggerating its seriousness while others have not been taking it seriously enough. We need to be factual in the information we deliver. We need to pay attention to the doctors and scientists and not politicians. Politicizing this pandemic has no purpose in serving your community.

We, as members of media, have to be sensitive to the concern of the audience. Our responsibility is to serve the community and provide them with information that can be useful to them. Stations are airing regular updates. Some are breaking away for news reports, which was not previously a part of their scheduled programming.  

One of my concerns is that the contradictory opinions of commentators, especially those on TV and on Network Radio, is destroying what little credibility was left for electronic media news operations. Mainly because some of them present themselves to be news reporters or news journalists. The content of a news report, should be factual and focused on what is important to the target audience. The content of a commentator or talk host should be labeled as commentary.  There is absolutely nothing improper about a commentator taking a stance and presenting a position that may include political views and editorial commentary. Don’t present it as news. It is commentary.

Real people have died and are dying. Real people are becoming sick, or will become sick, and some of those who are yet to be inflicted will die. Someone recently commented to me “fewer have died than what was predicted.” That doesn’t mean that we didn’t need to take steps to protect our citizenry. It means that the steps we have taken, and are still taking, are working.

I remember when I was a small child, just about 10, my father and I would watch the nightly news on TV. In those days, the Vietnam War was in full swing and the evening news would include a daily death toll of Americans who lost their lives. One evening the number was single digits. I said aloud “that’s not very many.” My father replied “unless its your son that died.” That’s how I feel when I hear someone note that the death toll for Coronavirus, while high, is less than what was predicted to happen by this time.

This story is meant to underscore that you should be sensitive to the loss of familial lives that many are enduring. It’s time for a kinder, gentler world. It should be reflected in what you say and how you deliver content on-air.

Be factual. Don’t politicize. Don’t exaggerate or dismiss the information that is being delivered to us from recognized credible medical experts who are at the center of the research that’s being done to find a vaccine and a cure for COVD-19.

Those shows that play games and air bits that make light of someone’s lack of intelligence, should be reconsidered, much like the sometimes-collegial humor that makes fun of an on-air partner. Don’t be mean. Avoid sounding mean spirited. Your credibility, as an air talent, will be magnified by being understanding of the less fortunate. Don’t make every story of hardship about you. Acknowledge how blessed you are to be working. Realize that many aren’t as lucky as you are.

There are four faces of Coverage of the Coronavirus. Awareness, Acceptance, Encouragement and Memory.  

Awareness was when we first heard of the virus. It ramped up significantly before we were able to grasp and understand that this was unlike anything that we had faced in our lives.

Acceptance is when we acknowledged that the pandemic was real, that we would all know individuals who would be infected with this virus, and that some would die.

Encouragement is what we have to do for our audiences. Encourage them that we will get through this pandemic. Share with them things that they can do while sheltering. Look for positive, but factual, news to report to the audience. The peak having been reached in some communities. A decline in deaths. Talk of sports activities being rescheduled. It gives us all an “end point” to look forward to.

Memory is what we hope is ahead of us. Remembering what it was like when we were in lockdown. What good came from it, besides health, and what lessons can we learn from it?

There are some artists and production houses working on creating a musical tribute to the heroes of the pandemic and others working on an event to raise funds for the memory of this event. Don’t be gratuitous and, if you’re an artist, don’t be opportunistic by taking advantage of this crisis to personally benefit.  

We need to plan for what happens when we’re allowed to come back to the “outside world.” Party Centers, normally only open during weekends, will be booked for events seven days a week. There will be “make-ups” for lots of events that had been postponed. Wedding Receptions, Baby Showers, Graduations, Birthday Parties, Celebrations of Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah, Baptisms, Funerals or Celebrations of Life.

Provide guidance on where your listeners can find information on filing for unemployment. Where can individuals go to find out their options to refinance their homes or delay payments. What can be done to assist small businesses to stay in business during this time? How will the government’s COVID-19 recovery plans help everyone from individuals to big business? Surviving is what’s most important to all of us, at this moment, and will be important to our recovery.

Benztown and Emmis have worked together to create a short series of updates named Corona411. Westwood One is developing information for stations to use. Some stations will create their own info pieces. These are not promotional messages. They shouldn’t sound like a promo or a sweeper. These are elements of information that carry weight. They should sound special and unique.–Politics-Podcasts/Coronavirus-411-alerts-updates-and-information-p1289595/

We should be messaging that this is not a time to make jokes about the outbreak. It isn’t a time to present tongue-in-cheek contests that are about this health crisis. It’s also not a time to panic our listeners by being anything more than factual. It is a time to share positive news, too. Give the audience a reason to smile.

It may be months and months before there is a vaccination that will prevent this virus from infecting our listeners. We’re all hoping that we’ll see life start to get back to normal, soon. However, we’ve not yet seen the crest of the wave of this illness in a total fashion for the United States. We have to help the world live a normal life.

Many air-talents are broadcasting remotely. Encourage them to mention that fact on-air. How is working from home impacting their lives? How are they occupying their days and the days of their family members? The purpose of such talk is not to make it about them, but to create the feeling of community. “We’re all in this together. We’re going to get through this.”

Update your imaging. Eliminate the “Listen at Work” liners. Come up with imaging that reinforces listening “Listen while you work, no matter where and when you work, whether at home or on-site.”

Look for WOW moments to unite your audience. It could be playing the National Anthem daily at 12:00pm to salute the men and women who are fighting on the frontline of the Coronavirus. It could be creating a consistent moment to underscore that we’re all in this together. Like playing Queen’s song “We Will Rock You” at 6:00pm nightly … as some radio stations are doing. Honor your hometown heroes while giving the rest of us hope.

Don’t talk about what you’re doing on-air as if it is work. It isn’t “work” compared to what the majority of your audience considers to be work. Embrace your audience and relate to them by acknowledging how tough these times are for them.


Mike McVay is President of McVay Media Consulting. A media firm that focuses on content creation, coaching on-air personalities, marketing strategy, audience development and growth, and advises all platforms for audio companies.