ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A car pulls into a parking lot on a university campus and stops. As a man approaches the vehicle, a woman’s gloved hand emerges from the driver’s window and hands him a bulky bag.
Later, same man, and same car and driver, but a different parking lot. This time at a post office.
The man gives the driver a microphone and portable recorder. She turns off her car’s engine and closes the window. A few minutes elapse before the woman returns the mic and recorder to the waiting man and drives away.
Spies exchanging top-secret information?
A whistleblower divulging evidence of government corruption to an investigative reporter?
No. It was KUNM radio program director Tristan Clum and on-air host Cecilia Webb preparing the Easter edition of the station’s “Train to Glory” show.
Not radio production as usual. But radio production in a time of whatever it takes, radio during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sense of normalcy
Albuquerque radio stations are doing their best to stay on the air to serve listeners, many of them confined to their homes, with the kind of calming comfort that comes from listening to favorite music and the familiar chatter of radio personalities.
“We are doing what we always do, playing the music and being clowns, trying to provide a sense of normalcy” said Swami Rob Brothers, part of “The Morning Show” team on 94 Rock, 94.1 KZRR-FM.
But he said the station also takes seriously its role in informing the public of the latest news about the pandemic.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to be informational,” he said. “We have stepped that up. We’ve made good contacts (in the medical community).”
Most Albuquerque radio stations are making special efforts to keep listeners updated on coronavirus news and help them cope with the grim realities of our lives today.
On Friday mornings, 94 Rock broadcasts a 15-minute interview with New Mexico Department of Health epidemiologist David Selvage, and each day the station gives free plugs to “essential” businesses struggling to operate during the pandemic.
At 7:30 on weeknights, KUNM-FM, 89.9, the University of New Mexico’s public radio station, broadcasts a 30-minute segment devoted to coronavirus-related issues on its “Your New Mexico Government” program.
Magic 99.5, KMGA-FM, plays Christmas music several times each hour to help make spirits bright.
Classical public radio station KHFM-FM, 95.5, encourages its listeners to support performing arts organizations that have had to suspend, postpone or cancel performances due to the coronavirus crisis.
KHFM is also more aware of the music it plays during these troubled times.
“We decided right away that we were going to do something uplifting at the top of each hour,” said Brent Stevens, KHFM executive director and host of the station’s weekday afternoon show. “It might be a waltz or a march, something beautiful or in a major key.”
What’s most impressive is that radio stations are going the extra mile despite obstacles they have never before faced.
“Basically, overnight, we went from a fully staffed 24/7 station to almost complete automation,” said Steven Emmons, KUNM operations manager.
Sigh of relief
Social distancing protocols made necessary by coronavirus have forced radio stations to operate in radically different ways.
On-air volunteers who host KUNM’s many programs are not permitted in the station’s building in an effort to safeguard against the spread of the virus.
“We have 110 on-air volunteers,” Clum said. “Now we have 42 volunteers contributing from home.”
KUNM spent $200 each for 10 USB microphone kits to enable some volunteers to record programs in their own homes.
“For many of them, the tech is too daunting,” Clum said. “The volunteers who have a digitized music collection at home and a facility with editing and mixing are the ones we are leaning on to make this work.”
Sometimes, it takes a little more. That’s why Clum was meeting Cecilia Webb, host of KUNM’s gospel music show, “Train to Glory,” in parking lots.
“Cecilia brought me a big bag of CDs,” Clum said. “I used the station equipment to digitize the CDs and put it on a thumb drive. Then I assembled the music into three segments, just under a hour each.”
The program still needed vocal tracks of Webb talking to her audience and making announcements.
“So I met her again and brought her a portable recorder and a microphone,” Clum said. “She recorded a few messages, and a few minutes later I was headed home to edit those messages into her show and send the finished hours straight to our automation system.
“I breathed a sign of relief when I heard Cecilia’s voice as the show began at 6 a.m. (Easter) Sunday morning.”
All but one of KHFM’s six on-air hosts are doing their shows from home now. But the station had a head start in that direction because three of those hosts have been doing their shows from home for months.
Stevens said KHFM spent about $500 for the equipment needed to create home studios for himself and weekday morning show host Alexis Corbin, both of whom had been doing their shows in the studio.
Stevens said working from home makes him feel closer to his audience.
“The connection is more personal because we are all doing the same thing as the people who are listening to us, staying at home, looking out the window.”
KHFM weeknight and Saturday morning host David Sinkus has been recording his show in the bedroom of his house in a Corrales apple orchard for months. He said it is usually easy for him to get distracted by birds singing and people walking along a nearby irrigation ditch.
“But now, I’m thinking more of the listener,” he said. “My banter is more inclusive. I try to be more calming. Is the listener walking on the ditch or sick at home? I’m working more to make the music, whatever it is, connect to the people.”
Swami Rob and his Morning Show sidekicks, Skyler and Mahoney, still work together in the 94 Rock studio. But Swami Rob said that even before coronavirus, he, Skyler and Mahoney worked 6 to 7 feet apart, so social distancing has not been a problem.
What’s different, he said, is that the studio is cleaner than it has ever been.
“We have a crew that deep-cleans, and I wipe down the studio when I get here and before I leave.”
Another thing that’s different, he said, is that listeners are thanking him and his cohorts more often and more sincerely for just being on the air.
“I never thought of myself as essential before,” he said.
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