COVID-19 and the radio: What songs do you play — and not play — in a pandemic?
How Utah’s radio stations (and the world’s) are adjusting their music during the coronavirus pandemic — and becoming more relevant than ever
SALT LAKE CITY — “Gotta wash you offa my hands/ Gotta wash you off/ Every single DNA strand/ Gotta wash you offa my hands.”
That’s the chorus to Jessica Lea Mayfield’s “Offa My Hands.” For the past few weeks, Eugenie Jaffe has been tempted to broadcast it on the airwaves. “Offa My Hands” is about a bad relationship. In these times of coronavirus quarantines, though, it sounds like something else entirely.
“Almost every song has something to do with earthquakes and coronavirus for me right now,” Jaffe told the Deseret News from her home during a recent phone interview. Home is where she’s been prepping all her midday shows for Utah’s 90.9 KRCL lately. Foam egg crate padding hangs on one of Jaffe’s walls, where she prerecords her voiceovers.
It’s a makeshift setup, no doubt. But for now, it’s the new normal — not just for Jaffe, but for radio DJs across the country and beyond. At KRCL, for example, only two of its DJs have been working in the station’s normal studio, “because there are a lot of knobs and buttons and microphones,” Jaffe said, “and cleaning it all after each person’s shift is really hard to do, to make sure that everyone’s safe.”
The precautions are warranted. Oliver Stokes Jr., a radio DJ in New Orleans, died on March 21 after contracting COVID-19.
Like all other industries, radio has seen its protocols upended in recent weeks. A station in Phoenix is playing Christmas music this weekend. Stations across the United Kingdom and Europe simultaneously played Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “You’ll Never Walk Alone” on March 20. D-Nice, a longtime Los Angeles-based DJ/rapper/producer, made headlines this week for his “Club Quarantine,” an increasingly popular recurring DJ that he’s been live streaming on Instagram from his apartment.
What do you do — and what songs do you play — when it feels like the whole world is turned upside down?
Every song a reminder
For most people, this is all brand new territory. But for Brad Wheeler, the director of programming for Salt Lake City’s 99.9 KUAA, it’s actually kind of familiar. During the swine flu scare of 2009-10, Wheeler said he contracted the disease, likely from working in the studio.
This time around, he’s working from home. Same for KUAA’s other DJs. When the coronavirus began making headlines in the U.S., Wheeler said KUAA played a bunch of songs that mentioned chills and fever. Van Morrison’s “TB Sheets,” the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and Peggy Lee’s “Fever” made their way into KUAA’s playlists.
“Until the earthquake happened,” Wheeler told the Deseret News.
On March 18, a 5.7 magnitude earthquake struck near Magna in Salt Lake County — followed by more than four dozen aftershocks. Hundreds of Magna residents were displaced from their homes, the Salt Lake City International Airport shut down for a few hours, and numerous buildings in downtown Salt Lake reported structural damage.
“Personally, I felt like people were heightened, and that it wasn’t really a time to be funny, you know what I mean? It wasn’t really a time to be cute,” Wheeler said. “That day of the earthquake, I had to just play instrumental music — that Wednesday, Thursday and most of that Friday. It felt like the words were too much. It just did not feel appropriate, and it didn’t really feel responsible, either.”
When the earthquake hit, Wheeler said he considered not even working that day. But he started getting calls and texts from his friends that morning. “You’re going to be on the radio today, right?” they asked him. “We need to hear some stuff today.”
“It was literally the listeners that got me to go down there and do it,” he added. “I personally felt like I needed a break. But then I realized that we’re all connected, and I’ve got a job to do.”
Jaffe said KRCL has gotten a high volume of emails, calls and tweets during the quarantine, from folks saying they’re relying on the station right now.
“I feel like we’re trying to bring a little of the normal back,” she said.
For her, that means picking songs that are upbeat and don’t reference illness. Still, though, the double-meanings slip in: On a recent afternoon, Jaffe’s set included My Morning Jacket’s “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream, Pt. 1” (which has the lyric, “I need a human right by my side, untied”) and Dave Edmunds’ “I Hear You Knocking” (“but you can’t come in,” he sings).
Radio’s unlikely rise
To be a music radio DJ right now is a balancing act. Listeners want to be distracted, but they also want to be acknowledged and understood. America’s diagnosed coronavirus cases are growing exponentially, while the majority of us are processing the news in real time from our quarantined homes. In turn, music radio lately has transcended into something different — not just a welcome reprieve from the news, but a necessary one.
Music radio has an inherently human, unmistakably collective quality. On the third night of DJ D-Nice’s Club Quarantine Instagram video, it hit a peak of 105,000 simultaneous viewers. Among those visitors that night: Rihanna, Ava DuVernay, Halle Berry, Chaka Khan, Diddy, Mark Zuckerberg, Michelle Obama and Joe Biden. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb wrote, “In the currency of social media, D-Nice took in a haul — six hundred thousand new Instagram followers — but, more significantly, he took people’s minds off the invisible peril that surrounds us.”
The same phenomenon is also manifesting on traditional music radio. The biggest music streaming services, like Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora, have actually experienced decreased numbers during the quarantine, while radio listening has boomed.
According to the BBC, streaming of its radio stations has risen 18% in recent weeks. Music industry monitor BuzzAngle reported that U.S. streaming music between March 13-19 fell by nearly 9%, compared with the previous week. According to Rolling Stone magazine, “New songs — those released within the past eight weeks — dropped 14.5 percent, which is about twice the drop-off for catalog songs, released 18 months ago or earlier.” Rolling Stone also a reported a sharper decrease in streams for the most popular music, with the top 500 songs getting almost 13% fewer streams last week than the top 500 songs received in the week prior.
Interestingly, three genres have experienced increased streams during this time period: classical, folk and children’s music. Classical 89, the popular classical station that is broadcast from Brigham Young University in Provo, has responded in kind. The station’s manager, Eric Glissmeyer, told the Deseret News that Classical 89 has purposely not made any changes to its music playlists right now.
“I feel it’s best to keep things the way they usually are, in order to give some sense of normalcy to a crazy situation,” Glissmeyer explained in an email. “So much has changed in our lives, if we can have something that’s constant, that’s a good thing. Classical music has the ability to calm and exhilarate. Our usual and current mix includes music that does both of those things.”
The show must go on
Utah’s music stations — like those across the country and overseas — are finding their own ways to maintain relevance and connection with listeners, while facing the logistical challenges that a quarantine presents. KRCL, for example, is kicking off its fundraising Spring Radiothon on Saturday — albeit all remotely; no in-studio DJs or phone line operators. Everything is being prerecorded, and patrons will be encouraged to donate online rather than by phone. They’re dubbing it the “Stay-Home-A-Thon.”