On-Air During A Pandemic: How One Radio Station Is Handling COVID-19 [Interview]

Dennis Banka, the station owner of 104.1 The Ranch in Carthage, Tennessee, bought the station in 2006. In addition to his ownership duties, he also serves as on-air talent and is a familiar voice in the cars and homes of those in the surrounding community. Like many businesses, 104.1 The Ranch was directly affected by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Banka spoke with MusicRow to discuss his approach to managing his station and serving his community during this pandemic.

MusicRow: Has the station been working remotely? What have been some challenges?

Banka: Initially, we paid people. Then, we laid people off. We’re able to get the [Paycheck Protection Program loan] and bring them back. Initially, laying people off is the hard part because they take it personally. The PPP was great because I have a good relationship with my local banker who is already set up to be an SBA loan affiliate. As soon as the PPP came available my accountant called me, and my bank called me, and said, “Come down here and fill out these papers.” Once we filled out the paperwork, it was quick and painless. As soon as we got that back, we called people back. Some are working remotely, and some hours have been cut drastically, but everyone’s at full pay.

What are you doing in the office to stay healthy?

We’re in a smaller building, so we’re trying to protect everyone as much as possible. The bathroom is at the front door when you walk in. I don’t care who you are, you’re washing your hands. The biggest challenge is sanitizing the studios. We touch so much as board operators—the microphone, board, CD players, mouses, keyboards, computer screens—we’re touching everything. We’re trying to keep a really good account of what we touch and sanitizing everything before we leave.

Sunday mornings, we have preachers do live preaching, and we’ve had to convert those folks to either do it on their phone or send us a Wav [Audio File] or MP3. We just now started allowing preachers back into the building. There’s a whole process between preachers where we go in and wipe down the podium, swap out microphones and clean the microphones as a precaution.

How have your duties evolved since the start of the pandemic?

The last six weeks, I have worked here from five in the morning ’til seven at night, alone. One, to make sure everything got on and off that’s supposed to. Two, to be here for the clients and answer any questions. I got really proactive when this whole thing started. I contacted all my advertisers and gave them all my cell number. If the grocery store got meat, call me. Get in toilet paper, call me. We’re updating spots daily. A client called and said, “We’re closing tomorrow, can you change our commercial?” We were able to cut that.

I think being here for the clients really helped. Anybody that wanted to jump ship, we’re able to tell them, “This is going to be over, and you need to be [on] top of [people’s] minds. Let’s keep on advertising.” We have a telecommunication company that advertises with us and they’re offering free channels. I said, “Broadcast that. Let’s announce what you’re doing to help the people. It [helped] our local grocery stores. They weren’t running their weekly specials but they’re still there. Let’s talk about six-feet distancing, how you’re counting customers, how you’re stocking, when you’re cleaning, special times for seniors. Anything you’re doing that is different or special, let’s tell people.”

We aired the governor’s daily briefing, a local task force meeting, and a lot of specialty programming during the day for information. Someone had to be here to get that on and off and make sure the levels were good

How have you been handling programming duties at the station?

My duties as owner involve mowing the grass, checking the transmitter, all those daily maintenance things so I have people email me instead of taking music calls. There hasn’t been that much change in the chart, and there are more new songs being added that we have no place to play [them]. As much as we want to play somebody, nothing’s changing because artists aren’t touring or out there promoting their music. They’re not out there selling concert tickets and not doing radio station visits. We’re doing a lot of phone interviews and Facebook takeovers, but it doesn’t translate to the chart. It’s not fair for us to drop records just to add new records.

I think right now, a lot of things that are on the chart are staying there because people need some sort of normalcy. They just need something that sounds familiar and the same. Everything else is changing every day. We lost our local sports; we have baseball and softball. So, we substituted in classic baseball, classic softball, classic NFL just so [the station] feels the same. It’s just really hard right now to say, “Here’s a new song from XYZ artist,” and there’s no award show or event to promote. There’s no momentum. Stations, I think, are just trying to stay on the air. We don’t know what the Fall is going to look like, what our Summer is going to look like with our county fair. We don’t know any of that, so I hate to say it but [music] is taking a back seat.

With station events/concerts shut down, how have you been helping artists connect with listeners?

We’ve done a lot of [phone interviews]. I contacted the PR companies and said, “I’m here from morning to night. Tell them to call me and get artists on to talk.” We record it, and we find a place [on-air] for it. We’ve done a few Facebook takeovers. The major labels send us liners, you know about COVID and staying apart, stay at home.

We’re doing as much as we can but being hands on is not there. I think with new artists not on radio tours is going to hurt because that’s when we fall in love with the artist. That when we become friends with the artist. That’s when we care about the artist, and when we get to know the artist. That’s where we have the first interaction. At this station, we like putting artists on the radio.

How have you been handling the business-related meetings at the station?

This year there are license renewals for television and radio for Tennessee. There’s a lot of paperwork that has to be done for the FCC. There’s a lot that has to be done behind the scenes that we’ve been taking care of. There’s other filings, even our taxes. We’ve been operating like business as usual.

I’m out there cutting the grass in front of the radio station so people see things as normal. I think if you take care of your storefront and your product sounds consistent, people know you’re not afraid. You want to be the strength of the community.

If you say doom and gloom, they’re going to hear doom and gloom; they’re going to live doom and gloom. Point out some good stuff happening. Check on your neighbors; check on the elderly. Make sure they have food; make sure that they’re mentally okay. We talked to our local drug prevention coalition. Check on addicts to make sure that they are not struggling. It’s your attitude that’s going to help other people, so we’re doing the same as a business.

What content have you been running on-air to engage the listeners?

We’re giving people a reason to tune in because their normal patterns are gone. No one, for the last six weeks, has taken their kids to school or gone to work. How do we engage them? The top 60 songs are great but we also need to provide content between that. We report the COVID-19 numbers, and the numbers related to testing. Let’s talk about people that recovered. Let’s talk about people that are doing better.

We do an annual “Senior Salute” to the graduating seniors for two high schools. Normally, they get a paper in homeroom to fill out with their name, their parents’ names, things they’ve done, things they’re going to miss, a hashtag that people use to describe them. Since schools were shut down, we weren’t able to do that. We contacted the principals and through technology, we’re able to get those forms out to all the students. Over a period two weeks, we will play a song for each graduating senior. We’re giving away prizes to graduating seniors. We’re doing the stuff we normally do this time year, so it sounds like 104.1 The Ranch. I think people appreciate the fact that we went that extra step.

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