One of the more perplexing aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that as we recover from it, there’s no clear finish line. How will we know when it’s really over? No lifeguard will blow a whistle to give the all-clear sign and tell us that it is safe to go back into the water. Different people who have different health histories, who have different household configurations, and who look to different sources of information are going to have different attitudes towards the recovery. While some are chomping at the bit to return to “normal” life, others are more cautious.
The wide range of attitudes among audience members can be a challenge for broadcasters, especially given the intense political connotations that have seeped into everyday responses to the pandemic. But even the meanings of these actions have become muddled; it is no longer clear whether wearing a mask in public is an act of defiance or compliance.
So what are broadcasters — who look to avoid the appearance of ideological leanings, whether they’re television news stations desiring a reputation for impartiality or radio stations looking to provide an uncontroversial escapist alternative — to do when the very mention of live events comes loaded with implications? What’s the use of giving away concert tickets or hosting town hall discussions with civic leaders when a substantial portion of the audience may not be willing to participate — or worse, may feel alienated by the mere existence of these events? How can stations acknowledge and include more hesitant members of their audience without imposing limitations on those who are more inclined to adventure out?
The short answer is that stations can continue to provide digital options for participation even as they return to in-person gatherings. In other words, it is not time to put away Zoom just yet.
Prior to the pandemic, many events were in-person only. During the pandemic, many of these events became 100 percent virtual. As we emerge from the pandemic — particularly as we navigate the current gray area — the most inclusive option is to create a hybrid model for events.
For example, when a band comes to town to play a concert, your radio station may typically host an acoustic performance with a small audience of winners. Now, you can also livestream the event so more winners can participate virtually. Likewise, if your television station wants to host a job fair to help local businesses find employees, include both in-person and online options for participants.
Your station was forced to rapidly adapt to a world without in-person events. Your staff learned to use new technologies to reach audiences in new ways, including broadcasting from their basement. It was fast, it was hard, and it was costly, but your team did it. You made critical investments and gained a lot of experience. Don’t abandon those gains. Leverage your newfound capabilities to grow your audience moving forward.
While events with both in-person and virtual components will help broadcasters navigate the immediate future, they are likely to become the norm, not the exception. After all, virtual components allow stations to include more participants. Now that audiences have grown accustomed to using the internet to participate, why not maximize the size of the audience for these events even after the pandemic is a distant memory?
And of course, the more attendees, the more you can charge for sponsorships.
Broadcasters have always aimed to reach the largest possible audience. By bolting virtual components on to in-person events, broadcasters can avoid leaving out those who might otherwise want to participate under different circumstances in the short term, but also grow their events in the long term. In other words, hybrid events can help keep the “broad” in “broadcasting.”
Seth Resler writes a weekly email column for WBA member highlighting digital news and tips and is also available for one-on-one consulting with WBA members on topics related to digital media. Visit JacobsMedia.com/WBA-checkup.