One of the few offices on campus remaining open during the coronavirus closure is that of WUOT. Each morning, announcer Claire Heddles arrives at 4:30 a.m. to broadcast Morning Edition, just as she did before the closure.
“Our live hosts are at the studio,” says WUOT Director Regina Dean. “As a local media outlet, we are recognized as essential. The FCC says we’re supposed to be on the air 24/7.”
Dean and other WUOT personnel are working mostly from home. Greg Hill, the assistant director of programming, comes in to do production updates and stack automatic feeds. The jazz shows are prerecorded.
Before the pandemic, WUOT had planned a launch date of April 1 for Music Director Todd Steed’s Improvisations to Go, a travel podcast for which he had already taped material. Working from his home studio, Steed met that deadline and is releasing a new episode each Tuesday through May 5.
“I thought, ‘People are waiting so I’d better get it done,'” says Steed. “I figured it’s gonna be harder and harder to get new and fresh content and harder and harder to travel, so it’s nice to virtually do a little travel with our listeners.”
Steed misses the interactions of the office: “I can only bounce so many ideas off my dog, and she’s not much help. I used to walk down the hall and say to Greg, ‘I was thinking of saying something this way—do you think that’s right?’ or ask Chrissy Keuper, ‘Is this funny?'”
The on-air folks—Heddles, Keuper (All Things Considered), Melony Dodson (Morning Concert), Ace Edewards (Afternoon Concert), weekend host Clara Prinston, and News Director Brandon Hollingsworth (when filling in for Keuper)—are in the studio chair during their shows, mostly feeling lonely parking in an empty lot and being alone in the offices.
“As cheesy as it sounds,” says Heddles, “I wake up at 4 every day because I really do believe in journalism and accountability, especially when we’re relying so heavily on our institutions. I’m on the air giving news updates in the morning and interviewing people from home in the afternoons because of the great responsibility it is to be a reporter at a time like this.”
“Having to wade through the news every day is tough,” says Keuper. “I’m spending a lot more time searching for news that’s not coronavirus related. Other than that, I’m doing what everybody else is doing. I’m trying to stay safe and not be scared. My mother is elderly and she lives with me, so I’m concerned. But really, it’s just business as usual.”
“We’re an oasis,” says Dean. “Our news is critical for keeping people informed of what’s going on, but our other programming is just as important. What we’re hearing from our listeners is that they enjoy both aspects of the radio station. Hearing our regular shows gives people some semblance of normalcy. A listener might think, ‘If I hear Melony’s Mystery Melody quiz during the Morning Concert, everything must be OK.'”
Brooks Clark (865-974-5471, firstname.lastname@example.org)
This story is part of the University of Tennessee’s 225th anniversary year. Volunteers light the way for others across Tennessee and throughout the world.