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Campus media during a pandemic: WZND stays on the air through technology, tenacity

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The best way to train future broadcast media professionals is to immerse them in the real world of running a 24-hour radio station. Deb Lesser ’83, M.S. ’84, media business director for the School of Communication, knows that better than just about anyone.

“My goal is to make this as close to a professional experience as possible,” Lesser said.

When the deadly pandemic hit in the spring, that challenge became even greater. But with history unfolding, it was important for the station to be on air during a 100-year event. They were determined to deliver such news this fall.

“Broadcasters are first responders,” Lesser said. “We offer information and perspective on issues like social justice. There’s a lot to cover right now in the world. Plus, we offer a little bit of relief, new music, a friendly voice, and a semblance of normalcy.”

Lesser said it was also important because it’s exactly what would happen if her students were mid-career rather than about midway through college. And, it’s what is expected of a program like this one, which Lesser has been associated with for over three decades.

“It’s what our colleagues at other universities and what our professional contemporaries are doing,” she said. “We are one of the top college stations in the country, and we wanted to be leading.”

“Broadcasters are first responders. We offer information and perspective on issues like social justice,” said Deb Lesser, media business director for the School of Communication.

The station reached its goal of being on the air when the fall semester started, only to be interrupted when an on-air personality tested positive for COVID-19. The only choice was to regroup and carry on, but it wasn’t easy.

“When we shut it down in the spring, it was kind of sad for our seniors who didn’t get to take part in some special traditions,” said Steve Suess ’10, M.S. ’12, director of radio for the School of Communication and faculty advisor for WZND. “It’s been a challenge this fall, but we’re back on the air.”

The biggest challenge, Suess said, was rethinking how to use the space at the station, which is small and usually crammed with students. The strategy was to spread everyone out and have a lot of people work remotely.

“We went with a safety-first approach, and facilities came in and did a deep cleaning,” Suess said. “All students had to get tested before they could come back, and we had no announcers for two weeks.”

Suess said WZND now has the technology for people to work from home if necessary.

“We have new hardware, new software, new microphones,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy or cheap, but students are learning some skills that they will use in the workplace.”

In a normal semester the station would have over 100 students doing everything from news and sports to live studio work, updating social media and the website to promotion, charity, billing, production, and sales. Currently, that number is down to about 60 people.

To stay safe, rules are in place for physical distancing and wearing face coverings. Office hours are staggered, and studios are split so that if there’s a two-person show they are kept apart. Listeners can’t hear the difference.

There’s also self-regulation in the form of a management council made up of six students plus Lesser and Suess. The council makes the big decisions while representing and leading all the students working at WZND.

Suess said with about a third of the station’s revenue lost to Redbird football and basketball being on hold, there’s been great support from the Dean of Students Office in allowing for flexibility in the budget. In addition, he said Building Services has done a great job keeping the station clean.

Sydnie Walsh, a junior media management promotion and sales major, works at WZND. Known as DJ Syd Sizzle when she’s on the air, Walsh hosted the station’s first remote broadcast this fall when the studio was still off limits.

“I was at my desk in my apartment with a mic mounted on my desk; it was super chill,” Walsh said. “I was surprised at how easy it went. I could see it changing how the station is run because it was really convenient.”

Walsh said it’s “really weird” to be producing so much content on tape, which she records into Adobe Audition and then submits to a website. She misses doing her show live and bantering with whoever is working in news. Since they’re mostly working remotely she can’t see any of the faces of the other on-air staffers.

“I miss the face-to-face stuff,” Walsh said. “When you hear multiple people on the air now, they’re in separate rooms. And, news is in its own small studio.”

From a technical side, she said without the station’s engineer, Jon Hall, carrying on wouldn’t have been possible. In addition, she said Program Director Cosette Nowik has done a great job of considering everyone’s situation so that WZND is still a functioning station. And, there have been a few personal lessons.

“Definitely I’ve learned a lot about keeping in touch with people even though we’re super far away,” Walsh said. “It’s important to stay in touch with people you care about. I’m more sensitive to how people are doing, and now I Facetime my parents every other day.”

Suess has also been impressed with how students are helping each other.

“A lot of students are going through a hard time dealing with stress and depression,” he said. “They’ve really come together to hold each other up.”

Lesser added that broadcasting types are enthused about life, a quality that is important to maintain.

“They’re resilient and flexible, and they’re ready to go,” she said. “They will leave their mark on this industry. I’m so proud of them.”

This story is part two of three in a series profiling student media organizations on campus. Check back at News.IllinoisState.edu for an update on TV-10.

Apply now for fall 2021.