Radio stations suspend normal programming to create community forum for Ferguson residents
People protesting in response to the Ferguson shooting. Creative Commons photo by Ian Aberle.
By Sarah Palermo
Sarah Palermo, an ivoh.org freelancer, is a journalist based in New England IRL and online @SPalermoNews.
The day Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, residents of the St. Louis suburb took to social media to share their growing frustration and horror over the situation.
Social media has played an important role in the events surrounding Brown’s death. But so have more traditional forms of communication, which can be easily overlooked and undervalued in the digital age.
Wanting to give community members a forum for communicating with one another, two local radio stations suspended their normal music programming to create a public space for authentic conversations.
“The community is in our DNA,” said Jowcol Dolby, the man behind radio personality Boogie D, and operations manager at Hot 104.1 and Old School 95.5.
Both stations, which are overseen by Radio One, turned into a community forum for about 14 hours the weekend after Brown’s death, taking calls from residents and sharing news as it became available.
“This was a situation — for most of us that haven’t experienced something like this — that has galvanized the city,” Dolby said in a phone interview. “When there’s something that affects a large portion of our community, you can’t look at it the way you would normally. You have to look at it organically.”
Dolby made the call to put the music on pause after station staff noticed a swelling tide of comments on social media in the hours after Brown’s death.
“There was a growing fervor, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram — people saying things like ‘Let’s go fight the cops,’” he said. “We got out there first to tell every body to chill out, let’s get all the facts in.”
The stations’ staff first used their airwaves to relay confirmed news as it became available, and to dispel rumors and misinformation. They were soon overwhelmed by callers with information and opinions.
“That first Saturday, some people were trying to explain what happened, and other people were angry. On Sunday … we were having riots and looting, we had to stop the music again, to say this isn’t how you handle this,” Dolby said. “People were calling in and saying ‘This isn’t justice.'” Other people called to complain about the overwhelming police presence in response to the protests, from helicopters to the explosions of tear gas canisters. The number of callers was “uncountable,” Dolby said.
Hot 104.1 and Old School 95.5 are back to regular programming now, but staff still recognize the need for residents to share their thoughts and feelings, and air calls as they come in.
Since then, the conversation has shifted to finding ways to maintain the energy and drive for social change. They stopped the music again on Monday to air coverage of Brown’s funeral. The stations also sponsored a town hall forum on Tuesday night, bringing in local and national speakers. City officials, law enforcement officers, and entertainers served as panelists and took questions about police tactics in St. Louis and the surrounding county, among other topics.
It’s exactly the kind of forum the media should offer citizens — to foster healing and growth, and earn back trust, says activist Kevin Powell, president of BK Nation, who was on the Tuesday panel and involved in an earlier event at the Missouri History Museum.
Though the reaction to Brown’s death started on social media, the public forums this week “made clear to me there are so few public spaces where people feel they can get stuff off their chest,” Powell said by phone.
“People want to come offline and have someone in the media support things that allow them to speak. They’re asking for democracy, for equality, and for justice, and these people should have their voices heard. If their voices aren’t heard, then this is not really a democracy.”
In the early days of the protests, county residents felt betrayed by media depictions of looting and violence that derailed the conversation, he said.
Of the roughly 160 people arrested during the protests, fewer than 10 were Ferguson residents, according to published reports. Powell said his own mother, worried about his safety, cautioned him against going to the area.
“Parts of the nation have gotten the impression from media that this is just a bunch of angry black people wildin’ out. That’s part of the problem, when the situation is reported and distorted in a sensationalist way. The media should be involved if they are going to let the people actually speak,” Powell said. “You’ve gotta let people get this stuff off their chest. It’s part of healing, when you’re talking about human beings who are very deeply hurt, not just by this shooting, but by years and years of disempowerment and disenfranchisement.”
The agenda for the Radio One forum was centered on bringing the conversation beyond reaction to the shooting to rebuilding the community, Dolby said.
“We’re going to cover how young people can get registered to vote, what does voting really mean, what role does the media play, what about education, what about jobs? “The conversation now is, once all the media hype dies down, when it’s back to us back to living here, how do we keep this going?” Dolby said.
“We’re part of the community, just like everybody else. … We’re taking the journey with them. It doesn’t end here for us.”