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July 28, 2020, 10:35 a.m.
Reporting & Production

News organizations are trying something new: Peace and quiet

“We were like, ‘It’s OK, you can have some silence.'”

Recently, I noticed something unusual on public radio airwaves: quiet. The “Moments of Serenity” promo campaign first aired on Santa Monica radio station KCRW at the end of March, at the height of daily news that felt unreal and overwhelming. Adria Kloke, promo director, told me that she created the segments partly out of necessity. “With no live, in-person events to promote, which is usually a huge part of my summer promo inventory,” says Kloke, “I had some room to be both creative and purposeful.”

These 30-second promos air between program shifts, and are voiced by Garth Trinidad, a longtime KCRW DJ. They feature sounds like ocean waves and remind listeners to breathe and limit their screen time. Kloke has created a number of variations, and when they’re in active on-air runs, they can play up to 10 times per day. She tells me they’re in particularly heavy rotation during news blocks. “Our board operators have some flexibility and may use them to fill time where needed. I know they’ve been getting a lot of extra air in the early morning, which I think is well-suited.”

Around the same time, in the first week of April, the WNYC weekday culture show All Of It, added its “I Need a Minute” meditation segment. These 60-second guided meditations play at the 1 p.m. midpoint of the two-hour culture program, right after the local New York-area and national NPR news updates. Like Kloke, Stewart saw an opportunity to use the tools of her medium to provide something meaningful to listeners. Mental health and wellness had always been an aspect of the program, but Stewart says that the pandemic changed the show’s approach from “interesting-informational to purpose-driven.”

“Everything we were reading was saying, ‘Meditate, meditate,’ she says, “And I thought, ‘Oh, maybe we should try to get a partnership with one of meditation apps, maybe they’d give us a meditation once a week, maybe we should do it on the air?’ And then we thought: Would that be weird? Because part of meditation is being quiet?” One of the producers knew that Lorraine Mattox, head of listener services at WNYC, had led sessions in the station’s offices prior to the lockdown and was running remote meditations over Zoom for staffers. They called her up and she generously agreed to record sessions for the show. “At first she felt like she had to talk through a lot of it,” Stewart says, “And we were like, ‘It’s OK, you can have some silence.'”

Mattox leads five different guided meditations a week and sends them to producers. (The show has been broadcasting remotely since mid-March). At first, some listeners replied with skepticism on social media. (“What’s with the gong?”) But one day, the meditation segment didn’t air due to scheduling conflicts, and Stewart says the show received a number of comments on Twitter and Instagram, asking when or if the segment was coming back. Stewart says there’s a real value to “small rituals in this time,” that people give people a sense of connection. There’s an intimacy to live radio that’s different from other mediums, she says, including the “manicured” sound of podcasts. That vulnerability builds a sense of trust. For people who might never have considered meditation, bite-sized sessions can both calm the mind in the moment and pique interest in mindfulness more broadly.

For many, it feels more important than ever before to keep track of the news, even if it’s anxiety-inducing to do so. Public radio, with its neat programming blocks, already provides a kind of antidote to doomscrolling. Including segments specifically designed to reduce stress within broadcasts is a win-win that keeps listeners engaged (and less likely to follow the trend, recently reported by Pew, of following Covid-19 news less closely over time). What’s different about these moments from, say, the sign-off segment of a news show (like the unfailingly wholesome America Strong on ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir), is that this break from the news cycle comes in the middle. It’s a built-in pause that allows a consumer to decide whether or not they’d like to keep taking in information. Features like these are lacking in online news because, even in subscription models, there’s an incentive to keep users clicking. Attention is valuable. Why risk taking it off the news?

That said, this move toward enforced calm is not limited to airwaves. There have been nudges in text media, too. One of these is the “At Home” section of The New York Times, which first appeared online in mid-March and launched in print at the end of April, ostensibly a replacement for the moot Travel desk. The section appears in the paper once a week (Sunday) and acts as a clearinghouse for service articles, recommendations on streamable events and activities, and crafts. One week, it featured instructions on how to make a paper airplane out of newsprint. Another, it had a Mad Libs-style fill in the blank for a perfect summer day. And just a few weeks ago, there was a definitive piece on “How to start meditating.” In an announcement at the time of launch, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, described the section as “an acknowledgment,” that in the midst of a crisis, people “want different kinds of information about how to live and manage their lives.”

These purpose-driven segments and sections also fit in with the growing visibility of meditation and mindfulness in general, particularly in the form of apps like Calm and Headspace, the latter of which has offered free subscriptions to a number of groups in the past few months, including healthcare professionals and the unemployed. Recently, Headspace became one of a handful of apps to launch in Snap Minis. These third-party programs live within the Snapchat’s live messaging function and give users download-free access. It’s not hard to imagine a similar integration into other news-heavy apps like Twitter or Facebook. Moments of Zen aren’t just for satirical news anymore.

Rachel del Valle is a writer living in New York.

“What’s with the gong?” By Free to Use Sounds on Unsplash.

POSTED     July 28, 2020, 10:35 a.m.
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