From the moment the first coronavirus death was reported in King County, local media outlets have been working around the clock to deliver pandemic updates and amplify public health guidelines.
In South Seattle, Rainier Avenue Radio is broadcasting seven days a week out of a temporary studio in the Central District. (Its permanent home in Columbia City is currently undergoing redevelopment.)
Started in 2017 by Tony Benton, the station’s focus is on community-created programming, and it typically airs 70 different shows about everything from current issues to high school sports to local hip hop.
But when COVID-19 hit the Seattle area in early March, Tony knew Rainier Avenue Radio had to shift gears and dedicate more airtime to how the virus was affecting South Seattle. Over the past month, the station — which streams online, exclusively — has brought on city officials to answer questions about the coronavirus, cleared up rumors about how the virus spreads, and amplified the needs of south end businesses.
“For us, this emergency is why we were created as a radio station,” says Tony, who was born and raised in the South End. “With the coronavirus, it was very easy for us to switch (to more news programming) because we already had the connections in the community. It was easy for us to start broadcasting public service announcements in 10 different languages, because we already had those connections.”
We recently checked in with Tony to learn more about Rainier Avenue Radio and ask how COVID-19 has affected the station’s day-to-day operations. The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
Why is radio a good fit for South Seattle in particular?
Tony: We have an amazing community that is not one monolithic community. Anywhere from 70 to 100 different languages or dialects are spoken. It’s incredibly diverse culturally, incredibly diverse ethnically, diverse socially, and diverse economically. It’s a large dynamic to try to cover.
The challenge with radio is to try to figure out how to make something inclusive so that everyone from the community feels like they have ownership. And for me, that means most of the programming should come from members of the community. The station itself should more or less be a mirror of what’s being reflected in the community.
When you hear about South Seattle in mainstream media, it’s usually because there was some kind of crime. But there are amazing people doing things in South Seattle, every day. Incredible things. The response to the coronavirus is just an example of that — of how our community has rallied to share resources.
What are you hearing from the local community about what they need right now?
Tony: We had our first coronavirus broadcast on March 13. There was a lot of confusion at that point, and there weren’t a lot of messages going out. Most people don’t get press releases, most people don’t have time to stop and read messages. Everybody’s busy, so we knew it was important to give people the ability to listen as they were driving or walking or sitting or doing whatever they needed to do.
We heard from Atlantic Street Center, a service provider, about the needs in the community and what was going on for them and their clients. We heard from a student advocate at John Muir Elementary School, and he gave us a firsthand account of some of the things happening there, including some of the myths.
We knew that we had Black folks, youth in particular, who were under the assumption that they could not get the coronavirus. We had Asian students, or students who appear to be Asian, facing discrimination and racism. So these were things that we felt we had to get the word out about, because no one was talking about it but we knew it was impacting our community.
From there, we started adding public officials. The idea was to get these folks on the air and see if they can give us some answers and also make them aware that if you are a representative of South Seattle, you need to speak out loudly about what our needs are. Most people don’t even know who their district council person is, so it was important to connect them with our community and open up that line of communication.
What are some ways the virus is affecting people in South Seattle that other folks might not know about?
Tony: Small businesses are the backbone of our community. A lot of folks in South Seattle open their own businesses because of other systemic barriers that are in place. They put their houses on the line, they put their mortgages on the line, it’s everything they have. So it’s been really important that we get the word out about South Seattle businesses. Whatever equity means, we should consider South Seattle as something unique when we’re dividing up the money (for business relief).
For some people, staying home is not an option. People don’t necessarily want to be out delivering food to other people — they have to. And those are members of our community who are put in the position of taking those high-risk jobs. So that brought attention to some other things, like what’s going on with public transportation? Is it safe? People who have to take the bus want to know: How often are the buses being disinfected?
Another specific need in South Seattle is help for our unsheltered and homeless community. Some neighborhoods don’t have that — we do. And that creates a whole other set of issues.
All of us are in this together. The virus doesn’t draw community lines. But one thing that we do know is that when it comes to disparities, Black people are usually at the leading end of disparities. People who are immigrants, people who are poor, people who are from marginalized communities suffer the most. There’s no network of media for these folks, so it’s important for us to be that resource.