Here to Help: Arizona PBS springs into action in response to coronavirus pandemic

As a public broadcaster, Arizona PBS exists to serve our community and, in times of crisis, we know that Arizonans need our services more than ever.

We may not be in the business of vaccines or ventilators, but in our areas of expertise — education, local news and community outreach — friends, we’ve been busy. Here’s the full picture, including a peek behind the scenes.

On-air support for education

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Arizona schools closed their doors and transitioned to online learning in mid-March. By the end of the month, Governor Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman had announced the extension of closures through the end of the school year.

Arizona PBS, like many of our fellow PBS stations across the country, stepped up to help.

“These school closures challenge teachers, parents and caregivers to find ways of keeping kids and teenagers engaged and learning,” said Arizona PBS general manager Mary Mazur. “As community-based public broadcasters with a mission to support education across our state, our stations are stepping up to provide trusted, high-quality resources to students and educators.”

Arizona PBS partnered with Tucson-based Arizona Public Media to create the Arizona At Home Learning initiative. Following a model created by a coalition of California stations and endorsed by the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, At Home Learning supports remote education for students. It consists of a broadcast schedule of educational programs that align with state curriculum standards, supplemented with free digital resources at azpbs.org/athomelearning.

On Monday, March 23 at 5 a.m., Arizona PBS’ daytime programming was transformed to

meet the needs of students who no longer could go to their classrooms. The early morning shows were geared toward our youngest students, followed by blocks of programming for Grades 4–8 in the morning and 9–12 in the afternoon.

Programming reached roughly 122,000 people across Arizona in the first five days. In the third week of At Home Learning programming, audiences increased to over 151,000 people.

Shortly after Arizona PBS’ main channel was transformed, Arizona PBS World (digital channel 8.3) underwent a similar shift. World, which is largely based on a programming schedule created by WGBH in Boston, began providing additional programming for grades 9–12 between noon and 6 p.m. As students began to tune in, ratings for 8.3 went up 57% from the corresponding week of 2019.

“Everyone at the station rallied around At Home Learning,” said Kim Flack, director of education and community impact at Arizona PBS. “Staff across all departments came together to figure out how we could make this happen and try to get it out immediately. It has been inspiring to me that we’ve been able to turn such a strong focus on helping children and families.”

Despite studies showing that most households have at least one device that can connect to the internet, Flack believes there is a great value in providing on-air resources.

“I have a great appreciation for the families who don’t have any devices, that only have over-the-air television,” she said. “I think there’s so much we take for granted, so I really want to make sure that we think carefully and continue to provide for people.”

This summer, continued support for students and families will take the form of new At Home Learning programming past the end of the school year.

“The idea is that we will repeat the At Home Learning schedule,” said Flack. “Most likely, there were a lot of students and families who didn’t see the programming the first time it ran because there was new growing awareness of it.”

Flack also hopes to weave more educational connections into the prime time program schedule. This summer’s theme is “Trailblazers,” highlighting those who have made history. “We could really capitalize on that time,” she said.

Supporting families every way we can

Arizona PBS’ education efforts haven’t stopped at on-air efforts. Flack’s team worked with partners around the state to provide materials as quickly as possible, while existing education resources saw spikes in usage statewide.

Arizona PBS LearningMedia, which makes thousands of digital resources accessible to educators and students, saw educator accounts increase by 1,670 individuals between mid-March and mid-April — an increase of 4.2%. Bright by Text, a bilingual service that provides free tips, information and resources for parents and caretakers of young children, reported a local community message open rate of 12.8%. The Arizona PBS KIDS digital livestream users increased from 25,671 in February to 32,563 in March.

Professional development workshops for early childhood educators, provided in partnership with Sesame Street in Communities, expanded their curriculum to include modules revolving around the coronavirus pandemic and discussing the situation with children.

To further their reach, Arizona PBS Education and Impact team members created virtual workshops. Families can join on Zoom and participate in activities, songs and read-alongs, all complete with an opportunity for parents to discuss the challenges of balancing their kids’ life at home with their own. Additional support groups following curriculum from Love and Logic® have also been offered for parents.

Arizona PBS also established a new weekly email newsletter called At Home with Arizona PBS. Comprised of coronavirus-related news updates, resources for teachers and activities for families, the emails are sent every Wednesday to a total of 245,000 viewers, educators and families.

As part of Arizona State University, Arizona PBS’ education resources are incorporated into the ASU For You site, a compilation of free educational tools for all levels and ages.

Arizona PBS is also partnering with the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation, Phoenix Afterschool Center and school districts to distribute learning materials including PBS Kids activity books, reading charts, Cat in the Hat and Daniel Tiger activities and crayons. Thousands of materials have been distributed.

One point of distribution for Arizona PBS’ materials is the daily meal pick-up that many Arizona schools are providing. In some areas, families have received small packets with activities such as crafts that can be done with a few common materials. The team has also delivered materials to the children of first responders.

Families are so appreciative to receive these materials, Flack said. “One little girl in Lake Havasu City said, ‘Look! It’s a Happy Meal!’ because she got Arizona PBS stuff with her meal.” From the average American kid, that’s a pretty high endorsement.

‘Arizona Horizon’ leads the discussion

While the Education team led the response to school closures across Arizona, the “Arizona Horizon” team led the station’s coverage of the pandemic, continually adapting to meet the changing situation.

On March 11, Arizona State University first announced that in-person classes would be held online to limit large gatherings. “Cronkite News” immediately halted its studio broadcasts, leaving a half-hour gap in the news block. “Arizona Horizon” filled the time, expanding to a full hour from March 16 to March 24. Production staff assigned to other projects pitched in to fill the spots of student workers who were no longer coming to campus.

“Early in the pandemic we had so many topics we felt we needed to cover that producing an hour-long show was a no-brainer, “ said Allysa Adams, executive producer of “Arizona Horizon.”

At this point, “Horizonte,” Arizona PBS’ public affairs show focusing on the Hispanic community, was merged with “Arizona Horizon,” at least for the present.

“We found the shows wanted to highlight the same stories, and we realized the ‘Horizon’ story was also the ‘Horizonte’ story,” Adams said. “Given the extra demands of the situation — missing our student crew, working remotely and, for a while, producing an hour-long show — it just made sense to combine resources.”

After nine installments, “Arizona Horizon” moved back to its usual half-hour format, with “DW News” filling the 5 p.m. timeslot. “After going full tilt for almost two weeks,” Adams said, “we realized we would have to make some adjustments to keep our guests and our staff safe.”

As concerns about social distancing became more acute, the show began to hold more and more interviews via Skype. The team was looking for ways to keep as many staff members out of the Arizona PBS building as possible. On March 25, nearly a week before Governor Doug Ducey issued a stay-at-home order for the state, Ted Simons began hosting “Arizona Horizon” from his home.

“Hosting the show from home is like learning a new language,” Simons said. “Everything is different, but the job is the same. For now, my modest home office is also my modest ‘Horizon’ studio, which makes for tight quarters.”

“It also makes for a couple of curious housecats,” Simons added. “They love having me home. At least I think that’s why they keep trying to push open the door and join me during the broadcast.”

To create Simons’ home studio, staff members Megan Kapus and James Bradley set up a camera and tripod, microphone, lights and backdrop, plus a tablet that serves as a teleprompter and an earpiece that lets the crew communicate. The arrangement allows nearly everyone who would normally be in the studio or the control room to stay home.

Assistant production manager Ebonye Delaney is the one exception. By continuing to work from the Arizona PBS building, she serves as the control tower for productions like “Arizona Horizon.” Producers and editors send her their content, and she assembles the elements while two colleagues run the audio board and graphics system remotely. Just before show time, Delaney, Adams and the crew connect via speakerphone to roll the show. Adams notes it can be an intense “dance” as they all listen for the cues to play their parts so the show looks flawless on air.

During the early days of the pandemic, guests and topics on the show were heavily weighted toward the coronavirus and the economy, but as the weeks went on, the team looked for ways to include lighter topics. Two new segments were added: three times a week, Cultural Escape highlights the arts community, while twice a week, Social Connections tells stories of Arizonans who are reaching out and supporting each other. (See the archives at azpbs.org/escape and azpbs.org/connections.)

Another group of contributors is the Cronkite News student team. Although they haven’t yet returned to their full half-hour newscast, they have been contributing stories to “Arizona Horizon,” as well as delivering each day’s news online, including via shorter video segments and CN2Go, a five- to eight-minute audio briefing on the day’s top stories. CN2Go is produced five days a week, and is available on smart devices like Amazon Alexa and Google Home.

Voicing Arizona’s questions

At the beginning of April, Arizona PBS hosted the Arizona COVID-19 Town Hall, produced as a partnership between the Arizona Broadcasters Association and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University (home of Arizona PBS). Two dozen TV stations and 79 radio stations across Arizona simulcast the event.

Simons and former 3TV anchor Carey Pena hosted the discussion, which also included Health Services Director Cara Christ and Arizona National Guard Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire.

The studio was carefully arranged to allow for social distancing, and there was no live audience. Instead, questions from the public were submitted in advance through local TV and radio stations across the state. Arizona PBS received over a thousand questions, a signal that Arizonans were eager to make their voices heard. Nearly a million Arizonans tuned in.

Cronkite Dean and Arizona PBS CEO Christopher Callahan applauded the state’s broadcasters for putting aside their competition and providing an hour of free airtime — without commercial interruption — to benefit Arizonans.

“Arizonans received the benefit of hearing directly from the state’s chief executive on the impact of the coronavirus on our state, and the event already has driven policy changes,” Callahan said.

After this success, Arizona PBS introduced a weekly town hall series, starting April 24. These discussions, held remotely and produced by the “Arizona Horizon” team, are designed to give the public more information about topics related to the pandemic. Each week, viewer-submitted questions were put before lawmakers, other public officials and experts in a variety of fields. You can take a second look at these town hall discussions at azpbs.org/townhall.

From our homes to yours

Like many who are lucky enough to have jobs, the vast majority of Arizona PBS staff have been working from home since mid-March. Like you, perhaps, we’ve suddenly become proficient in Zoom video conferencing and other tools for telecommuting. Solutions had to be found for normally simple tasks like collecting mail.

By mid-April, the only people in the building were Delaney in the control room, a rotation of engineers in master control, a security guard downstairs — and a robot called Scotty.

Scotty is a telepresence robot — essentially Skype on wheels — that allows engineers to monitor broadcast operations and roam the master control and server rooms from off-site. Before the outbreak, Scotty was sometimes used by the Cronkite School to conduct remote interviews, teach classes and even help with building tours.

Arizona PBS has a broadcast control center and 40 racks of equipment that are usually monitored daily by the engineering staff. Enlisting Scotty as the eyes and ears of remote staff members is helping to keep the station on the air.

“An unexpected benefit is the ability for remote staff and on-site staff to interact more personally,” said chief technology officer Ian MacSpadden. “The ability to roam the facility with their coworkers ‘virtually’ has been received very positively by the few remaining on-site staff.”

Arizona responds

With so many people staying home, many Arizonans have joined you in turning to Arizona PBS. The week in mid-March that “Arizona Horizon” expanded its coverage to a full hour saw 33% growth in news viewership. On April 1, ratings for our news programming were up 10% from last year’s average and primetime ratings were up by 42%. Since then, average weekly household ratings have continued to be up, with the week of May 4 showing a 69% increase for news ratings from the same time last year.

Primetime viewership increased in mid-March, too: up 34% from the same time last year. In particular, early April ushered in an increase in Sunday primetime ratings. As of this writing, the most recent data shows household ratings up 53% compared to 2019 from the beginning of April through mid-May.

During the day, ratings for At Home Learning programming grew through the first four weeks, with a peak in mid-April where ratings were up 77% from the previous week, and up 26% from the same time in 2019. Since then, daytime ratings have leveled off, but continue to be higher than last year.

Families with young children are turning to Arizona PBS KIDS (channel 8.4) to find shows that have been preempted by At Home Learning: The week At Home Learning began on our main channel, ratings for Arizona PBS KIDS were up by 40% compared to the same time last year.

Our streaming service, Arizona PBS Passport, has also seen increased use: 50% more users than March 2019 and nearly double the number of hours watched. More than 50% more viewers activated their Passport accounts in March than in February, which was also nearly 25% higher than 2019.

“It is so gratifying to see that our efforts connect with viewers across Arizona,” said Mazur. “In difficult times we come together to serve the greater good. We thank ‘viewers like you’ on the air because you are always here for us, and I want you to know it goes both ways – Arizona PBS is here for you.”

This story was originally in the Summer 2020 issue of Arizona PBS magazine.

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