With more and more states, municipalities, and other authorities issuing shelter-in-place warnings or other restrictions on travel, and with more station facilities likely to be closed temporarily because of exposure to the COVID-19 virus, broadcasters need to be planning on how to continue to operate their facilities in the new world we are all facing. I participated in an online conference last week with over 100 college broadcasters who are perhaps on the front lines of this problem, as so many operate from campus buildings that were closed early after (and in some cases before) the declaration of the pandemic. We’ve had calls from many other broadcasters about the issues that they are facing in their operations, as communities take actions to enforce the personal distancing urged by medical organizations. Many commercial broadcasters may be seeing in the upcoming days greater restrictions on unnecessary travel, perhaps impacting access to their facilities and studios. Planning and coordination among broadcasters – and with broadcasters and local officials – is already underway in many cities and with many state broadcast associations. But it also needs to be considered by individual broadcasters everywhere.
One of the most basic questions is one of access. Questions are arising every day as to whether local officials can block access to broadcast stations or to the coverage of news events during the emergency. Will broadcasters be shut down like so many other businesses? There has been much written in the trade press and elsewhere about broadcasters being “essential services” that should be allowed access to their facilities and to news events during any crisis. There is in fact statutory language in the US code to that effect (see, for instance, this section that tells federal officials not to limit access or facilities to radio and TV broadcasters in an emergency). But that statute restricts the actions of federal officials to block broadcaster access and is silent as to actions by state and local officials. Even if state laws have similar provisions, those provisions are only helpful if someone in a position of authority has the time and inclination to look at the legal niceties that apply to a given situation. Coordination with state and local officials is paramount in a situation like the current one that affects everyone, everywhere. Stations should already be in touch with state and local authorities to see how they can help in the current crisis. At the same time, they should also be discussing and planning with these officials to ensure access to studios and transmitter sites, and exemptions from travel restrictions for news coverage, so that they can continue to provide their important services to the public.