At an Anchorage testing site, “COVID Radio” broadcasts local music and public health

A sign in a snowy parking lot reads "COVID Radio 95.9 FM."
COVID Radio, set up in partnership with the Anchorage Concert Association and the Anchorage Health Department, provides a platform for local musicians and offers public health information at the ChangePoint Church testing location in Anchorage. (Kavitha George/AKPM)

If you turn up the radio while you’re in line for a COVID-19 test in Anchorage, you might hear music from familiar local artists such as Medium Build and the West High School Jazz Band. COVID Radio is a project sponsored by the Anchorage Concert Association and the Health Department to provide a platform for local artists, and keep the community entertained and informed while they’re getting tested.

Around Thanksgiving, Meghan Holtan, a data analyst and sometimes-circus artist, was looking for a way to showcase local performing artists in a COVID-safe setting. At that time, she remembered, lines for coronavirus testing were frequently wrapped around parking lots.

“I thought: There’s my audience!” Holtan said.

A circus act wouldn’t really make sense, she decided, so she settled on low-power radio that could broadcast music and public health messages to the ChangePoint Church testing site in west Anchorage. 

Holtan reached out to more than a dozen local musicians to contribute songs, as well as artists, doctors, public officials and business owners who recorded public health messages about social distancing, masking and testing procedures. Some recorded in a studio, but many just texted her voice note recorded on their cell phones. 

Holtan, who does contract data analysis for the Anchorage Health Department, said COVID Radio has been a fun and creative challenge that, even in a small way, brightens an otherwise stressful time for everyone.

“The whole thing has just been a really positive experience,” she said. “Most of what we’re doing right now is just really challenging with managing the pandemic. So this is kind of just a different approach and less dire.”

AHD Public Health Division Manager Christy Lawton said the relatively low-cost radio project helps repackage public health messages we’ve been hearing for nearly a year.

“There was a lot of kind of ‘COVID fatigue.’ People maybe had lost some of the energy for reading dense public health reports,” Lawton said. With Holtan’s radio program, “we can share something that’s helpful, but also, hopefully, somewhat fun.”

Liz Anaya is a co-owner of Anaya Latin Dance. She and her husband recorded a public health message in English and Spanish in the hopes spreading accurate information could help things get back to normal sooner. 

“We were happy to participate,” Anaya said. “We really want our community to bounce back quickly. We want everybody to be practicing social distancing, and wearing masks. Because just like a lot of business owners, and a lot of people here locally, we’re tired of it too.”

Holtan used funding from the Anchorage Concert Association to pay artists an honorarium. During a time when live performances are basically off the table, ACA community collaborator Becky Kendall said COVID Radio is helping in a small way to keep local artists afloat and help musicians get their work in front of an audience. 

“Some of it is music that people have written already, some of it is music that has not even been released yet, that’s been created during COVID. So that gives artists an opportunity to share what they’ve been doing.”

The project has been running for about a month and Holtan is still working on getting feedback from community members. Right now COVID Radio is only available at the ChangePoint Church testing site, but she’s planning to expand it to the Loussac Library in the next few weeks, and potentially set it up at vaccination sites in the future.