Learning and Living on the Airwaves
WQLN steps up to the plate for Erie
At some point in March, every business, nonprofit organization, and person had to come to grips with the changing public landscape brought on by COVID-19. While the average person thought about toilet paper and acquiring groceries, businesses faced a lack of customers, possible layoffs, and uncertain supply chains.
WQLN Public Media was no different. For them, it meant that their many community activities and fundraisers were now canceled. No Brewfest, Gears to Beers, Christmas Craft Show, or bus trips to theater events. And while raising funds is crucial to keeping WQLN radio and TV on the air, staff quickly realized that their mission "to stimulate, enrich, educate, and entertain the public" came first. They set about looking for how they could help the community.
First up was education. Kathy Woodard, WQLN education outreach manager, tells me that "COVID-19 immediately revealed enormous equity issues in our education system. Recognizing that many students in our community do not have access to the Internet, the sole medium to reach nearly 100 percent of our students is broadcast TV. It's free over the air, and, most areas, does not require an antenna for access."
In response, a program called Learning at Home was created. It contains a comprehensive catalog of educational programming available on broadcast TV, strengthened with additional online resources for teachers and families. "It has become a bridge to distance learning opportunities while staying safe at home," she adds.
WQLN also created WQLN Homeroom as a part of Learning at Home. WQLN PBS partnered with school districts and the Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit to connect with numerous Pre-K to Grade 6 teachers across our community.
Those teachers then recorded lessons from home in the content areas of language arts, math, science, social studies, and other specialty topics. The lessons were recorded early during the pandemic and can be accessed any time at wqln.org. WQLN PBS's goal is to record new lessons sometime in the near future.
The statewide system of public broadcasting went further with this idea. Thanks to a new partnership formed between all seven Pennsylvania PBS stations and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Learning at Home programming now reaches across the state, with all stations airing educational programming for Pre-K to 12th grade during the week from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. All instructional units are additionally paired with curriculum-aligned resources and activities. According to Woodard, "Teachers can print and distribute these resources to parents to supplement their child's education, while learning at home."
Not all students can receive curriculum via data-based technology, however. Rural, remote, or mountainous areas still have difficulty getting Internet access.
The PA DOE and PA PBS is addressing that issue with an initiative called Connected to Learning. Through this project, families who need technological assistance will be able to acquire a receiver that hooks up to an outdoor antenna that allows them access to curriculum that can be used in a wi-fi enabled computer, even without a data signal. This one-way system will give educators the ability to provide specific assignments to students with details about projects that need to be completed and how the work is to be returned. According to the PA PBS website "Any type of file (.jpg, .pdf, .mp4, etc.) can be transmitted via datacasting. This means that the possibilities of creating and packaging content designed for instruction are limitless."
The program is being rolled out in phases, with several already implemented. All PBS stations now have access to PBS learning media, and the datacasting infrastructure was completed last month. The PA DOE is now finalizing which school districts will participate in pilot programs.
The pilot will allow stakeholders to learn how long it may take for a file to download in different areas, establish best practices for end-user equipment, allow educators and administrators to streamline what and how students will see when they receive the files, and sort out models for returning completed work/assignments to a teacher.
The 29 Intermediate Units in the state will work with each school district to distribute receivers to the families who need them. It is anticipated that the entire state will be connected soon, maybe as early as December.
But not all education is book learning. Realizing that regional high school seniors would have no opportunities for recognition at graduation ceremonies, WQLN reached out to every school district in Erie, Crawford, and Warren Counties to collect photographs of their seniors. In special broadcasts on July 4 and 5, they saluted each graduate by airing their photos along with music and a keynote address from former governor Tom Ridge. They also used graduation addresses from Henry Louis Gates Jr., Tom Hanks, and the on-air team from PBS Newshour.
WQLN's mission was still not complete in these unprecedented times, though. Public events were being canceled left and right and the region's cultural opportunities were declining by the day.
So when the Erie Philharmonic's entire season was in jeopardy of being canceled due to the pandemic, WQLN collaborated with it to broadcast concerts for free to homes throughout the region.
Anyone can now enjoy concerts on select Thursday evenings at 8 p.m. or watch a rebroadcast the following Sunday at 2 p.m. Remaining in this season's lineup is "Americana" on Nov. 19 and 22, and "A Holiday Special" on Dec. 17 and 20.
Concerts may also be viewed via livestream at wqln.org/eriephil, and previous concerts can also be viewed from archives at both the Erie Philharmonic and WQLN websites.
But what about fundraising and keeping the nonprofit afloat with no revenue coming in? According to station manager Tom New, WQLN was fortunate to receive a Small Business Association Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In addition, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — the steward of the federal government's investment in public broadcasting — also received funding through CARES and shared it with their member television and radio stations.
This has helped WQLN and many other public media nonprofits keep the lights on and the programming moving forward. In fact, the pandemic may have powerfully revealed how valuable public broadcasting is to the community.
New says it may lead to once again receiving funding from Pennsylvania, something that was eliminated for all public broadcasting in 2008. "We are hoping to demonstrate a need for our services, which may help us regain a place in the state's budget."
With the current resurgence of COVID-19 in our community and around the country, public media outlets like WQLN have proven their worth and demonstrated that this public-based initiative has the best interest of the community at heart. Truly a comfort in these trying times.
Mary Birdsong can be reached @firstname.lastname@example.org