How coronavirus changed how WTOP brings you news

You’ve probably been saying to yourself things have really changed in the last couple of months because of the coronavirus. At WTOP, they certainly have.

A little over two months ago, WTOP celebrated one year in our new Maryland location. Like all great radio station events, there was food — lots of food. Two days of it — on the actual anniversary of the move, Feb. 2, then the next day.

People from every department lined up, served themselves loads of pasta and pizza and gathered like a family. Food is one of the ways we at WTOP show our affection for each other, whether it’s a big meal or Oreo Friday.

Later in the month, on Feb. 26, the entire staff stood almost shoulder to shoulder as we recognized 18 staffers celebrating key anniversaries that totaled 275 years of service. (Did you know that Shawn Anderson, Mitchell Miller and Dave Johnson have each been here 25 years?)

WTOP staffers
Before coronavirus changed everything, WTOP honored staffers for their years of service. From left to right: Dave Johnson (25 years); Dimitri Sotis (20 years); Shawn Anderson (25 years); Hillary Howard (15 years); and Mitchell Miller (25 years). (WTOP/Brett Snyder)

None of us could have predicted then that in just a few weeks time our work environment as we have known it for years would change completely.

We would not only have to focus on gathering news — some of the biggest news of a lifetime — but we also would have to worry about doing it safely during a pandemic. Coronavirus is unlike anything most of us have ever encountered. You can’t see it. But it can certainly touch you, as we’re all finding out.

The more dangerous the threat from coronavirus has became, the more life at WTOP has changed in order to keep our team safe. All of our protocols have changed — and so has how we bring you the news.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Below is a little peek behind the curtain at how life at WTOP has changed in the past month.

First it was the little things. As coronavirus was becoming a bigger threat in the D.C. area, WTOP began taking precautions just like other businesses were doing.

Memos outlined the best way to wash your hands. Additional hand sanitizer stations were installed. We banned baked goods and any other food that wasn’t individually wrapped. We started social distancing. These measures would only be the start.

In an email to staff on March 6, General Manager Joel Oxley outlined a host of things that had been done (replacing HVAC filters, ordering individual microphone covers for anchors, etc.) and a list of other ideas under consideration, including physically distancing ourselves from each other in the newsroom and not sharing desk space — a very common practice in newsrooms.

OPTION TO WORK FROM HOME

WTOP Digital Editor Teta Alim initially came to work, but now works remotely. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

“Work from home accommodations are available to all staff who are able to do their jobs from home. Let your manager know if you feel you need more flexibility,” Oxley wrote in his March 6 memo.

Newsroom people are not ones who typically want to work from home. They are typically the types of people who have to be told to go home when they are sick. They come to work 365 days a year because it’s what they do.

They are people who are used to covering dangerous events: Flash floods. Tornadoes. Snow storms. The derecho. The 9/11 terror attack. The Navy Yard mass shooting. World Bank protests. The Freddie Gray riots. The D.C. snipers. You get the idea.

It’s expected that reporters will be on the scene of news events, that writers will update copy, that editors will give directions and that anchors will tell you what’s happening.

Nobody in the newsroom took Oxley up on his offer.

We continued to work in the big, open WTOP newsroom from desks that are grouped together. Reporters sit with reporters. Editors sit with editors. The digital staff sits with the digital staff. We’re next to each other — collaborating, joking and grumbling. We butt into each other’s conversations and talk across the room to each other.

We know that when a shift ends, the next shift will sit in the same seats we just left.



EVERYTHING CHANGES

But five days after Oxley’s email offering to let people work from home, everything changed.

“In order to be proactive, we are going to ask many of you to work from home tomorrow. We are doing a test so we can determine what people need in case working from home/remotely becomes a long-term SOP,” Oxley wrote in his March 11 email to staff.

Work from home. WTOP had never done it before.

But on March 12, many of the nearly 200 people who work for WTOP and Federal News Radio would try it.

The sales, finance and marketing teams left the building. The reporters, sports folks and web staffers packed up and headed home.

WTOP management made this decision the day D.C’s mayor declared a public health emergency, but before area school systems changed their schedules.

The day of WTOP’s first test run from home, Maryland would announce its first school closures for the rest of March. Those would later be extended into April and May.

WTOP Studio A
Changes would be in store for Studio A. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

THIS WOULDN’T BE A ONE-DAY EVENT

We didn’t know it then, but that work-at-home test run would turn into something much bigger and much more long term for WTOP staffers.

“Working from home — this is something we’ve never done for days and days and weeks and weeks at a time,” said Julia Ziegler, WTOP’s Director of News and Programming. “The No. 1 priority is keeping people safe. People come first.”

A lot of people pulled a lot of long hours to make working from home a reality for the WTOP newsroom. The IT team and management quickly started deploying laptops and other equipment that would be needed to work from home.

For the reporters, sports guys and digital staff, it wasn’t that hard — just different. Many reporters and the sports folks already had the equipment to broadcast from anywhere. The web staff always had the ability to work off site, but rarely did.

“We had most of the capabilities. We have always been able to work at home, but we didn’t have complete access to what we have in the office,” Ziegler said. “What we needed was the equipment.”

The big question mark would be how to get the anchors, the traffic team, the radio writers and the editors the needed equipment and access to work outside the building.

Anchors and traffic reporters would need remote access units, computers, software and microphones to allow them to broadcast at home, like the reporters do in the field.

And as the equipment came in, more people filtered out of the newsroom.

Dave Preston and Darci Marchese
WTOP Sports Anchor Dave Preston talks with News Director Darci Marchese. Some days Preston works at home. Other days, he is in the studio. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

BREAKING UP TO STAY HEALTHY

But for those who were still working in the newsroom, more and more began to change as well.

WTOP made the decision to break up our anchor teams.

“Anchors typically work side-by-side in an enclosed studio for the four to five hours they are on the air. We decided for the safety of everyone involved, we could no longer allow them to do that,” Ziegler said.

And so, anchor teams were separated, with each broadcasting from a different studio. For example, people tuning into AM Drive, would hear Bruce Alan during one hour and Joan Jones during the next.

Some engineering had to be done to turn what is typically our “back-up studio” into one that had all of the capabilities as our main studio. (Previously, that studio was used for interviews with guests, but visitors had also been banned on the floor.)

At the same time, a vigorous cleaning regiment was put in place for the studios. No anchor can use either studio before it has been officially cleaned with a disinfectant we have all come to affectionately call the “corona cleaner.” It’s also used throughout the newsroom.

All staffers are asked to clean their workstations with it when they first arrive and when they leave for the day.

Shawn Anderson
WTOP’s Shawn Anderson anchors a solo shift. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

NEXT BIG LEAP

On Saturday, March 21, WTOP took another big leap. We wanted to test whether an anchor could broadcast from home. Would it sound the same? What issues would we encounter? Would the listener know the anchor was not actually inside the “Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center?”

After outfitting anchor Mike Murillo with all the equipment, technology and training he would need, it was go time.

WTOP had a backup plan and an anchor ready back at the studio in case something went wrong at Murillo’s home, but he didn’t need it. Murillo has been anchoring from home every weekend since then.

What about everybody else? Could they pull off what Murillo, a techno-whiz, did? Maybe — if they had support back at the studio.

Mike Murillo
Mike Murillo anchors from his home studio on April 6. (WTOP/Mike Murillo)

Anchors started modifying their homes and being equipped to “go live” from home.

Both Joan Jones and Debbie Feinstein modified their closets into studios. When you hear them each day now, they are sitting right next to their favorite sweaters and dresses giving you the latest lowdown on coronavirus. Mark Lewis is in his dining room. Howard is at her home.

Back at the WTOP studios, another anchor, editor or writer pushes the buttons to make sure you hear traffic, weather, live updates from reporters and our commercials.

There are other anchors who still come into the studios.

One of them is Shawn Anderson, who said the change has been a noticeable one.

“It took me a couple of weeks to get used to it. I’ve anchored alone before, but I’ve been working with a partner for a long time,” Anderson said.

He and Howard now spend a lot of time text messaging each other.

“We text each other to find out how each other is doing. I am looking forward to the day when we can get back together. We will celebrate,” Anderson said.

Hillary Howard
Hillary Howard has been broadcasting from her home. (WTOP/Hillary Howard)

TRAFFIC — AT-HOME AND IN-HOUSE

Like the anchors, some of the traffic reporters now work from home too.

Before the pandemic, as many as three traffic reporters would work together in the WTOP Traffic Center at one time. Each traffic reporter is outfitted with four computer monitors displaying maps and traffic cameras around the region, as well as scanners from most police and fire jurisdictions.

And, they have what many of the traffic reporters still consider their biggest tool — phones. Calls to the Traffic Center still yield some of the best information that WTOP gets for its traffic reports.

Dave Dildine was one of the first traffic reporters to attempt working from home. While he does not have quite as many screens in his home setup, he does have a portable scanner by his side and access to those same cameras that he needs to get the job done.

WTOP Traffic Reporters Jack Taylor and Mary de Pompa are also both working from home now.

“It’s super cool to realize all my old equipment at home could allow me to do this!” Taylor writes in an email. But he admits he needs “interaction! Please personal interactions!”

He and de Pompa miss working as part of a team in one room where they would talk about different traffic incidents. De Pompa said together, with Reada Kessler, they would decipher the “best way to report on situations.”

“Our assessment is not as immediate as it can be within the Traffic Center but modern technology can almost get us there!” she said.

Something else that has changed — when you call the WTOP Traffic Center these days, the phone may be answered at someone’s home. Both Jerry Booth and Mary de Pompa were given equipment that allows them to take calls to the Traffic Center from their home studios.

Reada Kessler
WTOP’s Reada Kessler continues to make the commute into the WTOP Traffic Center. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

WHO’S STILL HERE?

It’s now been over four weeks since WTOP GM Joel Oxley sent that initial email about the work from home “test.”

In addition to some anchors and some traffic reporters, there are a few other people who still come into the WTOP studios on a day-to-day basis.

The jobs of the radio editors and assistant editors (the folks who decide what goes on the air and when) are essential. When you hear, “Mike Jakaitis is at the Editor’s Desk,” or Teddy Gelman or Joslyn Chesson, they really are at the desk.

Chesson is the midday editor for Feinstein and Lewis. She used to look into the studio and give them a wave or a thumbs up when she needed to get their attention. With both anchors at home, communication has changed.

“I’m texting them a lot. I’m texting them more than my mother or my boyfriend!” Chesson said.

Teddy Gelman
Editor Teddy Gelman continues to work in the WTOP newsroom. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

The people who are still coming into the newsroom are now wearing masks when in close proximity to others. WTOP had the masks made for employees.

“I had seen that a friend of mine, a former WTOP employee, was making masks for her sister who is a nurse. I reached out to her and asked her if she would be interested in making 50 for WTOP. She didn’t hesitate,” said Ziegler.

“My mom is also a great seamstress. She was making masks for our family and volunteered to make another 20 for the newsroom. We are so grateful to both of them.”

One of the biggest things Ziegler said she was worried about with everyone working out of the office was the communication between reporters that is so incredibly important.

“Verbal communication in a newsroom is vitally important. And we found ourselves in a situation where we were covering one of the biggest stories of our lives and that verbal communication was going to be in jeopardy with everyone working from home.”

So, Ziegler set up a conference line that every reporter calls into every day. That conference line is dialed into via a speaker phone in the newsroom.

Any time a reporter sees any new information all he has to do is talk down the conference line to share that info with the rest of the team.

“It’s not perfect but it’s getting the job done,” said Ziegler.

Julia Ziegler, director of news and programming at WTOP, has been working long hours to make sure WTOP keeps its employees safe during the pandemic. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

It’s weird to think that our WTOP colleagues and friends working from home have had a completely different experience over the past month.

My colleague Will Vitka was one of the first newsroom staffers to work from home. You can read about his experience. He continues to write about working at home

With how fast things have changed in the last couple of months, we really can’t say for sure what will happen in the future. But the management team is beginning to think about how they will have people return to the newsroom when it is safe to do so.

In an April 17 staff meeting held over the intercom, Ziegler told staffers they are looking for the “smart way to bring people back.”

Whether it’s from a closet or a broadcast studio, no matter how you look at it, WTOP plans to always be here for you — 24/7/365.

WTOP’s Will Vitka contributed to this story.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2020 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Man wearing a face mask, operates equipment in radio studio.
WTOP Anchor Kyle Cooper runs the on-air studio board, playing all of the elements that one of the midday anchors who is working from home cannot, such as sounders, live interviews and commercials. (WTOP/Matt Small)

A series of WTOP journalists working.
Depending on the shift, a skeleton crew remains at WTOP’s studios. Seen in these photos are Assistant Editor Andrea Cambron, Afternoon Drive Editor Mike Jakaitis, Midday Editor Joslyn Chesson and Midday Anchor Mark Lewis. Since this photo of Lewis was taken, he now works from home. (WTOP)

Male radio news anchor behind the mic, live on-air.n the WTOP traffic center.
WTOP Morning Drive Anchor Bruce Alan, seen here updating listeners with the latest news and information on the coronavirus pandemic, continues to come into the studios. He uses his face mask when he isn’t broadcasting. (WTOP/Matt Small)

Female radio news anchor working from home
WTOP Morning Drive Anchor Joan Jones is one of WTOP’s familiar voices who is working remotely. She has retrofitted a closet. She communicates with her editor back at the studio by cellphone and an intercom system. (WTOP/Joan Jones)

WTOP Anchor Debra Feinstein in front of her broadcast position inside her closet.
WTOP Anchor Debra Feinstein works out of her closet using a remote access unit, her computer and cellphone. Back at the studio, another staffer pushes buttons that ensure traffic, weather, sports, business and a host of other things get on the air. (WTOP/Debra Feinstein)

WTOP Afternoon Anchor Shawn Anderson using the newsroom's Purell station.
One of the new things inside the WTOP newsroom is the hand sanitizer dispenser. In addition to people sitting farther apart, those in the newsroom are constantly sanitizing. WTOP Afternoon Anchor Shawn Anderson is seen here. (WTOP/Matt Small)

Female journalist smiling next to a laptop computer and microphone.
WTOP Afternoon Anchor Hillary Howard prepares to broadcast live from her home. She said she is grateful to colleague WTOP Reporter/Anchor Mike Murillo for his help in setting up her work-from-home studio. (WTOP/Hillary Howard)

Empty desks and chairs in the WTOP newsroom.
WTOP continues to provide the news, traffic and weather information you depend on, but we’ve had to make some adjustments to how we operate due to the coronavirus pandemic. The majority of our staffers currently work from home — including much of the web team, whose section of the office stands empty. (WTOP/Matt Small)

Nearly empty workstations in the WTOP newsroom.
Before the coronavirus, many of these WTOP newsroom workstations would be shared by people working different shifts. (WTOP/Matt Small)

A series of four work-from-home setups used by WTOP journalists.
Many WTOP staffers, such as Business Reporter Jeff Clabaugh, Storm Team4 Meteorologist Matt Ritter, Reporter/Anchor Mike Murillo and Digital Editor Will Vitka, have slight variations of their work-from-home setups. Murillo was the first anchor to broadcast from home. (WTOP)

<p>WTOP&#8217;s Megan Cloherty works with her nephew on her lap. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)</p>
WTOP’s Megan Cloherty works with her nephew on her lap. She finds working from home challenging. “Before the pandemic, I was accustomed to filing from the field. But working from home is a totally different animal. In our house, we are balancing childcare and trying to work around each other’s work demands. I’ve had to get used to watching press conferences on a live stream and calling in to ask my questions on a delay. We are getting a lot of great stories from community members who are sharing their new normal – what’s working and what’s not. It has been fun to break out of crime and courts reporting for a bit and tell different stories,” she writes in an email. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)

WTOP Reporter Kristi King at her home workstation.
WTOP reporters, including Kristi King, work from home. The cushions and other items facing Kristi are used when she goes live on the air and when she records. If not for these creative sound barriers, King would sound hollow or like she was speaking from inside a “tin can.” (WTOP/Kristi King)

WTOP General Manager and Senior Vice President Joel Oxley in front of WTOP's main studio.
WTOP General Manager and Senior Vice President Joel Oxley speaks during a March 27 staff meeting, held over a conference call. Not seen in the photo is an intercom where staff members call in so they can talk with their co-workers and hear what’s going on in the newsroom. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

Journalist sits at her office desk.
WTOP Director of News and Programming Julia Ziegler, seen here in her office participating in a conference call, comes into the office most days. Managers — Darci Marchese, Jared Ruderman and Pat Brogan — sometimes work at home and sometimes work in the office. Craig Schwalb, WTOP’s new Director of Content Integration and Operations, has yet to meet the staff in person. He just moved here from the New York City area. For the first couple of weeks of his new job, Schwalb worked remotely, answering listener emails from what was jokingly known among the managers as the “Princeton Junction bureau.” (WTOP/Matt Small)

WTOP Senior Digital Editor Colleen Kelleher wearing her face mask while working.
WTOP Senior Digital Editor Colleen Kelleher typically does not work in an actual office, but she filled in for her recently promoted boss, Digital News Director Sarah Beth Hensley, who has been on maternity leave since February. Hensley returned to work April 14. Kelleher, who has been at WTOP coordinating how to cover the pandemic and other stories online as well as cross-training Matt Small to work on WTOP.com, returned to her normal early morning web editing shift when Hensley returned. (WTOP/Matt Small)

Male journalist at newsroom workstation.
WTOP Writer Brandon Millman, is part of the skeleton crew still working in the WTOP newsroom. In addition to writing for the morning drive anchors, Millman has been doing some in-house reporting and running the on-air studio board for anchors broadcasting from home. (WTOP/Matt Small)

WTOP Writer/Digital Editor Jack Pointer working from home, in the company of his dog.... (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
WTOP Writer/Digital Editor Jack Pointer divides his time during the week either writing for the afternoon drive anchors from his sofa or writing and editing web articles. His dog Matilda is bored with having him around so much. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)

Female journalist working in the WTOP newsroom.
WTOP Assistant Editor Adisa Hargett-Robinson wears a face mask and gloves as she prepares material for air. Hargett-Robinson started with WTOP in March, just as coronavirus really started to become a problem locally. She has not known what it is like to work in the newsroom in precoronavirus conditions. (WTOP/Matt Small)

Female journalist working in the WTOP newsroom.
WTOP Assistant Editor Alicia Abelson, seen here wearing a face mask, coordinates with colleagues working in the newsroom and at home. (WTOP/Matt Small)

WTOP Traffic Reporter Jack Taylor said he finds it “super cool” to realize all of his old home equipment would allow him to broadcast live remotely, with the addition of new software. What he does not have is screens showing dozens of streaming cameras. Taylor said what he has really missing is “the co-workers, my traffic team, teamwork in one room. I love it from home but interaction! Please personal interactions!” he wrote in an email.

WTOP Traffic Reporter Mary DePompa answers a call to the WTOP Traffic Center from her home studio. (WTOP/Mary DePompa)
WTOP Traffic Reporter Mary DePompa answers a call to the WTOP Traffic Center from her home studio. (WTOP/Mary DePompa)

Female traffic anchor behind the mic.
WTOP Traffic Reporter Reada Kessler, seen here in the WTOP Traffic Center, prepares to update listeners on road conditions. She wears her face mask when not broadcasting. (WTOP/Matt Small)

Male journalist updating information in the WTOP traffic center.
WTOP Traffic Reporter Rob Stallworth, seen here wearing a face mask, updates the latest traffic information. Someone is always in the WTOP Traffic Center. (WTOP/Matt Small)

Jacob Kerr works on editing audio in operations. He takes in audio from reporters, weather and various networks. Should an Emergency Alert System message need to go out, Kerr is ready to handle it.

WTOP's Chris Cichon with his microphone at home.
Chris Cichon also works in operations, but is doing it from home. He also does weekend sports from home. (WTOP/Chris Cichon)

Man seen cleaning radio studio
Each studio undergoes a detailed cleaning before another anchor gets behind the microphone. WTOP Technical Operations/Engineering Assistant Zach Shore, seen here cleaning the main studio, comes into work to help troubleshoot any number of problems that can arise in-house and off-site. (WTOP/Matt Small)

Cleaning supplies on a table in the WTOP newsroom.
People still working in the WTOP newsroom clean their areas before and after each shift with what’s been dubbed the “corona cleaner.” (WTOP/Matt Small)

Boxes of cleaning supplies stored on the floor.
It takes a large stock of cleaning supplies, some of it seen here, to keep WTOP’s “24/7-365” news operation humming. (WTOP/Matt Small)

WTOP no longer lets employees bring in food to share with their co-workers, something that was very common before the pandemic. For those still coming in, a refrigerator and freezer are stocked with healthy foods. And, then there’s a good bit of junk food to keep everybody happy. (WTOP/Matt Small)

(1/29)
Man wearing a face mask, operates equipment in radio studio.
A series of WTOP journalists working.
Male radio news anchor behind the mic, live on-air.n the WTOP traffic center.
Female radio news anchor working from home
WTOP Anchor Debra Feinstein in front of her broadcast position inside her closet.
WTOP Afternoon Anchor Shawn Anderson using the newsroom's Purell station.
Female journalist smiling next to a laptop computer and microphone.
Empty desks and chairs in the WTOP newsroom.
Nearly empty workstations in the WTOP newsroom.
A series of four work-from-home setups used by WTOP journalists.
<p>WTOP&#8217;s Megan Cloherty works with her nephew on her lap. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)</p>
WTOP Reporter Kristi King at her home workstation.
WTOP General Manager and Senior Vice President Joel Oxley in front of WTOP's main studio.
Journalist sits at her office desk.
WTOP Senior Digital Editor Colleen Kelleher wearing her face mask while working.
Male journalist at newsroom workstation.
WTOP Writer/Digital Editor Jack Pointer working from home, in the company of his dog.... (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
Female journalist working in the WTOP newsroom.
Female journalist working in the WTOP newsroom.
WTOP Traffic Reporter Mary DePompa answers a call to the WTOP Traffic Center from her home studio. (WTOP/Mary DePompa)
Female traffic anchor behind the mic.
Male journalist updating information in the WTOP traffic center.
WTOP's Chris Cichon with his microphone at home.
Man seen cleaning radio studio
Cleaning supplies on a table in the WTOP newsroom.
Boxes of cleaning supplies stored on the floor.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up