Election 2020 Politics

Marfa’s public radio wants to ease your social isolation during the pandemic

While most people who live in and around Marfa are drawn here because of the space and solitude, it is a different thing to have isolation forced upon you, especially at a dark and uncertain moment for the nation’s health and economy.

“The question for us began to be … how do we support our listeners? It’s not just reporting, which is essential,” said Elise Peppler, the station’s general manager. “It is equally essential that we use the capacity of radio to connect people and uplift people.”

The studio of Marfa Public Radio in Marfa, Tex.
The studio of Marfa Public Radio in Marfa, Tex. (Holly Bailey//Washington Post)

A self-described extrovert who has personally struggled with social distancing, Peppler had been moved by videos of quarantined Italians singing to each other from their balconies to raise spirits as that country remains on lockdown because of covid-19. She found the clips heartbreaking, but beautiful. “I was like, this is what we need,” she said.

That is where the pop singer Robyn came in. Last Friday afternoon, after days of dark headlines and growing fear in the community about the lasting impact of covid-19, Peppler scrapped the evening’s scheduled programming in favor of what she described as a mental health break. She announced a two-hour social isolation dance party that she called “Dancing on Your Own,” inspired by Robyn’s 2010 hit.

In an area where many residents live far apart, Peppler sought to recreate the intimacy of those Italian gatherings by inviting listeners to join a station-sponsored Zoom chat, where they could see others dancing in the confines of their own homes. She asked others to send videos or post clips on social media. “Why not be together being alone?” she told listeners.

Many responded, posting videos of themselves dancing to songs like George Michael’s “Freedom” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” One woman posted a selfie of her twirling with a plate piled with freshly fried chicken to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” — the kind of mainstream, feel-good pop fare that usually does not get much airplay on public radio.

But that was the entire point: to make people feel good and give them some escape, at least briefly, from a worrying time. “It is equally our jobs right now to raise people’s spirits when we can do that,” Peppler said.

“Marfa is a very small town with next to zero public resources,” read a sign on one shuttered storefront.

A sign posted on a store closed because of the coronavirus in Marfa, Tex.
A sign posted on a store closed because of the coronavirus in Marfa, Tex. (Holly Bailey//Washington Post)
A flier for a canceled public event on a public bulletin board in Marfa, Tex. Much of the region has gone on lockdown amid coronavirus.
A flier for a canceled public event on a public bulletin board in Marfa, Tex. Much of the region has gone on lockdown amid coronavirus. (Holly Bailey//Washington Post)

With no known cases of the virus yet, three counties in the region — Presidio, Brewster and Jeff Davis — have taken unprecedented steps to keep it that way. In recent days, county officials have ordered all hotels and lodging closed, including Airbnbs and campgrounds in and around Big Bend National Park where Texans from around the state had come to find shelter from the pandemic before being turned away.

In Marfa, a town of about 2,000 where many residents work jobs that are touched in some way by tourism, that news was bittersweet — a move that would protect the health of those who live in the city, but leave many out of work, even more isolated than usual at a moment of uncertainty unlike any in recent memory.

For Peppler, the uncertain times mean a greater mission for her station in finding ways to connect with listeners and to help them connect with each other, at a time when finding community and solace with one another might be the only way to make it through.

Last week, MPR began airing a public service announcement asking listeners to call and leave a voice mail for the station talking about how their daily routines had changed or even simply saying how they were doing.

But the station has also tried to showcase some levity.

On Saturday night, as much of Marfa sat silent and empty, the streets lit up by the red glow of the setting sun, host Joe Nick Patoski kicked off the station’s weekly Texas music hour with songs that seemed jokingly tailored to the moment, including Barbara Lynn’s 1964 single, “Don’t Spread it Around.”

“I know a lot of folks out there in radio land have been feeling a little unease, self quarantining, isolating themselves alone,” Patoski said. “Well, I’ve got the antidote right here, right now … We may be partying in place, but ain’t nothing going to stop us.”

“With Texas music, all things are possible in your life,” he added, “although it does help to wash your hands very thoroughly.”

A copy of the weekly Big Bend Sentinel newspaper in a hotel in Marfa, Texas, the day before county officials closed all public lodging to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
A copy of the weekly Big Bend Sentinel newspaper in a hotel in Marfa, Texas, the day before county officials closed all public lodging to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (Holly Bailey//Washington Post)

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