Anchorage has a new radio station just for people waiting in cars for a coronavirus test

Do you miss local music? Are you curious about the vaccine rollout? Do you want to learn how to juggle? Then tune in to Covid Radio.

Covid Radio is a short-term station now playing on 95.9 FM in the ChangePoint Alaska church parking lot on Raspberry Road, home to one of the most popular testing sites in the city. The station broadcasts from a low-power transmitter plugged into the testing staff’s trailer. Any car radio within roughly 200 feet can tune in Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

As drivers roll through the testing line, they can hear local music and messaging on a station curated for them. “I think it would be great if it just made people smile unexpectedly,” said Meghan Holtan, who coordinated the station.

Holtan involved a wide range of contributors in Covid Radio, from a local ska band to members of the school board. The station plays everything from H3′s Hawaii-rooted reggae to the mariachi horns of Agave Azul to the West High Jazz Band. Tucked between the tracks from Alaska bands like Medium Build and The Forest That Never Sleeps are conversations with medical professionals, interviews with testing staff and advice on how to talk to friends and family if you test positive for the coronavirus.

A few Anchorage musicians recorded new songs exclusively for Covid Radio listeners. A cappella group Pipeline Vocal Project recorded a track on pandemic precautions, with bursts of three-part harmony. Cold Country turned a similar public health message into a minute-long bluegrass tune. Contributing musicians received an honorarium and the station went live on Jan. 13.

A line of listeners

Covid Radio is supported by the Anchorage Concert Association, which put out a call in early November for art projects that promote community wellness. At the time, Anchorage was experiencing its biggest surge in COVID-19 cases and emergency officials encouraged all residents to get tested.

“There was actually a spiral of cars at the test site, and I thought, oh, there’s my audience,” Holtan said.

Covid Radio blends Holtan’s backgrounds in health and the arts. She works as a data analyst for the Anchorage Health Department on behalf of consulting firm Agnew Beck. She also has a background in circus performance and recorded a quick juggling tutorial for Covid Radio — “Watch out for the ceiling,” she warns.

Holtan received tracks from musicians, recorded interviews over Zoom and accepted audio messages over text. The Anchorage Health Department reviewed all health messaging.

Though the pandemic is serious, Holtan and the health department kept Covid Radio intentionally light.

“We all had recognition that there’s a lot of COVID fatigue out there,” said Christy Lawton, public health division manager for the Anchorage Health Department. She said state health departments have been looking for “fresh ways for people to tune in and not tune out information.”

There are important messages to share now that vaccines are available, testing numbers have dropped, and people may have let their guard down, Lawton said. Covid Radio “fit what we were talking about in a really unique and creative way.”

[After more than 10 months in lockdown, the Anchorage Pioneer Home opens to families and visitors]

Supporting wellness

The concert association is working on several projects that bring arts into the community during January and February, and all involve the themes of wellness and connection. “That’s really what we were looking for when it came to these winter months,” Anchorage Concert Association community collaborator Becky Kendall said.

In a typical year, the concert association would bring performances to Anchorage spanning Broadway, jazz, comedy and more. These community events are a key part of many residents’ winters; the organization sold 76,335 tickets for the 2018-19 season.

“Going to a show is part of health and wellness for folks, and as long as it’s there you don’t even notice that it’s happening,” said Jason Hodges, executive director of the Anchorage Concert Association.

Covid Radio is meant to be temporary, but Lawton said the Anchorage Health Department would like to keep it on air for at least a few months.

For now, Holtan hopes those who hear the station at ChangePoint will enjoy the station and leave with a positive experience of public health. If someone discovers a new favorite band while getting a COVID-19 test, she said, that’s a nice benefit too.

“I listened to a lot of local music,” she added. “It’s a good reminder of how much awesome music is in town.”

J. Besl

J. Besl is an Anchorage-based freelance writer. He previously wrote for 61 Degrees North magazine.