Bob Burtman

Bob Burtman is president of WHUP FM in Hillsborough. He is also the host of the daily 3-D News.

Bob Burtman takes his seat behind a desk surrounded by and covered with a complex layout of keyboards, buttons, controls, readouts, levels, dials, cords, mics and switches. Burtman looks over it all, and then pulls a disinfectant wipe from a container and begins to meticulously and lightly run it over and between all of that fingertip technology.

“Disinfectant wipes are the greatest thing for this kind of cleaning,” Burtman says. “You can’t just take a can of whatever and spray it all over this. You have to wipe it clean.”

And just like that, COVID-19 — invisible to the naked eye — has once again taken the form of the elephant in the room and filled even the cozy confines of the WHUP radio studio.

Burtman, who is president of WHUP and its most recognizable voice, has also proclaimed the title of Chief Sanitizer, coming in early each day of the week to clean.

“It makes sense,” Burtman says. “I’m already here. Someone should be here, so why not? I come in a half hour early every day and swab the mics, the surfaces and the boards. All the equipment. And the production room and our IT room. I sanitize all the doorknobs, light switches. The exterior entrance, the interior entrances. The bathrooms. It’s a routine. I come in, I launch in to sanitizing and it’s done in half an hour.”

Throughout the pandemic, WHUP hasn’t skipped a beat. The station, which officially hit the airwaves in October 2015, is one of the few organizations uniquely situated to work in isolation.

“The most dramatic impacts for us have been, No. 1, that some of our DJs aren’t comfortable coming in to the studio,” Burtman says. “The good news is we are heavily technology-based. We have an incredible IT team. Our systems are almost entirely automated so that anybody who is not comfortable coming in, hey, no problem. They can send us an archive request for an old show. Because we have all of our old shows going back to the beginning of time in our system. They just send in a request saying, ‘please play this show from 2018,’ and we just plug it in. It’s still their show. Frankly, people don’t remember what was played on that show in 2018.”

WHUP has made it a priority to accommodate its DJs because it knows they are the core of the radio station. They are given the option to come in every couple of weeks or once a month. Some DJs have opted to record their shows entirely from home, which Burtman says could continue even after the pandemic has subsided. 

“Although, there’s no substitute for coming in and doing your show live,” he says. “That’s where some of the spontaneity is for a DJ. That’s where some of the fun is, some of the creative elements of being a DJ.”

Another way the coronavirus is creating havoc at the radio station is with bringing on volunteers, which includes show hosts. The station has no paid employees and relies heavily on the use of people with a passion for radio and the opportunity to gain the experience.

“We’re not really doing much in the way of training because that’s generally a contact sport,” Burtman says. “It’s hands-on. There’s a couple of people in the pipeline right now, to do new shows. We’re proceeding very slowly. If you ask them, I think they’d probably say it’s ground to a halt. But it is still on our radar. We just have to move slowly. And we have a lot of other details to attend to that are constraining our ability to meet as a group. The programming team, board are moving slowly right now. Everybody’s got their own lives and messes to deal with. Everybody’s overwhelmed and anxious about what the future holds. We’re not imposing ourselves. In the big scheme, we’re important — we think. Other people have told us they need us doing what we do. But is it critical stuff? No. We’re a radio station. We have a lot of music shows. We’re just saying let’s do things in a manner that takes into account your priorities, as well as ours. It’s working, so far.” 

The third, and maybe most significant way the station has been affected by COVID-19, is fund raising. WHUP operates as a 501c3 and counts on spring and fall on-air fundraisers that provide between 40 percent and 50 percent of its annual income. Traditionally, these fundraisers have come in the shape of what WHUP calls “Beg-A-Thons.” However, in light of the pandemic, the station’s board members opted to take a different approach to its fund drive.

“Everybody’s over-stretched, over-taxed,” Burtman says. “Money is a serious issue. The pandemic was sweeping everyone aside. The government was not being especially helpful. Our local government and county officials were doing everything they could, but the state and the Fed were in a state of disarray.  And people were losing their jobs and being furloughed right and left. So we thought our usual appeal of ‘give money to this radio station,’ for our Beg-A-Thon was not an appropriate strategy. What we decided to do to be helpful and hopefully bring in a little bit of money for ourselves, was to have a different kind of campaign, which was our 50/50 campaign. Half the proceeds went to Hillsborough service industry workers. The other have went to us. Half of those funds did go to the Hillsborough service industry workers and they were matched by a benefactor through the (Hillsborough/Orange County) chamber. They ended up getting about $5,000 and WHUP made about $4,200. Everybody rallied around this and said it was a good idea. They appreciated what we were doing. We wanted to convey that we need the dough, but we also need to support our people who know us and with whom we interact on a regular basis. So that worked out really well. What are we gonna do in October? We don’t know. We might do Phase 2 of that, we might come up with a new permutation. It’s day-to-day like it is for everybody else.”

Before the coronavirus hit, WHUP had been in the planning stages for an event-based fundraising model. But now, no one is doing events. 

“We’re basically able to do what we need to do on a shoestring,” Burtman says. “We will continue to provide the services that we provide without going into full-bore give-us-money-mode. At least through October. We will have a fundraiser, but we’ll be OK if we don’t do as well as we have previously. We have some other sources of funding that we hope are stable.”

He adds that the response from the community has been strong and the station’s listenership is up, and not just in Hillsborough, but in other parts of the greater Triangle area and even all over the world.

“Because everybody’s staying home,” Burtman says. “What’s the best medium for that? You get sick of looking at a tiny screen all day. Radio’s a great companion medium. You can do just about everything and listen to us. Plus, our community orientation is something that people are hungry for. If you just focused on national news you would drive yourself nuts. There’s not a lot of good to be gleaned from all of that, but we have good things we can talk about. How to support our local business community; good things happening; people doing good work. That’s what we do anyway. People appreciate that and need that.”

While the transitions for WHUP were relatively seamless, there have been adjustments. Unless they are critical to the show’s production, guests are limited. When there are guests, proper distancing is required. Even the Pass the Hat Friday music show with Bob Johnson still has people playing live music every Friday evening from 6-8. Johnson built a protective barrier that consists of a large, clear plastic shower curtain that is framed and able to be moved to stand between the show hosts and the musicians. 

There has also been little change to Burtman’s daily morning show, 3-D News. He admits to having COVID fatigue, but stresses the importance of keeping it in his headlines when it deserves to be there.

“Unfortunately, the fatigue is accompanied by people relaxing their guard,” Burtman says, “And now we’re seeing the consequences of that. For us as a community outlet for communication and story-telling, we have to maintain our vigilance. We don’t have the option or luxury of saying, ‘we’re all bored with this. Let’s move on.’ It’s not moving on, so we can’t move on. In the news show I do try to limit the amount of the show that is consumed with coronavirus stories. You could spend everyday, the entire news hour on that. I’m very cognizant of fatigue on the part of listeners as well as myself. But it’s important stuff. We have to get across the fact that it’s proliferating and people are at risk. It’s not something you make fun of, but you can certainly make light of the bizarre ways that people are responding to this. And rue the politicization of it. I get to editorialize a little bit, so I do. When people are behaving like it’s not real; the conspiracy theories…you can make a little bit of fun of that. But really, you just have to give them straight information and it’s often told through the lens of a local business, or someone’s experience or my experience going out into the community and seeing how people are dealing with it. Whether we like it or not, we may be drained by it, but it is front and center all the time. I try to have my entire last segment be COVID-free. It’s a three-segment news show. So the middle segment is usually talking with someone from the community and we’re talking Corona.”

Burtman downplays the challenges he faces in reporting the plethora of news related to COVID. Particularly when he considers the tasks being tackled by some of his guests.

“I’m talking with (Orange County Schools Board of Education Chair) Hillary McKenzie on Thursday. What are we gonna be talking about? We’re going to be talking about the impossibility of their task to try to figure out how to reopen schools. I can’t imagine. I’m actually in awe of these people who are trying to do, literally, the impossible. Our job is easy compared with what they have to do. They’re literally dealing with the impossible. I don’t know that they can do it. They can’t. That’s what everybody understands, but few are willing to say. I can say that. And yet, they’re being asked to, or told to, do the impossible. How fair is that? How reasonable is that? There are a lot of people who are dealing with varying degrees of the impossible. So I feel fortunate, because what we are doing is not that extreme a departure from what we had been doing. It’s one in and one out under normal circumstances. Now it’s one in, usually there’s a delay, someone goes out, there’s a delay and then someone goes in. Not a lot of traffic. We can manage that. We’re not a retail business that relies on a certain amount of revenue every day from the sale of goods and services. Those people have it so hard. We try to instill an understanding and appreciation for that by letting their voices be heard. And that’s really what our role is anyway. But you’ve gotta deal with COVID. You can’t pretend it’s not there. You can’t ignore it. You can’t wish it away.” 

Burtman also touches on the recent protests that have been taking places in Hillsborough and regionally, and the conversations that are happening more and more with regard to systemic racism and equity issues. He is excited about a project WHUP has in the works. 

“We’re putting together a two-hour special that will feature the voices of mostly, if not exclusively, people who live in Orange County telling stories of their experiences with systemic racism,” he says. “It’ll be over the spectrum: officials, business owners, students. It’s going be produced by Main Man, our hip hop, culture and spoken-word DJ. He’s an amazing guy. It’s going to take us a little while to do this justice, but we’re doing it.” 

Burtman will tell you the changes WHUP has gone through during the coronavirus crisis have been relatively minor, and he will downplay the challenges the stations faces compared with other organizations and businesses. But he is a realist and understand the evidence of WHUP’s importance to the community and its listeners.

“Our belief that this community would be a good place to have a radio station has been borne out,” he says. “It becomes most clear in difficult times. And these are really difficult times. Not just people supporting us, but the way we are able to amplify the voices of people who are doing incredibly important and good things in this difficult time has underscored the fact that we’re in as good a place as any to be during this pandemic. People are really helping each other out. That’s been not just gratifying and heartwarming, but it is the most significant beacon of hope that I can identify out there at this time. Look around at the national stuff, and there’s not much to be hopeful about out there. But here? Yes. That radiates outward. I think other people who listen to WHUP feel the same way. It’s like we can export what we’ve got here and help other people get through this intact.”

Want to help? You can donate to WHUP FM by going to www.whupfm.org and clicking on ‘Donate.’