Ypsilanti's WEMU radio station sees major audience growth during pandemic

Increased hunger for local news, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, could be behind a large increase in listenership at Eastern Michigan University's radio station, 89.1 WEMU-FM. The station's listening audience rose by 32% between fall 2020 and spring 2021.

"That's 7,000 more listeners," says WEMU General Manager Molly Motherwell.

Motherwell says it was natural for listeners to seek out smaller outlets with more hyper-local news during a pandemic. Since there isn't a local TV station or daily newspaper covering the Ypsilanti area, WEMU's local COVID coverage proved valuable to listeners, she says. That included weekly chats with Washtenaw County Health Department Communications and Health Promotion Administrator Susan Cerniglia, along with segments with U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell and United Way of Washtenaw County staff.

"These are programs specific to our community, what people can do, and what's happening here, rather than just the stories everyone was airing about what's going on nationally or statewide. The impact of hyper-local journalism can't be overlooked," Motherwell says.

On the flip side, she says the station's steady dose of jazz and blues music also provided an "escape" for local listeners who were weary of the news.

"News fatigue is real," Motherwell says. "With civil unrest and the election on top of a pandemic, you reach a saturation point."

Motherwell says she was also heartened by the fact that listenership remained high as pandemic restrictions were lifted and people began to go back to the office.

"Radio across the board, especially public radio, went up during the pandemic," she says. "But some other stations dipped and we didn't. We continued to increase and grow and attract new people."

A list of WEMU programs, including the weekly On the Ground Ypsilanti segment, is available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photo courtesy of WEMU.
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