Hosting the Coronavirus Conversation

Veteran journalist and UWS resident Sree Sreenivasan on his newest public service project, Sree’s COVID-19 Call

30 Mar 2020 | 10:56

As a reporter, professor and social media professional, Sree Sreenivasan has kept us up-to-date through tough times from 9/11, through the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. With COVID-19 sparking fear and misinformation, he’s back in action, running a daily webcast that brings global experts and the public into conversation under the hashtag #SreeCovid19Call.

He is also the host of a new radio program on WBAI, called "Coping With COVID19: A Helpful, Hopeful Call-In Show," every Saturday at noon. Sreenivasan, the Marshall Loeb Visiting Professor of Digital Innovation at Stony Brook School of Journalism, spoke to Straus News from his home on the Upper West Side.

In your own words, what is Sree's COVID-19 Call?

One of the things that I've been telling people is that this is an opportunity. This time has given us an opportunity to work on something. This is a chance for us to work on some kind of passion project or an idea, whether it's writing a novel or writing a short story or doing something digital.

And with that in mind, when the lockdown started, I realized that there was no way that I could have my daily interactions restricted to my client work calls and dealing with my wonderful, lovely family of two 17-year-olds, my wife and my dog. I wanted to have some way where I could talk to other people and have kind of a group therapy session and the chance to learn about what's happening.

It started as an open phone call, kind of a conference call on steroids, so anybody could just pick up the phone and chat. And very quickly there was enough interest that it morphed into what we have now, which is a daily global online conversation on four different platforms.

When you add up all the different platforms, we’re at a couple of thousand people a day.

Which platforms is this available on?

This is on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn, both live and archived.

The idea is that you could listen live on any of those platforms and also see the archives. My belief is there's a contribution people can make by being a curator of useful information in a time of crisis. Staying where you are but taking information from all over the place and sharing it in a coherent manner is a useful service.

I was reading about your long-tail approach ...

Yeah, that was also a part of that for sure. So, starting with 9/11, we used the tools of the day. In that day it was email, where you could share useful, relevant, timely information.

And I did that several times a day in emails, news alerts or combination of information, combining things — curation. After that came the tsunami of 2004. Again, we did a whole similar thing, but it was all email-based and website-based. Then came Katrina in 2005, where we were able to, again, mostly web- and blog-based. And then, the Mumbai attacks of 2008, where the radio and online audio became the easiest tool and we used that. So you kind of see the evolution of this.

And then, if you fast forward to today, it makes much more sense to use a social media tool and video as a way of bringing people together. Do it's the same thing that I was doing on September 11, 2001 with email, but now on a global scale using social media, and the heart of it is: Can we help advance the conversation? Can we bring useful ideas? Can we help people? That's the reason to do it.

That's a wonderful philosophy. What can listeners expect from the daily call in terms of content or structure?

It's kind of an open session where people can comment and network and hear other ideas from all over the world. We have attendees on a regular basis from four or five continents every day. It's so nice to just see people connecting with each other and hearing opinions from other places.

I also try to program it a little bit. Today I'm having doctors talking, but doctors who are not COVID specialists, like what is happening to dental work? What's happening to eye surgery? Yesterday we had a session on saving Main Street. We had a session earlier this week with four journalists and a doctor live from Italy.

All of these are things that you see versions of every day on TV, but when you're seeing it on the cable news, you get much better production values and good-looking people, but you don't have a chance to interact. We bring some of what you've seen on TV to you and into your computers and phones. We also bring things that you may not yet see on TV. There are also lots of journalists watching the show for source ideas. I've had multiple people who've been on my show, then ended up on television the same day or the next day.

Who will you be interviewing in upcoming episodes?

The Editor-in-Chief from the Wall Street Journal has agreed to join us. We have more medical folks. We're going to have different themes. People loved and responded really well to our economic hardship discussion, so we’ll be talking more about how we encounter that and what we do about it.

What's one piece of information or perspective from the calls that's really stuck in your mind as we ride out this pandemic?

That people want information. That people want to help, and people want to get help. I think those are all really important ideas.

You've covered a number of disasters. What makes COVID different?

Well, because this is going to change everything. I just talked yesterday to the provost at Hong Kong University, who was talking about the second wave coming in there already. We have to understand that the world has changed and will need to change. I don't think we'll be able to carry on as if nothing happened.

The good news is that human beings come out of crises. We came out of World War One, out of World War II, out of the influenza in 1918, so I'm confident we will get through this, but we will be a changed people and a changed planet after this.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Sree on Twitter @sree for information on daily call times and guest speakers. Tune in to his radio program on Saturdays, noon - 2 p.m. ET on WBAI 99.5FM and on http://wbai.org.