In a news desert, radio station is this remote town’s oasis
Calming as the two women may be, people got a little worried. So the mayor wandered down to KDSS-FM and took to the airwaves.
“I received an email last night that I need to clear up,” Nathan Robertson said, leaning toward the black microphone. “Someone heard a rumor that I was planning on imposing martial law. That is not true.”
“Thanks for clearing that up,” Livingston said.
The mayor had wanted to know earlier what might be a good song to play after the interview. To set the mood right.
“How about we play some Queen?” Livingston suggested.
Surrounded by 250 miles of desert, the rural northern Nevada town of Ely, often cited as the most remote place in the lower 48 states, turns to KDSS when things are going good, bad or any other way. Livingston, 50, and McShane, 41, joked that they’ve become familiar and trusted voices not only for their taste in music, but also because they’ve shown off some stellar dance moves at parties.
“People think we could be sisters,” Livingston said.
But the mood of happy isolation in Ely was tested in mid-March as coronavirus deaths began to mount across the U.S. The pair — McShane the chatterbox, Livingston the bashful one — sensed that even a town lost in the desert, where a soul could wander free to the horizon, might fret over a virus so mercurial and deadly.
Before the coronavirus, things mostly leaned on the good in Ely; the last big emergency locals said they remember happened around three decades ago, when a snowstorm knocked the power out for several weeks.
Now, for the first time, locals were faced with having to navigate an unfolding crisis with limited access to local news. The town is a news desert: There’s no local TV station, internet is spotty, and the town’s newspaper is published only once a week. As a result, the headlines from around the world and the nation don’t so much surge in as trickle through. Residents joke it sometimes takes up to a month to get the word out about changes happening around town.
But the pandemic meant that getting accurate information out to folks quickly and, more importantly, encouraging residents to social distance was a matter of life and death. Hospitals in rural towns like Ely have limited supplies of medicine and equipment and a scarcity of doctors, making them more vulnerable during a public health crisis.
Since March 29, three Ely residents have tested positive for COVID-19: a mother, father and their infant. It’s believed the family contracted the virus while traveling.
Although Livingston and McShane didn’t consider themselves journalists, they felt a call to inform. So one evening, Livingston decided to speak up during an emergency Special County Commission meeting.
“People are craving local information, and now is the time. You’re all invited to come down to KDSS for interviews and keep people informed,” she told the five commissioners who sat in front of her.
Among those listening was the Ely mayor: Robertson. After the meeting, Robertson, 36, approached Livingston and said he wanted to take up her offer.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Within 48 hours, Gov. Steve Sisolak had ordered all nonessential businesses — casinos included — to close their doors. Rumors began spreading throughout Ely. Local law enforcement, confused themselves, struggled to give clear directions to residents and shopkeepers.
But standing there, like an oasis in the desert heat, was KDSS. A sense of calm settled in when word spread that Livingston, McShane and Robertson would be going live on air each day at 11:30 a.m. to provide coronavirus updates.
Until that moment, life had remained relatively the same in this early 20th-century town of 4,000 people. Only four hours from the neon promise of Las Vegas, Ely’s roots began as a stagecoach stop and copper mining outpost. The economy of this 7.5-square-mile town is still largely driven by mining; when tourists come, locals encourage them to check out the historic railroad.
These days, the hotels and roads are empty, and saloons, museums and restaurants closed; it is a place to drive through and be reminded what America once looked like. Adorning the streets in downtown Ely are brick storefronts, an Art Deco-style theater and the famous six-story Hotel Nevada, which was founded during the Prohibition era.
On a recent snowy morning, McShane arrived to the small, throwback radio station. She whipped out disinfectant wipes, slathered them across desks, microphones and door handles. Then she got to work. She opened up the radio station’s Facebook page, responding to questions locals posted the night before. She scrolled through her cellphone, reading the long list of questions folks had texted her.
McShane’s role as gatekeeper to all Ely-related coronavirus news — and most recently town mediator — fell unexpectedly in her lap.
“I feel like I’m learning a lot about this virus just by answering people’s questions,” she said. “I’ve told grownups more times to wash their hands than I do my own kids these days.”
When it comes to resolving disputes, McShane empathizes with residents, saying it’s likely people just don’t know what to do with all the extra time on their hands.
“There’s a lot of finger-pointing,” she said. “Some people have called 911 to tattle on how they saw someone not social distancing.”
By the time Livingston arrives it’s 10 a.m. and the phone is ringing, copy machine churning and McShane is typing away at the computer.
Livingston left Las Vegas in 2006 and moved back home to Ely looking for a fresh start. But after three years her 67-year-old father died. Then, a year later, her 74-year-old stepmom died.
It was her father’s dream to have KDSS, which he bought in 1996, remain in the family. Livingston fulfilled his wishes. At first, she was microphone-shy, but now she’s addicted.
“I’ve caught that radio bug, and once you get the bug you have it forever!” she said.
Running KDSS has been bittersweet. Livingston has struggled to keep the lights on and music playing.
She tries not to let the thought of closing the radio station overwhelm her, but it’s always in the back of her mind. Even though more people are tuning in to the station, much of the ad revenue has dried up.
“People are begging us to rebroadcast our news and are messaging us and thanking us for doing it,” she said.
For years, local news in rural America has evaporated as new organizations struggle to earn money. McShane and Livingston are trying their best to make sure that doesn’t happen to KDSS. One lesson they hope people take away from the pandemic is that when local news suffers, so do communities. She hopes people don’t forget that KDSS was there for them.
So far, people have taken notice.
Bryan Reed, a business owner and longtime resident of Ely, credits KDSS in helping to ease widespread confusion during the early days of the statewide shutdown. He said the ladies have played an important role in relaxing people.
“On the Facebook page that McShane runs, people are offering to donate milk and food when others have run out,” he said. “People are watching out for each other.”
Back in the studio, Livingston and McShane pivot to putting together a playlist for the day.
“Should we play oldies music, hip hop or country today,” McShane asked Livingston while fumbling with the microphone.
“We did country yesterday,” Livingston replied.
While they might disagree on music, one thing is clear: Politics is off the table. The most controversial topic that Livingston said she has ever talked about on air was several years ago on Halloween, when she scolded parents for pressuring the local school district to cancel trick-or-treating because it fell on a Sunday.
McShane adjusted the microphone in front of her when her cellphone rang. A resident was on the line, asking her whether a nearby restaurant was open for delivery.
“I’m not sure, but I’ll find out for you,” McShane told the caller.
Then there was a knock on the door. A chef from the town’s popular barbecue joint stepped inside and handed McShane a white box.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Lunch is on us,” the man replied. “We wanted to just say thank you for telling folks that we are still doing delivery and pickup.”
Before McShane opened the white container, she caught a whiff of the barbecue rib sandwich inside. Such acts of kindness are not one-off incidents in this town.
McShane points to a bottle on her desk. Written in black Sharpie is “gold liquid.” A resident had gifted it to her when he learned Livingston was low on hand sanitizer.
Another time, someone brought Livingston a Snickers candy bar after hearing her on air joking about how she craved it.
Shortly before 11:30 a.m., the soft-spoken and cool-witted Mayor Robertson walked in. Unable to get a haircut, he sported a black baseball cap to hide his messy hair, pairing it with a gray shirt and blue jeans.
“Do it for Nevada. Keep social distancing. Wash your hands,” Robertson said into the mic. “My sister is using the extra time on her hands to organize family photos and pictures.”
“Attitude is everything!” Livingston replied.
Before signing off, she wants to reassure Ely that they’ll be back:
“We’ll be here the same time tomorrow, until then ... take care of each other.”