With virtual proms, public radio stations give teens another shot at their big night

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Dave Ashton says he was “nuts for dancing” when he was a kid. He was on the student council while attending his local high school and planned the prom.

Now program manager at KGNU Radio in Denver, Ashton was on a conference call with the Rocky Mountain Community Radio consortium talking about possible projects for high-schoolers when an idea occurred to him.

Ashton and Hamilton in the KGNU studio for the station’s virtual prom.

“Just jokingly, I said someone needs to do a virtual prom,” said Ashton. “And then I thought about it.” He decided that because of its roster of community DJs, “KGNU Community Radio is probably the most equipped of any station to do that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools nationwide to cancel proms, leaving high-schoolers without a traditional prom experience. Instead, virtual proms held by families and high schools have become popular in an attempt to recreate the missed events. At least two public radio stations, KGNU and Radio Milwaukee, have joined the trend by hosting virtual proms of their own.

At KGNU, Ashton recruited Erin Hamilton, whose DJ name is Erin Stereo, for the event. A longtime DJ at the station, Hamilton won Denver Westword’s Best of Denver DJ award for the past two years. Ashton also got support from the station’s events committee and Denver Public Schools.

KGNU’s prom took place Saturday from 6–9 p.m. and was broadcast on the radio as well as via Zoom. Ashton hosted and monitored the video, which drew about 20 Zoom participants. The station’s operations manager and development director also watched to make sure everything went smoothly.

Ashton said Erin Stereo drew from a playlist of pop records with well-known dance steps so kids could dance along, as well as standard slow songs. Kids danced throughout the three hours, with both pets and dates. The station also broadcast the event on Facebook Live for parents to watch because they were “equally, if not more excited” about the event, said Ashton.

KGNU’s events committee chose prom royalty from nominations sent in by couples who signed up. Students also sent in favorite high-school memories and achievements for Ashton to share during the event.

The mother of one of the three “GNU Prom Royal Family” wrote via social media, “Hi beautiful KGNU folks! Our daughter and her BF so enjoyed your prom tonight. Thank you thank you thank you for making a memory of some semblance of a prom for them!”

Community radio needs to include youth in projects like these, Ashton said, because even though “people don’t become supporters or volunteers until they’re in their 30s, we can serve them.”

Radio Milwaukee’s short virtual prom was held April 24 during Dine and Dance, a 20-minute program that was introduced to connect listeners during quarantine. The idea for a virtual prom theme began with afternoon-drive host Ayisha Jaffer, who felt sad for high-school seniors missing prom.

Radio Milwaukee listeners sent in vintage prom photos.

That inspired station staffers to go through their old prom photos, prompting the idea of hosting a virtual prom. The station marketed the event as asking city residents “to go to prom” with the station and encouraged everyone to participate.

Listeners who had already attended a prom sent old photos, which the station shared on social media, and high-schoolers shared their own. Listeners texted the station to say how fun the event was.

“It got everybody that element of nostalgia, thinking back to their prom experience,” said Marketing Director Sarah McClanahan.

McClanahan said the virtual prom was part of a larger effort to provide community during the pandemic. The station’s total listening hours grew 11.5% from February to March, demonstrating an appetite for that contact.

“I think what we’re seeing right now is the importance of public radio and public media,” McClanahan said. “… We’ve become that connection point.”

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