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Conversation #95: Tia Smith on Media and COVID-19

A conversation between Xavier's very own Tia Smith (Mass Communications) and Bart Everson (CAT+FD) on teaching, learning, media, and the COVID-19 outbreak.

Tia Smith

Dr. Tia L. Smith joined the Mass Communication Department at Xavier University in 2015 as Department Head. Dr. Smith received her Bachelors in Mass Communication, Speech and Theater from Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina. She earned a Masters of Arts in International Telecommunications with a Concentration in Women’s Studies, and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Mass Communication from the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University.

Dr. Smith has worked as a corporate communications consultant, focusing on communication campaigns, media relations and international communication education. She has trained journalists and media professionals throughout the Caribbean and Latin American on covering taboo topics such as Child Sexual Abuse, Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking. She has lived and worked in diverse cultural and learning environments in the United States, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Brazil and Trinidad & Tobago.

And, in addition to chapters and journal articles, her first book is Contradictions in a Hip-Hop World: An Auto-ethnography of Black Women’s Lived Experiences.


Bart Everson is a media artist and creative generalist at Xavier University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development. His recent work draws on integrative learning, activism, critical perspectives on technology, and Earth-based spiritual paths.

Links for this episode:


Bart Everson: So I'm Bart Everson. I'm honored today to be speaking with Dr. Tia L. Smith. She joined the Mass Communications Department at Xavier in 2015. As department head, Dr. Smith received her Bachelor's in Mass Communication, Speech and Theater from Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina. She earned a Masters of Arts in International Telecommunications with a concentration in Women's Studies and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Mass Communication from the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University. Dr. Smith has worked as a corporate communications consultant, focusing on communication campaigns, media relations, international communication education. She has trained journalists and media professionals throughout the Caribbean and Latin America on covering taboo topics such as child sexual abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking. She has lived and worked in diverse cultural and learning environments in the United States, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago. And in addition to chapters and journal articles for the first book is Contradictions in a Hip-Hop World: An Auto-Ethnography of Black Women’s Lived Experiences. Dr. Smith, thank you for talking with us today.

Tia Smith: Well, thank you for having me, Bart. I'm happy to have a conversation.

BE: And of course, everything we do, it seems like now is marked at this part of this particular time in history, the COVID-19 Coronavirus global pandemic. So we'll come back to that in a moment. But really, we set this interview up before it came to our town. And specifically, I wanted to talk to you when I got the news that the radio station WBOK was apparently broadcasting from the campus of Xavier University, where we both work.

TS: Well soon broadcast, that hasn't happened. Right. 

BE: That's in the works.

TS: That is in the works.

BE: I was unclear on the exact details. And that's one reason I wanted to talk to you but more about the kind of, you know, the history of this relationship, how it's developed and what the future might hold. So I was hoping you could first of all, tell us a little bit about what is WBOK, for those who might be listening, who are outside of the New Orleans area, because we do try to reach faculty all across the country. What is WBOK? What it's history is and how did Xavier come to get involved?

TS: Well, for the New Orleans area, and I guess the surrounding area, WBOK, is basically a talk radio station that deals with public affairs and social justice issues. I'm particularly talking about issues in the black community. But the history of it, I don't want to share the history of it. From my perspective, I think having someone that represents the organization might be a little bit more prepared to do that. What I can speak to however, is the relationship with WBOK and Xavier University of Louisiana. WBOK was being sold and, you know, I was in Puerto Rico, maybe about, I think a year ago, taking a course and one of my colleagues Monica Pierre, who's an Emmy Award winning journalist and also adjunct of the Mass Communication program shared the news. She said, you know, Tia, WBOK is you know, up for sale. And I said, oh, wouldn't it be great if we could acquire it at a university. I grew up in Washington, DC listening to WHUR, which is Howard University's radio, and also interned there and spent a lot of time there. And I know it was such a nice incubator and laboratory for Mass Communication students, Political Science students, and education students working to try to share messages with the greater and wider public to have a wider impact. So having a campus radio station, of course, it empowers students to communicate, to share ideas, to get politically active and involved and also share creativity like that, music and so on. So with that idea, I sent a message to Dr. McCall. I know that they were already in the works of thinking about some ideas around WBOK. And so my idea wasn't novel or new, but it was just matching what perhaps they already had in the works. And I set up a meeting, well, they set up a meeting with Patrice Markodile and myself and some of the execs and tried to purchase but that didn't work out. So we came on board as educational partners with WBOK, so that's the role where Xavier University is right now. WBOK will be housed at our university. They will have space in Xavier South, which is on the first floor opposite on the other side, really, near the old dance studio, on Xavier South. And it's very close to where the Department of Mass Communication is currently held. And our educational partnership is nothing new as well, in that our students from Mass Communication have already been interning with WBOK. They have a history of interning with them and things like that, and working on shows and running the boards and things. So this educational partnership just extends wider because they're going to be housed on our campus. This includes programming, where faculty and students can have airtime and we're working out those details. The studio is not yet built out, it's in process. But you know, the COVID-19 has kind of halted some of a lot of things in terms of how we're progressing forward. But the plan is to have them housed on campus, have students working at the station, as an educational partnership, have them, you know, be mentors and help produce and things like that. So that's the relationship that they have. That's kind of like a rough draft of the history of Xavier and I mean, it extends quite longer than that. It's nothing new because we always had a relationship with WBOK at the Mass Comm department. And even faculty had shows like Dr. Turner had a show on WBOK as well, at some point in time. So it's very interesting. At least, he was a guest on the show. So yeah.

BE: I did not know that we were doing all of that, so that's very interesting to me. Curious. I guess the whole timeline is kind of up in the air now. But it could be connections for Mass Communication students who are working directly in media, that's pretty obvious. And it's pretty great to have a radio station right there on campus. I wonder if there's little opportunities for some kind of connection to students and other departments or disciplines? I don't know if that would take on a different role, if it would be under the rubric of service learning or some other kind of thing, but do you think there’s opportunities for faculty and other departments to get involved with this?

TS: Yes, of course. So running a radio station is more it extends beyond Mass Communication and Mass Communication itself, as a discipline is interdisciplinary. So I've spoken with Dr. Joe Ricks in business. Definitely, there's room for students to intern as in the advertising department media sales. That's a huge industry. It is also quite lucrative. There's a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into play, where students can host shows, Political Science students may want to talk about basically what's going on in politics in the city, state and then nationally or internationally as well. So there's a lot of different opportunities for ideas around programming and ideas around how a radio station works, so the business and entrepreneurship of it. So we're trying to think creatively about ways in which students can get involved. Certainly our student media director is Mr. Varian Laront and Mr. Laront is very much open to any student, from any major from biology, chemistry, computer science, to mass communication and art coming on board and working with mass media to help support that effort, so the opportunities for students are unlimited.

BE: Great. Well, it does strike me that during this time of this global pandemic, that it really reminds me of the important role, I feel like media and radio, especially, has to play in terms of disseminating information, and so forth. Can you speak just a little bit to how we teach our students to understand or to engage, to learn about how they can contribute? I guess what do you, in your teaching, try to convey to your students in terms of the role of media in a crisis like this to?

TS: Oh, that's a great question, Bart. First thing as a teacher, the first thing I do is definitely express a sense of compassion for students. And although I don't have an expectation that shifts entirely, my expectations of how quickly they respond and jump back in terms of their coursework and getting focused. I am very lenient with that, because we all have a different response to emergency situations. And, I don't know if this is retriggering, some former or trauma, Ghost of Katrina, perhaps, where they're feeling isolated and moving from place to place, not having and to be able to communicate with people in the same way that they were before. So we have to exercise, particularly I exercise a lot of compassion. And before we even begin to talk about course material, how are you doing? What's going on? What's the situation on the ground where you are? That's the first thing, because they need to talk about and have that expression, because right now this is the way they communicate right, digitally, via Zoom. And so they don't have that, when you come into the classroom, have that little social interaction and then start the class. So that's the first thing and the next thing is that it's important to remember and take inventory about what type of access do they have, this is where it becomes very obvious of the haves and the have nots, right? Who has the high speed Internet access, who may be located in a more rural area where their parents are or living with, you know, grandparents or so on? So who has access to what, what can you actually do from home? So having those conversations and again, being lenient, and understanding what that is also very much a part of what I do. And then finally, reimagining how they submit assignments, and how they express understanding and assessment shifts as well. Thankfully, I had a history of teaching online before doing my first pregnancy, since I was on bed rest I was teaching online, my son is now 19. So this was months ago, when online teaching was very skeptical for people. But I taught non traditional learners, mostly military personnel, for the University of Maryland, University College and it allowed me to kind of get a handle of the different types of pedagogies and ways people learn and how I teach online, which would shift in terms of it's very, very different from face to face, if you just can't put everything online and think, okay, we're doing it. Right. So that's some of the things that I do. But in terms of media, so even before we talk about the impact and role of media, we want to look at each other as human beings, and as compassionate individuals as well. Then we begin to talk about the ways in which media shapes messaging around, what's happening with COVID. That's very, very important in all of our classes as a thread, you know, is the messaging bias to one particular group of people, particularly Asian Americans, and how does that look? What are their thoughts about that? How does that create fear of what's happening as a result, we're looking at theory. For example, ways in which fear is created. And how people respond to that fear. Simply, we even go back to history with the war the world, right when we're listening to radio programming, and people assume that we were being attacked by aliens, and how do people respond to that? So we tell stories, and we listen to theories about people feeling disenfranchised, feeling dislocated, and their fears and acting and playing out of their fears. Secondly, we look at the ways in which social media is impactful as well, and how people are sharing information, and how do they discern between what's real and what's not real. Right now, on social media, there's been a video of some type of ghostly thing in the sky. It looks like some type of demon in the sky. So people are saying that, okay, this is certainly the end of times because this virus will kill us all. So that's the worst of the worst. And if you do create massive panic, how can you then rethink the way in which to use media to be more informational, instead of creating despair, panic, fear, which calls a rippling effect of people running to the groceries to buy toilet paper, or even going to get guns because they feel for their lives that, you know, everything is, these items and goods will be taken from them unjustly.

BE: Oh yes, Oh yes.

TS: So it's a lot of people that are scared. I mean, I'm listening to all kinds of videos being shared on Facebook, being shared on Twitter. On other types of social media platforms, like Instagram and WhatsApp. WhatsApp is very instrumental in sharing information internationally, because a lot I mean, I'm married to a Trini and this is how he keeps in touch with his family back home, via WhatsApp. And they're sharing news reports, they're sharing information about what's happening on the ground. So in a way, people are keeping in contact with family and friends, which is great, which is more, which is quite different from years before. But it's also a lot of information that's not having a filter. So we don't know. It can really be heavy on our emotions. So all of those types of things that we're discussing, and all of our classes, whether it's Women in Media, and the Impact on Gender, and Sexuality, and how these messaging messages are impacting those populations, or in social media, of course, how social media is being used, and television production and storytelling. All of these classes are very relevant for messaging, and how people create and consume these messages from the media. So the radio plays an important part of that, because it is central to people's understanding of and delivery of certain messages from the state and making sure people are well informed and know what to do next, and what's coming on down the pike. That was a mouthful.

BE: Yeah, there's quite a lot to think about. It’s obvious, you have been thinking about it. And I thank you for sharing those thoughts, that perspective with our listeners. We've kind of covered a lot of ground and everything that I thought we needed to, unless there's something else that I might have missed. Is there anything else?

TS: No, I just think the significance of having a radio station on campus, it really empowers our students to get involved and to tell their own stories in a different way. I know podcasts are very, like podcasts that we're doing now. It's also very essential, and a part of that is an extension of radio.  But I also think that students are able to really go through the rubric of developing a show, having a show idea and see it take shape. Within the format of radio, I know WBOK has reimagined the format of what type of show they are and how they will convey information to their audiences. And so hopefully, we will work with them diligently to make sure that the type of programming that Xavier will provide will fit within that framework, for how they want to present themselves to the public. And I think, I guess everything, like you said at the top of the show that everything kind of is shaped by COVID-19, right now. How that looks and the ideas that we have before may shift and change, in terms of what we now see is more urgent, or more relevant or more necessary. Because we don't have the same luxury that we had, you know, even a few weeks ago, a few days ago, in terms of communication, in terms of being with our family and friends in the same way, and expressing ourselves in the same way.  So I think this is causing people to rethink what type of programming they want to offer, rethinking the type of language that they use to express themselves and to be a little bit more thoughtful, hopefully, because this is going to be a heavy way to communicate to people. And they're waiting for some connection. So how do we connect to those different audiences? So this is a great learning opportunity for our students, also, for faculty, and faculty can also pitch a show as well and share their research, which is also very important because you don't want it to just sit in a journal that no one else is going to read. Maybe you get one or two reviews and that's it, but this is a greater way to have a wider impact on the wonderful things that faculty are doing here at Xavier University. So I think that's it, Bart, I said a mouthful. Hopefully not too much. 

BE: That's great. Thank you so very much for sharing your thoughts with us. Of course, I ask if anybody's listening to this, if you like what you're hearing, I should remind people that they can subscribe to us on their favorite digital platforms, podcast platforms, please give us a review or recommendation or subscription. Definitely helps out.

TS: Awesome. Thank you for having me Bart, I really appreciate it.

BS: Yes, and have a good day. Good luck. Good health to all. 

TS: Yes, certainly. Take good care. 

Transcript by Darrielle Robertson


About Bart Everson

Media Artist in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana

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