Modesty always looks better on heroes than boastfulness, and so it’s to the credit of Bakersfield small-business counselor Kelly Bearden when he downplays his own role as a reason why the weekly webinar he hosts has become a lifeline to entrepreneurs during the pandemic.
No argument there: The webcast he puts on with producer Maureen Buscher-Dang and co-host Keith Brice started March 18, 2020, has gone on every Wednesday since then with one exception, on account of Christmas, for 100 consecutive weeks.
But it’s debatable whether being in the right place at the right time explains why the show has remained a rare and credible source of timely, easily understood information for business owners going through one of the biggest financial challenges of modern times.
Perhaps the real key has been the personal commitment of the people involved to help business owners who during the past two years were left vulnerable like never before.
Some audience members think so.
“I don’t have the words to adequately convey what Kelly’s weekly series has meant to me,” Raven Angeles, administrator of the Laws Railroad Museum & Historical Site, a donations-dependent nonprofit in Bishop, said by email.
Bearden led her through all manner of complications to complete the grant applications and other paperwork that have kept the nonprofit alive. It’s gotten to the point that when he visits the museum, Angeles “cannot for the life of me put two sentences together.”
“Kelly is truly my new favorite hero, replacing (comic book character) Deadpool,” she wrote.
Tasha Clayton had a similar take as general manager of Bakersfield’s Tel-Tec Security Systems Inc.
“There are no words to express how grateful I am for Kelly Bearden and Keith Brice,” she said in an email. No other resource she could think of offered specifics on how to apply for government recovery assistance and what to keep track of to stay eligible for loan forgiveness, Clayton added.
“I know for a FACT I would have been behind all deadlines had I not attended these webinars,” she wrote. “Many of these programs were also based upon first come first serve and thanks to them I WAS READY.”
But even those testimonials reflect only part of the picture. Viewers can’t see, looking into their computer screens for an hour starting at noon every Wednesday, what all goes into pulling the show together week after week. But Buscher-Dang can.
A marketer and public relations specialist, she helps brainstorm future guests every week and handles technical aspects of the show, such as graphics, social media engagement and on-demand broadcasts.
Buscher-Dang recalled one week Bearden was hosting and suddenly he lost power. Without backup electricity, his screen went black.
She watched the live audience count, posting fresh messages every 30 seconds about technical difficulties. She psyched herself up to turn on her video camera and take over the show if too many people started dropping off.
“It was the longest three minutes of my life,” she said.
To her, the program’s success has a lot to do with the simple way Bearden and Brice have of explaining complicated financial topics in simple English. Business owners intimidated by complicated guidelines were happy to hear practical advice for interacting with vast undertakings like the Paycheck Protection Program and the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.
Regular listener Bob Meadows, the city of Shafter’s business development director, agreed that Bearden and Brice have a knack for “decoding” information in a way some financial experts cannot. But he said their mastery of the subject matter, and the constant introduction of new guests, also play into the show’s success.
That’s to be expected of what amounts, in a sense, to a talk show.
The primary host is Bearden, director of Cal State Bakersfield’s Small Business Development Center, which serves not only Kern but also Inyo and Mono counties. With the exception of a couple of weeks when Brice stepped in as host, Bearden has tapped his local, state and federal connections during every show to provide updated information on a long list of government-sponsored pandemic recovery programs and related matters like labor challenges during the Great Resignation.
Guests have ranged widely, from local government officials to outside experts in service industries. Every week there’s a poll, usually an amusing one, allowing participants to weigh in on different topics. Participation peaked at 700 and remains well above 100 people per week, including regulars.
Brice said he always viewed the program as a real-time resource for business owners who otherwise had to rely on sources of information that weren’t always clear.
Going forward, he sees the show becoming more targeted as the pandemic subsides. Instead of focusing on relief efforts, maybe the webinars will zero in on tax reform or labor issues — information such as what might be found at a business conference.
“The webinar has a lot of potential to get information out,” he said.
Bearden hasn’t precisely charted the webinar’s future, having thought initially it would last only until August 2020. He noted the program actually stated in 2013 but for years existed only as a once or twice monthly show.
It’s likely the program won’t continue to air every Wednesday, Bearden said, but probably it will continue in some form. But for him, the goal is not preserving the show but serving SBDC’s mission of helping individual business owners.
“The most important thing that we do is the one-on-one confidential business consulting,” he said. “But i think the (weekly webinar) augments that. It supports it.”