Friday, September 5, 2014

The Problem(s) of Community Radio

A station I used to work at is in a financial crisis. I don't use that phrase capriciously. Membership has plummeted, the personal people meter rankings indicate that statistically, no one is listening and the volunteer nature of the programmers is caught up in petty discourse defending the value of their shows and lamenting the lack of a marketing budget to promote the programming.

From a staff perspective, most volunteers are a pain in the ass. They navel gaze, they're self absorbed and they have no understanding of audience behavior when it comes to radio tune in. In short, they cannibalize a station's mission by putting their show first.

I talk to a lot of people about why most community radio stations can't get their acts together, but what is really at the root of the problems facing hemorraghing audience, declining membership and shaky financial situations? A few ideas:

Programming Matters

The identifying characteristic of a community radio station is its eclectic program schedule. A volunteer comes in to do his or her show playing bluegrass music, then another volunteer comes in to host a half hour public affairs show about Central America, and then another, and another. Each program is its own universe, but unlike the real universe there is no unifying stardust to make sense of the program schedule as a whole. And that's what the listener needs to stay tuned in: they need to expect something consistent, competently produced and compelling to listen to.

Community radio stations that have let their volunteer programmers languish or not held them accountable are ultimately setting up their stations to become unlistenable...which takes us to Reason #2:

Membership STILL Matters

It's amazing, isn't it? But those fuddy duddy pledge drives still pull in the dollars. Whether you're large NPR station or a little, rural community station, it's a significant part of the station's revenue.

When the programming is uneven, what are you asking people to invest in? Media access? Let's face it: that's a non starter. There was a very dear board member at a community radio station who passionately believed people would give to the station is a media access institution. It's a lovely vision, but it has a lot of problems to it, the chief one being that community radio stations provide access unevenly and without equity. It's not entirely their fault - there isn't much a community radio station do about the fact that more people tune in at 5pm then at 5am.

Most community radio stations, especially those in large urban markets, have fallen into the trap of high cost premiums as a method to lure members, or keep them with the station. The cost per dollar to keep a member has increased. It's a one off, and in the long term, a losing strategy. It's not addressing the fundamental issue of the station, which is that the programming and the scheduling of the programming is failing to attract an audience.

Community Radio Doesn't Get Digital, or Mobile

And the fundamental reason why community radio stations can't get their acts together: the volunteers and the station staff don't have the skills or the vision to piece together a multi-platform community media organization. They're stuck in the community radio mindset of the 1970's and 80's. The volunteers saw the internet in the 1990's and envisioned listening skyrocketing thanks to online streaming. That never happened.

A few stations have positioned themselves as digital first community media outlets: they've  made significant investments in their website, hired personnel to manage volunteer blogs to create a steady stream of web content that by default creates awareness about the station and these stations have also gone through laborious, and at times painful processes to evolve the mindset of the volunteers. And it took time - there is no silver bullet and there is no short term path.

In the early 2000's, foundations - in particular the Knight Foundation - was very interested in participatory journalism, media access and eventually, community engagement. Community radio was poised to evolve and work with a funder to shift their work into more outward facing organizations. It is probably the single greatest failure of community radio as a sector that they did not take advantage of the funding that was available nor had the leadership or the vision to see the writing on the wall. And they are paying for it dearly today.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Future of College Radio

For those of us following college radio, it's no secret it's in decline. Limited appeal, a headache for their university overseers and inconsistent formats have always put college radio stations at risk for divestment. 

But lately we've seen some pushback: WRAS stunned Georgia Public Broadcasting with a #savewras social media campaign that drew well known musicians who had gotten their start at the college station to the cause. Rice University students took their pleas to "save" their college radio station from being sold to a newly restructured Houston Public Media, a merger of public radio and public television. The Rice station allowed the umbrella organization to move its classical music entirely over to one channel and re-format their other station as all NPR news. 

And there are many others: in Florida, in California, in Minnesota, in Pennsylvania. So what is the future of college radio? And what's the case for it? College radio stations regularly posit themselves as "music discovery" stations - they play the stuff commercial rock or tripe A format stations are too timid to put on the air. Time was, before podcasting and YouTube and social media, nobody really cared what those rinky dink college stations played anyway, and they did serve a purpose to those larger commercial stations as the first filter of music coming down the pike. 

College radio no longer has the monopoly on music discovery anymore. Spotify, Pandora, not to mention our own personal social networks provide an alternative and more effective curation than any college radio station ever could to attract an audience of any size. 

College radio has another major disadvantage to any sort of growth or ability to innovate: their university masters are so bureaucratic that they could never have the flexibility to re-brand themselves in a smart and strategic fashion. They could never incubate and experiment in a way that a public radio triple A format station could. (There is one notable exception: WFUV in New York has been able to take its relationship with NPR to capitalize on the growth of NPR Music and submit tiny desk concerts to the growing shelf of music videos that audiences are flocking to. 

So that leads to what options ARE available to college stations? Well, they could become NPR member affiliates. That would add some structure to their formats as well as offer up some national programming that could free up the station's management to do some of the experimentation that WFUV is doing with its tiny desk concerts. Another option would be to take it to the community and identify a need for a community license that is free form music formatted (an NPR station did this in Colorado when the university let it slip they were entertaining offers.) 

Fundamentally though, the fringe is not doing an effective job of making the case for why the radio spectrum should have a home for them. With the ability to stream online and podcast, it's a tough sell - literally, a tough sell, since those college radio stations have a dollar value, some in the tens of millions of dollars. 

Just as community radio stations no longer have a monopoly on providing a platform for marginalized political opinions and as hubs of activism against social injustice, neither do college radio stations for music discovery. And music discovery isn't going away because college radio stations goes away. Far from it. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why Social Media for Community Radio

At the National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference, I participated in a panel about social media engagement for community radio. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Make content that's shareable. 3 hour archived music shows aren't terribly shareable. Archives are great and have their place, but think about creating content that's appropriate for a digital and/or social experience (and probably on someone's phone.) I wrote a blog post about what's next for community radio in the digital arena. 

  • Have a personality! Be a mensch! Lauren Katz at NPR was featured recently in an article about the value of having live human drive social media feeds instead of a bot. 

  • Join existing conversations with hashtags. Hashtags are especially useful for community events - and can then be used on Storify to create a more coherent narrative that can be shared and reflected back to your community. 

  • Visuals and graphics are important. Tumblr and Instagram are social platforms that are great for sharing pictures and graphics. It's useful to provide an inside look of a station or an organization, like Public Radio Exchange's Radiotopia
Thanks to Genevieve Sponsler @PRX for sharing so many compelling examples of how to use social effectively!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What Next For Community Radio?

Although I don't work day to day in community radio anymore, I recently joined National Federation of Community Broadcasters board of directors. I also remain on a few different station listservs. Here's what I've observed and here's what I think needs to happen next.

The Web Is Not Another Tower

A complaint that goes as far back as the hills in community radio is that if the stations would just market the programs, the audiences would come, membership would rise and all would be good. With the advent of a virtual platform, community radio volunteers eagerly awaited the day when their 3 hour blues/punk/rock/alternative/spoken word/public affairs/fill in the blank genre program would all of the sudden be made visible to the thousands of listeners who never knew what they were missing.

Alas, online listening is nowhere close to over the air listening...which is depressing, because there are public radio stations with online streams with more listeners than community radio stations' terrestrial broadcasts. Community radio volunteers are fixated on their programs - and not on content. One of the saddest moments of my community radio life was when a very dear news volunteer at a station asked why the station didn't transcribe the news scripts with the audio embedded inbetween the copy. And yet these are the things that need to be explained to community radio volunteers who center everything around audio.

Having archived shows online is great - but it does little to grow an audience or keep them coming back. The alternative?

Use the Web to Create and Curate Content

The web is so much more than a transcription tool for radio programs. What about a community radio DJ who planned his or her show every week around a genre or a theme and wrote a blog about it online that s/he could point the audience to during the program? Music programmers already program their shows around bands that are coming into town or playing that weekend. How about a community radio station that hired a Director of Community Content Curation (it's community radio - let's have some fun with job titles!) and worked with volunteers to write music reviews, profiles of local bands and Storifies of recent shows and concerts? KDHX in Saint Louis and KBUT in Crested Butte, CO are experimenting with these ideas - they're seeing wonderful growth in online engagement and adding to the cultural vitality of their communities.

Don't Cannibalize Your Mission 

My final piece of advice to community radio stations with lots of volunteers: don't cannibalize your mission of media access by weighting your website down with online archives on the front page. There are several studies that show that people want more than the ability to listen online, live or archived programming. The biggest mistake community radio stations are making is assuming that people ONLY want to listen and that the station's business is ONLY broadcast. The spirit of community radio's mission is to make a community impact: by diversifying the airwaves with community members. We can do that online now as well - which also is a part of our mission.

Be Forewarned

There are cautionary tales of community radio stations who let the kibbutznik mentality almost drive their organizations into the ground. None of these stations have been forced to sell their licenses - but colleges have been divesting their radio licenses for the last 15 years and that is a caution for community radio stations to take heed of. We've lost a lot of towers on college campuses - let's not see community radio stations go next.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

In Reach: Finding the Connectors

I'm working with a colleague shepherding a community media organization through overcoming its inertia to make much needed changes. She has no budget, no mandate, and no power. Her success is going to be the result of what I call "in reach" - reaching inside the organization to develop relationships and build trust with the people who can make the organizational change happen.

People are important

Duh. We all know this. But we tend to forget, especially at small organizations, that we can collectively achieve more if we integrate and coordinate with each other, rather than focused on our projects. The trick is figuring out what's important, and that's hard. Everyone sees their small role as essential to the organization - local news reporters especially suffer from this bias, even though in public broadcasting the content that generates the revenue and keeps their jobs from going out the window are national shows. (Footnote: Car Talk is the bohemoth that is keeping public radio audiences tuning in and pledging to their local public radio stations. In public television it's national pledge breaks produced by T.J. Lubinsky. He's like the Rodgers and Hammerstein of TV pledge: you can sing (and occasionally dance to it) and it appeals to a mass of folks, especially baby boomers.)

Leadership is important

Again, duh. But what leadership mean? It means knowing who needs to talk to whom and getting the facts down. If there's one thing working at a public broadcaster will teach you, it's that no one agrees on what the "facts" means (and frequently get them wrong.) So this takes a lot of professional development, a lot of managing by walking around, and indeed, a lot of meetings (and I say this as someone who hates meetings.) In short it takes relationships, and the great leader is the one who can facilitate and referee and empower people to have the relationships that will make the organization stronger.

Resources are important

So many stations are a penny wise and a pound foolish. They don't want to spend the cash on a solid database system that could integrate their accounting, membership, web management and content creation. In the short run, they're right: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. But what about the long term? Is there growth in not changing? And more importantly, is it efficient in the long run? Yes, it might be cheaper not to change the system this fiscal year and even the next - but if it means having to hire more personnel, adding to the bulk of HR expenses when an integrated system could mean fewer people doing more work, public media needs to examine where it's putting its dollars. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Community Radio: What's Next?

Community radio has a problem. Well, it has many problems, but the confluence of competition, digital and lack of foresight has led to an emergency state of affairs. I say an emergency because many community radio stations - which audiences have always been small, but at least growing - are now declining. Anecdotally, each pledge drive feels like a Sisyphean push up a hill, with the boulder landing at the bottom by the beginning of the next drive. It is now common to see 3 and even 4 pledge drives a year, and in wealthy, progressive communities, where raising community support should be like shooting fish in a barrel. What has happened? And where does community radio go from here.

What happened? 

It's always been easy for community radio to blame their woes on others, and with good reason. The Federal Communications Commission, influenced by commercial broadcasters and National Public Radio, have never enjoyed giving up scraps of the spectrum. Some NPR affiliates have publicly and some places quietly mounted campaigns to block these small efforts at media democracy. These are obstacles overcome, battles won: there are about 100 stations that can be called community radio and I would say that their worst enemy at this themselves.

Ironically, the purpose of media access - to empower community members by creating access to the airwaves - is now the cause of its demise. Volunteer producers, who have returned each week to host music and public affairs shows, have experienced the sense of entitlement and power a media platform provides. Secretaries, fast food workers, clerks, insurance agents, zoo keepers, high school dropouts are part of the eclectic mix of folks who keep community radio's airwaves humming. But I don't really fault them for falling prey to the vanity media creates in even the most humble person - I blame the paid staff. These are the stewards of media access and these are the people who abdicate all responsibility for the state of community radio today by using the tiring phrase "access" as a defense against their incompetent management.

There are some good examples of well managed community radio stations. KDHX in Saint Louis, WTIP and KAXE in northern Minnesota stand out as organizations that have evolved media access and at the same time made a compelling case for financial support to foundations and community members. Each of those stations will tell you that they had to do some hard, internal work with volunteers and staff to answer that question that so few stations - community or not -  have so much difficulty answering: why are we here? (Hint: the answer is not to broadcast whatever vinyl stash some guy has.)

What's next? 

I don't think the answer to that question is going to be all that different for most community radio stations. At the heart of the issue for many community radio stations is focusing on who they are as an institutions. For KDHX it's being a station of music discovery; for WTIP it's as a community watering hole for cultural and civic issues. Both of these stations have programs that don't conform to its overall brand (KDHX for example has public affairs shows and WTIP plays a lot of music) but the message to the community is very clear about their purpose. Community radio stations needs to figure its purpose. Hint: the answer is not media access. 


We're already seeing college radio fire sales around the station. Consolidation is rampant - and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm waiting for the day when a community radio station is put up for sale. Many community stations will continue on the path of the epic struggle to survive with few listeners and even fewer donors. A handful will adapt and invest in technology. The future? It does lie in ourselves.

One and Done...At Your Peril

A public radio colleague, who's shoulders many of us stand on, said to me, "We're teaching the next generation there's one way of doing journalism. There are other ways of doing journalism."

We were talking about community engagement, and how it stands 180 degrees from the one and done model of reporting. He's been a practitioner of engaging communities to reach the people public isn't reaching and isn't connecting to very well. On a national scale, NPR is making an effort in effort in coverage of diverse communities with Codeswitch, but this work is built upon the shoulders of many others community engagement practitioners, and their general managers, who've spent the time and resources to develop trust over time with communities who've perceived bias and/or exclusion.

Reporters and their editors regularly dismiss this perception and indeed embrace it as a veiled compliment as doing their job well. "When everybody hates us, that means we're fair" is the bumper sticker response towards criticism of how journalists cover sticky issues of race, gender and class in America.

I'm not suggesting that the metric for a journalistic job well done is that communities adore you. What I, and another engagement practitioners would say is that community engagement is a tool to cover communities more effectively and more efficiently. The metric to look at then is how many of your new sources reflect the census data of your community; how many are on the air and how often? NPR is taking a tactical view of with Codeswitch, but at the station level, it's an institutional opportunity to think about how to cultivate long term relationships that become more than the one and done story.

That's the other way of doing journalism: to facilitate, to convene, to curate and in the process, REPORT. These activities has previously been compartmentalized. Events people did the convening; social media people are the curators and the legacy reporters are...reporting. What it means for institutions is that all of these people now need to collaborate. It also means for their managers and executives that they need to be thinking strategically about the day to day activities of their convener, curators and reporters.

Most public radio stations are in still in one and done mode, and I say at their peril. People are hungry for institutions they can trust (note: I did not say brand). If you can institutionally develop relationships (re: partnerships) in your community that result in content that tells a full, complex and yes, accurate story about the community, they will support you in turn, even when the story is negative.

The one and done news process is killing trust with our communities. Community engagement can build it and rebuild it so that our news content remains credible for the future.