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 juncture...is 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.