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.
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.)
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.