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.