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.