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Is a public radio station a community center?

A producer at Pacifica radio outlet KPFA in Berkeley sent me this amusing Xtranormal skit, which works out his feelings about a proposal to hold a big “community party” at the station.

I’m not sure what the status of that idea is, and obviously the discussion is referential to the recent troubles at the station. But I think the piece is more properly considered in general terms that would apply to any such venue.

To what extent should a public radio station (from a listener supported pirate version through an NPR affiliate) function as a community center? To what extent should it, to use the Federal Communications Commission’s term, operate as an “anchor institution,” properly tasked with many functions besides broadcasting?

And what are the upsides and downsides of the community center approach?

I don’t know. I’m just asking.


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4 Responses to Is a public radio station a community center?

  1. Paul Riismandel December 29, 2010 at 8:30 pm #

    This is a question that community radio stations, in particular, struggle with constantly. The goal of providing broad, non-discriminatory access is often in tension with the daily work of keeping an FCC-licensed broadcast station in operation.

    In my years of community radio I’ve seen too many DJs attempt to take up temporary residence in common areas, decide to throw impromptu parties where the station’s music archives start to walk away, and many other destructive behaviors take root. But when someone (often staff) is forced to step in and regain control, sometimes disciplining or removing volunteers who have crossed the line, many volunteers and supporters will take the occasion to raise a ruckus against the disciplinary action.

    During the times that I filled managerial–but volunteer–roles I often found myself asking, “are we a halfway house or a radio station? Or are we a social services agency?”

    Because these stations are so visible (audible?) within a segment of a most communities that is strongly supporting of social justice I can understand how and why many listeners and volunteers are uncomfortable with having to set limits on participation. At the same time, I think it’s a fantasy that any radio station can have a completely open door policy, functioning as a de facto community center, and maintain legal broadcast operations. Eventually someone who has malicious intent, or just someone with benign intent but poor self-control will take advantage of the access and privilege.

    Just ask any public librarian about the tension they deal with every day between maintaining a functioning and clean service for 99.9% of patrons looking to use library services, while also having to deal with the .01% of people who are taking advantage of the place in ways that weren’t intended. Letting someone down on his luck sleep in your radio station or library seems harmless enough until the new residents are preventing people from using the place for what it was originally intended for.

    I do think it’s reasonable for community radio stations to deal compassionately with volunteers and other members of the community who are less able to participate fully. In the best case, station volunteers can and should help these folks work at stations to the best of their ability, but also minimize the drain on station resources. But running a community center by itself is tough enough without also having to run a radio station, too.

    Community (and public) stations should work to make themselves accessible and responsive, but there has to be some kind of concomitant responsibility on those who participate. Practically speaking, this is very difficult to do if one simply opens the doors to all comers.

    That said, I think it’s great if stations can open their doors for limited events, like a party or open house. However, it’s something that requires planning, forethought, and that horrible r-word, “rules.” Any party can get out of hand, so it’s best to recognize that up front and be forthright in planning for that, rather than just sending out invites and hoping for the best.

  2. Oshean Waters December 30, 2010 at 10:37 am #

    Having a party at the station is not necessarily the meaning of making the station a community center. Thinking that a ‘party’ represents this concept is shortsighted. It is more than that!

  3. Bob Mason December 30, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    Your Question:

    “To what extent should a public radio station (from a listener supported pirate version through an NPR affiliate) function as a community center? ”

    My Answer:

    To no extent. The video says it all. The skills you need to do good radio — so, so hard to come by — have nothing in common with the skills and infrastructure need to run a community center.

  4. Matthew Lasar December 30, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    I agree with Oshean that proposing a party at a community radio station doesn’t necessarily mean wanting to turn it into a community center. But the community center expectation is always present. The video seemed to me to be a good resource for that discussion.

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