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What is “professionalism” in community radio?

In the world of community radio, there is probably no term more contentious than “professionalism.” Say the word and watch the conversation flare up. Why is the p-word so threatening? Probably because at places like community/college/LPFM radio stations, most community media people are volunteers. So when words like “professionalism” surface, folks imagine themselves being replaced by paid staff, or “professionals.”

Or, in other contexts, professionals see themselves being replaced by volunteers. Hence lots of apprehension and defensiveness.

So maybe professionalism is not the word that I’m looking for. In any event, here’s what I mean when I use it. Or, more precisely, here are four things that I as a radio listener want from community radio public affairs programmers when I use that word.

1. I want you to let me in on what you are talking about.

A couple of years ago Al Robles died. He was a beloved San Francisco based Filipino American poet who had been very active in the 1970s struggle to prevent the closure of that city’s International Hotel. The I-Hotel housed mostly Filipino immigrants. Keeping it open became a Bay Area cause. Robles was a huge voice in that battle.

After Robles’ passing, I heard two programs about him on two different Bay Area community radio stations. The hosts of both shows read poetry and broadcast songs in his honor. Neither explained who he was. Neither explained what the International Hotel struggle was about.

Both hosts were clearly in awe of Robles’ accomplishments and his legacy, so much so that it did not occur to either that some of the station’s listeners may never have heard of him. I am older, and I remember the I-Hotel fight. But these programs impressed me as classic examples of what I call Broadcasting To The Club. If you have to ask who Robles was, this attitude seems to say, you are not a member and need not apply.

I have lost track of the number of times I’ve listened to an interview on a community radio station in which the host didn’t even bother to identify the interviewee in the closing outro of the program. If you are a community broadcaster, please make me and everybody else a member of your club. Take the time to tell us about who and what you are talking. Don’t assume everybody knows.

It’s a little more work, but not that much.

2. I want you to listen to your guest.

This one is harder.

A long time ago, I took a seminar on doing radio interviews. The seminar leader told us this story, which I recount here as best I can recall.

“I was hosting a cable TV interview show,” he explained:

“and one day the guest of a live program I was doing called to say he might be late. I became terribly worried and distraught. When he finally arrived just slightly before the hour, I was so relieved. I rushed him into the live studio, sat him down, and started the program. He said something at first, but I was in such a hurry to get to my questions that I just nodded and went ahead.

A couple of hours after the program, my boss called and asked me to come into his office. He played a video tape of the beginning of the show, particularly the thing that the man had said that I ignored.

‘I’m terribly sorry I was late,’ the tape showed my guest explaining, ‘but my son has just died, and I’ve had to make arrangements.’

I looked at my boss. ‘I’m fired, right?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I’m sorry too’.”

This is probably the most disturbing example I’ve ever heard of a host ignoring his or her guest, but I often hear far less dramatic instances. These shows really comes off as dead air, so to speak. Please listen to your guest. Put down your list of questions and pay attention. Please react to what she is saying. When she says or refers to something that you think the audience doesn’t understand, clarify it, or ask your guest to clarify.

Show me that you are actually there. If you aren’t really there, why should I bother to listen?

3. I want you to interview people with whom you disagree.

I find nothing so boring as a community radio show in which the host only interviews people with whom he or she agrees. Conversely, I find the most interesting programs those in which the host clearly doesn’t agree with the guest. Sadly, there is an overabundance of the former type of program, and a scarcity of the latter.

Too many community media people see themselves as propagandists, anxious to “get the word out,” but uninterested in replicating over the airwaves what makes life so interesting—dialogue and uncertainty. Be brave. Have someone on your show whose ideas you oppose. Challenge them. Maybe you’ll prevail. Maybe not. But you’ll be a lot more interesting to hear.

4. I want you to act like you are part of a radio station.

Years ago I had a show at a community radio outlet. One day, as I was getting ready to do my program, the previous host was wrapping up an interview with a guest. “We could talk about this subject for hours,” he gushed. “Unfortunately the next show is coming up.” Unfortunately that was me.

Now I listen to community radio stations all over the US, UK, and Canada. Like the situation I just described, not a few sound like time sharing condo complexes. The host comes on, does her thing, and leaves. There’s no reference to anything else that’s going on at the station—the next show, the show after that. What’s going to be on tomorrow morning? Nothing. It’s kind of sad.

How about a little esprit de corps, folks? How about a sense that I’m listening to a whole bunch of great people making a radio station work, and not just your show?

Back to my earlier question—is this “professionalism” that I want? Well, these skills tend to come from people who do radio a lot. And most people who do radio a lot tend to get paid. But you don’t have to be a professional to try to do these things. So maybe the right word I’m looking for is “accessibility” or “inclusiveness.” You pick yours.

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7 Responses to What is “professionalism” in community radio?

  1. Eric Weaver March 22, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    Professionalism in this context, to me anyway, means doing the role so well you COULD be paid for it. Not every public affairs host is going to sound like say Michael Krasny but could at least work on doing more and more of the best practices every show.

    That applies to music jocks too. You don’t have to sound like a CHR puker but at least know what you’re going to say, stay on point and keep things rolling. Don’t be so wrapped up in your music choices that you forget the listeners want to hear them not the dead air as you wonder what to say.

  2. Bob March 22, 2011 at 9:32 am #


    I greatly appreciate the contribution made by professional non-profit radio. NPR, Pacifica, and the big public radio stations are all quite professional (WAMU in DC, KCRW in L.A. and so on).

    However, there is also a valuable contribution made by LESS-professional non-profit radio. I love college rock radio. There is nothing like it. XMSirius has a zillion channels, yet not one can compare with unpaid crazed college kids playing what they want at 2AM. If there is a paycheck involved (or even structure and formalism) then compromise seems a guaranteed consequence.

    For example, for those in the San Franciso area, consider a comparison of KFJC to KALX (or KZSU). [I’ve supported them all financially.] The KFJC team sounds like an NPR affiliate compared to KALX. KFJC tries hard, and they can be more consistent/reliable, but they just don’t have the abandon of a student-run college radio station.

    I wonder sometimes if it isn’t simply the age/hormones. Maybe you can only play the good stuff if you genuinely don’t give a shit. Maybe you have to be young? If true, its a shame. Because age brings depth of knowledge. An old fogy (like me) can correlate material over many generations. Maybe its just the organizational structure; we rarely see old folks playing music at unstructured college radio stations; they always seem to wind up at the structured outlets (e.g. Bill Kelly).

    I suppose none of this is what anyone wants to hear. I’ll be shouted down because I’m not supporting spoken-word or jazz. It seems that those have good representations on the structured non-profit radio stations. The breed that is hard to find are the well informed, knowledgeable, but truly don’t give a shit underground rock stations. There’s probably 6 or 8 in the whole country. They are gems.

  3. Phil Toole March 25, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    As a KFJC alum and current host on FCC Free Radio, I also agree that professionalism should be at least a goal to strive for if not a mainstay of community radio. I don’t view “professionalism” as necessarily sounding like the “puking” announcing style of 70’s and 80’s AOR stations (you know – “You’re listening to Diamond Dave right here on (insert call letters here) hitting you with a Led Zeppelin rock block!!!”), but I do think that community DJs should sound polished – back announcing, segues, intros/outros, etc. In terms of interviewing, I completely agree with most of your points. Hosts should most certainly LISTEN to their guests more than speak. My show focuses on indie/unsigned bands in the Bay Area. I write a couple of questions in advance, but most of the time I just try to spin off of what my guests talk about. The only one I wouldn’t agree with is #3 because that’s more relevant to what kind of show you do. Anyhow, great article!!!

  4. Robert E March 25, 2011 at 11:11 am #

    I need to start out by identifying myself as a member of a college radio station.

    How do you define “professionalism”? To Matthew it seems a good thing and to Bob it seems bad. Matthew wants people on the air to improve, while Bob likes the wild energy of unschooled talent.

    Radio can be an art form and radio is a profession. Independent radio and indie films are a good comparison, both often excused for technical mistakes especially when they provide a raw vision- energy and shocking disregard for convention.

    Shocking disregard for convention has a short shelf-life. So it’s no wonder the energy from that current always needs to be fueled by youth. Indie film directors go mainstream and the path to the profession -either radio or film – squeezes out vision and passion for the way-things-work-in-the-business.

    But I bristle at the thought that independent radio and the people who participate in it are like athletes or Hollywood starlets – only important while they possess the bloom of youth and have the shelf live of cut flowers. Or that independent radio only has one role or one style – constantly “new”, or conversely, Bob’s fear of indie radios playing only spoken-word and jazz.

    Independent radio is an art form. I’m not the best person to address what demons possess people to continue an avocation in radio, since I am so possessed. But my sense is that I’m listening to a whole bunch of great people making independent radio fun; full of creativity that inspires a snooze or a shout, more booze or some doubt and helps you through the big questions and the small injuries of life.

  5. Jennifer Waits March 25, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this provocative post and thanks to Matthew for getting many of us DJs to have conversations with each other about what we do over the air.

    I love college radio, high school radio, and community radio. Part of what I love is the unexpected nature of it. I like the element of surprise and am delighted by a wide range of things that I hear. I’ve been equally charmed by the high school radio station DJ’s on-air review of a local McDonald’s, the stumbling mic breaks of a DJ in training, and the polished segues and exceptional music choices of a DJ who has been on the air for decades. And I had to sit in my car and listen in awe one time when I heard KFJC DJ Morris Minor playing a looped sample of fellow DJ Cy Thoth saying “Dirty Cupcakes and Babies” over and over and over.

  6. Ann Garrison June 14, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    That’s a good list of good on-air practice. Only thing I’d modify is this: “I find the most interesting programs those in which the host clearly doesn’t agree with the guest.” Agree/disagree tends to be a simplistic bi-polarity.

  7. Matthew Lasar June 14, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    Sorry for the simplistic bipolarness. What I was responding to in this instance is the far more simplistic nature of most community radio public affairs content, in which the host is an advocate for the guest, and rarely asks the guest any challenging questions.

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