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Portland Radio Project plans to reunite public service and music

Portland Radio Project logoThe public service obligation of radio broadcasters has changed, and not for the better. That reality is what’s driving a group of Oregon volunteers to create the Portland Radio Project, a new locally-oriented online station that starts streaming October 18. The group is running a Kickstarter for $100,000 to build and fund a station that harkens back to the days when broadcasters integrated news and public affairs into their schedules, updating it for the online era.

I had coffee with the project’s chief organizer Rebecca Webb and strategic marketing and communications director Carrie Kikel for what turned out be a spirited conversation about localism, public service and bringing serious news programming to the generation of digital natives.

Webb and Kikel are not newcomers to broadcast media. They’ve both had a front-row seat for the changes in Portland media brought on by Reagan-era deregulation, followed by the industry consolidation enabled by the Telecommunication Act of 1996.

Webb has been a TV news reporter and co-hosted the KINK-FM Morning Show. She explained that “ownership concentration led to owners being distant from their community, with a lot of people laid off. Then the informational components were removed from commercial (music) radio, by and large. In the range of 90% of news was gone in just a few years.”

Observing this trend first-hand motivated Webb to pursue a master’s degree in political science at Portland State University, completing a thesis studying the effects of broadcast consolidation. She found that approximately half of the employees in radio were let go in the years following the Telecom Act, “and a lot of them were journalists.” The decline in public service can be seen in the fact that, “in 1998 a typical (representative commercial) radio station would run 20 individual PSAs per a 3 day sample,” but Webb’s research shows that in 2011 it is only two unique PSAs it only ran PSAs for just two nonprofit events per quarter, on average.

Working in non-profit communications Kikel also experienced that decline. She told me that “thirty years ago, if you wrote a PSA and sent it to every station in town, then every one ran it. Now, none will run it without a partnership.” Before 1996 “were the days that you could walk into a media operation and speak to someone with a direct line of communication to the owner and decision making team.”

While I agree that public service by commercial broadcasters has fallen off precipitously in the last twenty years, I had to point out that there are plenty of scholars and critics (myself included) who argue there were many deficiencies in the public service model of commercial broadcasting well before 1996. In part, this was the impetus for the creation of community radio and public radio.

Webb and Kikel acknowledged the critique, citing the lack of fair representation of LBGT persons and minorities as an example. At the same time Kikel stressed that “I’ve worked with every radio station in this town over the years, and prior to the free market model (of the Reagan era) there was people’s radio in this town, people were responsive and they cared.”

Webb started her plan for what is now the Portland Radio Project after completing her degree in 2011. She called it “the culmination of a vision and a dream on the part of people who really care about radio in general, democracy and community.”

“When Rebecca called me,” Kikel recalled, “two minutes into the conversation I just lit up. I said, ‘Oh my god!’”

Webb explained that PRP is “posing a new model, taking some aspects of the social responsibility model and putting it online. Remind people what was important about radio.”

She continued, “We have 3 things on the radio: music stations with no commitment to the community, news stations without offering any music, and then you have eclectic community stations that are poorly listened to. We’re trying to hit the sweet spot, with lots of great music (and) quality news.” She said the emphasis is “quality over quantity, and a commitment to community.”

They’re not looking to serve a small niche of listeners. “We’re trying to draw a mass audience,” Webb said, “using a proven radio format: folk, rock and blues. Interjected in that programming are elements of information and news.”

The station also plans to work closely with local musicians, but Webb says the station will program their music “right next to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.” For its launch on October 18 PRP will be live streaming the album release show for Portland-based folk/soul band Worth. They are also building a performance space in their studio so that the station can host live musicians and host community events.

On the whole, what PRP aims to do is ambitious. Looking at the last 20 years of radio broadcast history one might argue that there are good–if unfortunate–reasons why there are few, if any, stations broadcasting with the project’s proposed mix of music, news and information .

Kikel acknowledged this, telling me, “There are those who will tell us we’re too ambitious,” especially with their Kickstarter ask of $100,000. But, she said, “we’re using Kickstarter to make a statement. The process of making that campaign made us gel as a team. We didn’t set out to start a revolution, but we realized that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Webb also outlined that the operating costs of the station, a big chunk of which includes music royalty payments, in one year will add up to about that Kickstarter goal of a hundred grand.

Understanding the sorry state of public service in terrestrial commercial radio, I had to ask why PRP is building an online-only station, rather than a broadcast station that might serve those radio listeners who are missing out.

Webb said that, in general, “there’s a shift to online.” The decision was also pragmatic. She explained that since the project started some two years ago, focusing on the internet meant that the project’s volunteers wouldn’t have to wait for a broadcast license in order to move forward in building the station.

Kikel elaborated that they are targeting “25+ year-old people who are online, but are socially conscious, and we’ll use that digital platform to engage them.” To advise PRP in this pursuit she said that they have “an audience experience manager” with a background in social media and marketing.

Then the three of us got into a discussion about the upcoming low-power FM licensing window, which prompted Webb and Kikel to start rethinking the option of a terrestrial signal. Webb said she was going to investigate the option.

Several days later she sent a follow-up email saying “an LPFM app is now in the offing.”

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