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Community radio: grappling with the new digital ecosystem

National Federation of Community BroadcastersThe country’s oldest and largest community radio association has seen a major shift in public media over the last 20 years, and is exploring its way forward following recent controversies and a change in leadership.

Founded in 1975, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters has seen momentous changes in media since it began. From early advocacy of low-power FM to creating an infrastructure for stations to distribute programs via tape, NFCB pioneered ideas that are but a given today. The federation helped lead the first Native American and Latino Public Radio Summits, as well as initiatives aimed at rural stations and youth in community radio.

In the last few years, NFCB has faced its own difficulties, with leaders Maxie Jackson being dismissed and Ginny Berson departing the organization. Once out, Berson offered a number of pointed remarks in her speech at the 2014 conference.

This year, Sally Kane became CEO of the federation. She led Colorado community radio station KVNF for a decade prior to taking up the reins at NFCB. In an interview for Radio Survivor, she talked about NFCB and its future.

Public media has become big on concepts, from music discovery to local journalism to podcasting, and community radio is no exception. Where NFCB previously devoted its energy to the 5×5 community engagement project, a means of helping volunteer-dominated radio stations harness the outreach power at its disposal, the organization is now looking at member stations, largely outside the NPR affiliate universe and grasping for technical infrastructure, that want answers about spaces where a host of competitors have already gotten a significant head start.

“We’re trying to wrap our heads around the array of services that stations really need, operating in this new digitally based media ecosystem and trying to address a new set of needs,” she noted.

NFCB’s challenge, Kane said, is in trying to maintain core services community radio stations have come to expect and to need, while helping stations come to terms with the changing media environment. Many community radio stations across the country are facing an aging base and high media saturation that is wooing its core audience. The call for more diverse services — helping to navigate the digital space, making best use of social media and parlaying such platforms into more funds — comes as traditionally small-budget community radio stations are feeling the budgetary pinch and are less capable of affording affiliation with the organization. Since Jackson’s term, NFCB has operated leaner. Gone is its Oakland office, staff has been reduced and station dues have been discounted over the last year. However, Kane noted the federation still has more adjustments ahead in this more fluid time in media.

“We’re operating with a set of bylaws, governance and membership structure that is pre-Internet and pre-digital,” she said. “It’s very unwieldy and requiring us to problem-solve the structure itself and how we do business. We’re experiencing in a microcosm what the macrocosm is dishing out to everybody.”

In this regard, being in a position to observe and convene with member stations is an advantage to NFCB, Kane said, because the federation is best suited to offer tools, mentorship and experience in navigating the myriad challenges community radio stations face. She also emphasized an approach of getting back to conversations about shared values, and what inspires people to be involved in community radio.

Kane praised groups like Public Radio Exchange (PRX) and the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) with blazing important new trails in the media field. Community radio stations struggle, she said, in understanding that changes in media consumption mean a time to expand one’s reach rather than to contract because it may be the logistics may be murky.

“What we tend to do is talk about the ways we feel afraid, or how things won’t work for us in our given situations. I want to shift that conversation, not to ignore the challenges, but to ask what are the opportunities within them,” Kane explained. “We’re all walking this road of unknowns, and anyone who tells you that they know exactly how to be in the digital space is crazy. We’re all figuring it out. No one’s ahead of the curve. That’s the nature of it. It’s changing every day. What you’re committing to is being open and responsive.”

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