When I first attended the National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference in 2002, I was struck by stations who considered our station – KFAI Radio in Minneapolis – a leader because we had a full time News Director (which happened to be me). It’s a goal for many stations to have the financial stability to maintain one full time news person – and this person inevitably becomes an important community access point for the station. I heard one program director say that having a news director translated directly to the station’s ability to meet its mission of media access. I didn’t question this logic for a long time.
I question it now. At stations that play mostly music, what is the purpose of managing news and public affairs? And why do we at community radio stations segregate our music and news volunteers? What if we could re-imagine ourselves as content producers rather than music DJs or news volunteers? Insisting that we need a news director position is a physical and mental block to our imaginations – and it’s preventing us from hiring the next generation of community managers who can transform community radio into a relevant, multi platform media outlet.
This is a tough proposition, not the least of which is managing the fall out from news and public affairs volunteers who cherish the sound of their voices over the air. Here’s what I would propose for any station with the guts to experiment.
If your station airs a daily half hour newscast, get rid of it. The reasons for this are straightforward: because stations air mostly music, and these newscasts are transitioning from a different format, it’s not enough time to build up any sort of audience. Also, posting host intros and then slapping a play button on your station’s website does nothing for the station’s content. Instead…
…identify and work with volunteers to create digital first content. It could be news. It could be music reviews of what’s been playing over the air. It could be videos of musicians who’ve performed at the station, which is what KDHX in St. Louis and KFAI have been doing for the last several years. It could be a music specific blog, which is what KBUT in Crested Butte, Colorado has been experimenting with recently.
Get off the content production gerbil wheel. Find a content partner(s). One of the ways stations can embrace digital disruption is by reaching out to the many web start-ups or bloggers in your community. The NPR station in Anchorage (full disclosure: I’m the membership director there) took advantage of a Knight Foundation grant to build out its website to host non profit and community perspectives, Townsquare 49.
Still think you need “news” over the air? Think of news content as a season – a series of segments on a topic for a period of time, say 12 weeks, that you have identified as meeting a community need or aspiration that can be inserted into the program schedule during drive time. This will also focus your volunteer recruitment efforts and involve a different segment of your community at the station. It will also redirect your existing news volunteer pool to an initiative that will, I hope, wean them from being focused on the over the air broadcast.
Not sustainable? Let it go. I tried a lot of things when I was the News Director at KFAI: a weekly analysis of the Twin Cities media, a weekly segment featuring community leaders, a youth radio summer program. All of it was to feed the beast of time – a beast that is always hungry, that takes and never gives back. That was when I realized that I needed to let things go. Everything has its own lifespan, everything needs its own scale in order to survive. Scale your work to fit your station, your community and your abilities.