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Why community radio stations don’t need News Directors

recommunityradioWhen 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.


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11 Responses to Why community radio stations don’t need News Directors

  1. Susan Raybuck October 14, 2014 at 8:36 am #

    We are in a county with no cross-county news, inadequately served by a weekly newspaper. Wimberley is not the county seat. As a community we have little insight or knowledge about decisions made at the county level. It’s a major gap. So we intend to include local news and public affairs program (but less than one-third of our content will be that).

    As a start-up, the idea of seasons of news may be more manageable for us to begin with, especially now while our budget doesn’t permit any paid positions.

  2. Ann October 14, 2014 at 11:31 am #

    Hey Susan! You bring up an important issue in rural communities. I would talk to WTIP in Grand Marais, Minnesota a great community radio station that started out in a broom closet at the local high school. They know they want news and information and are experimenting with community engagement tactics, over the air and social. Let me know if a connection might be helpful.

  3. Jerry Drawhorn October 14, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    Well, let’s start with fundamentals. According to the “Public and Broadcasting” the FCC expects stations to broadcast news and public affairs programming.

    “As discussed in this Manual, every station has an obligation to provide news, public affairs, and other programming that specifically treats the important issues facing its community, and to comply with the Communications Act, the Commission’s rules, and the terms of its station license. We encourage a continuing dialogue between broadcasters and members of the public to ensure that stations meet their obligations and remain responsive to the needs of the local community. Because you watch and listen to the stations that we license, you can be a valuable and effective advocate to ensure that your area’s stations comply with their localism obligation and other FCC requirements.”

    As well the FCC requires all stations to maintain “Quarterly Programming Reports. Every three months, each broadcast radio and television station licensee must prepare and place in its station public file a list of programs containing its most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding three months (“issues/programs lists”). The list must briefly describe both the issue and the programming during which the issue was discussed, including the date and time that each such program was aired and its title and duration. The licensee must keep these lists in the file until the next grant of the station renewal application has become final.”

    Unless the GM or Programming Director wants to take over the role of producing news and public affairs and maintaining the Public File requirements its best that it be assigned to a News/PA Director.

    Community stations, even those that play most music, have an obligation to have some news…and I’d argue that this would be particularly important in these days of station consolidation. If community stations don’t cover issues of local importance it’s unlikely that a commercial station will. This can comprise taping an interesting lecture by a professor or visiting scholar, interviewing them or local community members.

    I suspect that the FCC will not consider on-line or other formats a substitute for “programs” that are broadcast.

    As far as sub-dividing News/PA and DJ’s…why? As far as the FCC is concerned the former has a higher status than the latter in terms of maintaining ones public responsibility. Volunteerism is usually a major part of being involved at a community station, and that means doing some tasks outside of programming to get on the air. Maybe some people grumble about this…and have issues about their voice, accent or ability with English…but the goal is to improve, and one can cover issues of interest to one self that would never be exposed on other radio and TV stations….homeless kids, the punk scene, migrant workers, the dumping of the mentally ill, Evangelists in the schools, how immigrants have to cope in the community, etc.

    At my college/community station there was a revolving door between the news and PA (and sports) people and DJ’s. There were very few restrictions against “giving up activism” as long as one made an effort to get other perspectives into the broadcast pieces. Some people who came to the station only wanting to hone their News B’cast skills ended up as DJ’s…some who came in mainly interested in Music became the News or PA Director.

  4. Ann October 14, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

    Jerry, this is exactly the type of limited thinking I’m talking about. KDHX in Saint Louis is in compliance with the FCC AND qualifies for grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – they don’t have a news director. Anyway, stations can fill requirements very easily by broadcasting a syndicated program.

    Also, community radio stations are hemorahging audience. What’s the point in producing news and public affairs shows that statistically, no one is listening to?

    Stop producing news and public affairs…start producing content that is relevant. There are more meaningful ways to involve communities in media than producing news and public affairs that serve as little more than exercises in individual vanity.

    • Duke And Banner October 16, 2014 at 1:07 am #

      My biggest complaint is lazy news that uses easy words that don’t jar or inform any of the listeners. For instance, most media uses the word “Drugs.” We dissect that word, so people understand the difference between … say Marijuana … and Methamphetamine.

      In our community, Meth has been the drug of choice for a decade. And it always translates to high-speed car chases, carjackings, and other violent offenses. And there’s no government eradication action, whatsoever.

      Yet, you’d never know it from listening, reading, or watching mainstream media.

      And just to give a chuckle, there’s always excerpts from Reefer Madness to throw in.

  5. jonthebru October 14, 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    You need competent people during emergencies, but we at Mana’o Hana Hou Radio do not have any news staff. We present FSN 3 times a day weekdays along with the weather during the day a few times, but thats about it.

  6. Gregg McVicar October 14, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

    Perhaps to be provocative Ann, you’ve framed a false either/or choice, “relevant content” vs. News/PA. Riveting, relevant audience-building content comes in many forms, but only from hard-working creative folk who are willing to feed the beast, digital or otherwise. It might be Amy in NYC and/or local “engaged” community producers with their finger on the pulse of local cares and concerns. Above all, what does the audience want? Focusing on their needs and interests should be step one. Otherwise, what’s the point?

    Back in the stone age, progressive newscasters traded stories with other newsheads from other markets, sharing pieces, tape and interviewing each other as local correspondents whenever all hell broke loose (volcano, bomb, quake, flood, etc.). They regularly headed out on to the street and deep into the community with portable gear to infuse their broadcast with local voices and stories. They invited local experts, and generally fascinating guests to provide commentary and interviews. Some stations still do this, including bloggers in the mix.

    Series, modules, etc. are great…as long as DJs don’t bristle at “their” time being taken-way to hear part 7 in a 13 part series on bees…there needs to a dedicated slot of a duration that fits the flow for listeners.

    Audience-focus, sharing resources, team all adds up to something good.

  7. Paul Riismandel October 14, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

    Bravo, Ann!

    There are so many ways of doing broadcasting that is informative and of great service to the community that doesn’t have to be pigeonholed into a 30 or 60 minute traditional news broadcast. Music and public affairs can go together in a natural flow, especially when featuring music and musicians of deep relevance to your communities.

    For stations with a well-established block of well-supported talk programming, having a news director and department can still be relevant. But I agree that for stations that are struggling with audience, identity and funding, striving to have a news director doesn’t make sense.

  8. Ann October 14, 2014 at 7:36 pm #

    That’s precisely the point, Gregg. It’s not either/or – but I’ve seen too many community radio stations where it is EITHER we support more news OR we market the music programming better. They’re cannibalizing their mission. So why not talk about content, and as Paul articulates, come up with a natural flow. Radio Milwaukee, which is a triple A-ish formatted station does this by integrating community and arts profiles throughout the schedule and with a heavy dose of digital content.

  9. Jerry Drawhorn October 16, 2014 at 4:08 pm #

    It seems that you’ve simply substituted the catch-phrase “relevant content” for “public affairs”. Who is going to organize this “relevant content”? Who is going to schedule it…or maintain the records that it has been integrated into the programming (describing it on the public file)? Who is going to ascertain community needs and interests?

    You can call them something other than “news/public affairs director”…maybe “relevant content director” but it’s essentially the same thing. Arts/Community profiles are Public Affairs. Certainly one should be flexible in where on slots those programs…or schedule DJ’s with appropriate music around them – or with them.

    Stations have broken away from the “traditional news format” system from the late sixties with the advent of Underground radio. This is nothing new. They probably gave their people unusual names rather than “News Director” back then. Nonetheless, whether the person is called the “Community Content Facilitator” or the “KPOO Information Minister” one still needs to fulfill the FCC BROADCAST obligations.

    And playing a syndicated program is not really providing much coverage of local issues. And I reiterate…a blog or a website will not fulfill the FCC broadcast content requirements…though it will provide additional means to serve the community. It’s no substitute for air-time. In fact, managing digital content and keeping it up-to-date and appropriate to local needs and interests can increase the responsibilities….a station without a News/PA Director may suddenly find they need one.

    And much of this relates to whether one has the resources. An urban station associated with a University or in a town with one will have a lot more access to experts on certain topics than more rural community stations that don’t have such a resource.

    Hemorrhaging ratings…is this due to the news? Public affairs? Is this because the news isn’t community oriented and simply rip-and-read?

    When UC Davis station had the coverage of the Tuition and Occupy Protests it was widely relied upon to provide updates on ongoing events, interview participants, and present phone-in debates. There was a person on the core-staff (i.e. the News/PA Director) that was the go-to person to advocate for and manage these. Cell phones allowed actualities to occur and DJ’s were quite willing to cut-into their programming to air these. But someone had to be around to formally record these actualities (and there was some effort to manage their reliability) so they could be logged and used in the public file.

  10. Steve October 20, 2014 at 10:27 pm #

    I think the biggest issue is mission focus and strategy here. KDHX doesn’t need a news director, but it does need someone to coordinate programming, and yes it does need someone to manage the public file. And actually, they dont need to be, nor are they, the same person.

    Getting caught up with the traditional role of news/pa is limiting if a station is being truly community service focused. Like you say Ann, you can’t serve an audience by jolting them away from one form of content to broadcast another format, just because the rules say it must be done. That leads to attrition and more decline. The rules don’t tell you how to do quality programming, and the challenge is making the transitions work within the rules. A community station needs to find its identity so it can produce, or partner to deliver, local, relevant community affairs programming that fits among its primary programs. Yes, someone has to log to public file, no, they don’t need a director title to do it.

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