I’m so excited that hundreds of new LPFM community radio stations are going on the air right now. First, because it represents massive growth in the number and diversity of broadcast voices. Second, because it’s an unprecedented opportunity for experimenting with what it means to be a community radio station.
I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with people from at least two dozen new stations that are on the air or are nearing launch. If they ask for my advice, there is one tip that is always at the top of my list: don’t let your DJs own their time slots.
When you’ve got a new station to get off the ground, and 168 hours of air time to fill, this concern is understandably at the bottom of the pile, if it’s even a concern at all. I get it. You need to entice good programmers on the air, and hope they’ll stay around a while. Worrying about them turning into effective squatters doesn’t seem like a big deal.
However, it will be big deal, and probably sooner than you think.
In my 20+ years of noncommercial radio, one of the most frequent problems I hear about is the drain on energy and resources caused by DJs and programmers who seem to be phoning it in, have stopped growing and evolving their shows, and maybe on top of that are no longer constructive contributors to the station as a whole.
Of course, the obvious question is: why not kick them off the air? The usual answer is: it’s not that simple.
A Pernicious Culture of Ownership
Although every station is different, and policies vary from place to place, the underlying reason why stations can’t rid themselves of unproductive programmers is because there is a culture of time ownership. While a sense of shared ownership over the station can be a good thing, the sense that one owns her own slot of time on the schedule tends to be detrimental.
That’s because it encourages DJs to be conservative, as in conserving their space on the air, ready to defend it. This results in resistance or even downright hostility in shifts to the program schedule that are intended to adapt to changes in the listening habits or other factors.
Owning one’s airtime is counterproductive because it also provides a ready defense against constructive criticism or suggestions for improving a program. It’s like a neighbor telling you that your house would look nicer if you pained over the neon purple shutters. If it’s your house, and there’s no ordinance or condo association that intervenes, you can tell the neighbor to go pound sand.
That’s what happens with one DJ. But a schedule is made up of many people, whose cooperation is necessary to have a station that listeners actually want to hear. So, if many DJs or programmers exploit this aspect of ownership, you end up with stations with patchwork schedules that don’t make sense to listeners, schedules that look and sound 20 years old, or both.
Luckily, not every DJ or programmer adopts this attitude. However, just a few can create enough friction to slow down or completely halt any sort of innovation at just about any station.
More perniciously, if a few DJs believe they own their slots, then it’s likely that’s become the culture of your station. That means even the ones who might be more open to compromise and change will nevertheless be willing to defend your more recalcitrant programmers based upon that enshrined principle. That how efforts to deal with one problem programmer turn into a station-wide brouhaha.
Create a Culture of Cooperation, Accountability & Receptivity
So, what to do?
Well, for established stations facing this problem, it’s never easy. That’s because changing rules and changing culture requires cooperation and some kind of rough consensus amongst all stakeholders–a slow process when you have dozens of DJs or programmers.
New stations, however, have an enormous advantage: there is very little to change. Now is the time to build both the structure and culture that does not give DJs ownership over their time slots. Note, I say structure and culture. Yes, you’ll probably need rules in place that limit a DJs ability to remain in one time slot in perpetuity, along with fair and equitable procedures for evaluating shows and volunteer performance so that DJs are accountable. But these rules won’t mean anything if they can’t actually be carried out. I’ve seen plenty of stations try to legislate themselves out of this problem, only to find that enforcing the new rules only creates even more friction and disharmony.
The culture part is about practicing what you preach. It means educating DJs about expectations, their rights, and and their obligations to the station. It also means that everyone should follow the rules equally. For this to work, it’s vitally important for prominent members of staff–like managers, program directors, founders or long-standing volunteers–to not only follow the rules and set an example, but to do so willingly and vocally. A couple years down the line new volunteers will pick up on the fact that some DJs or programmers don’t seem to have to yield as often as others, and they’ll conclude that the rules don’t apply to everyone, and that their goal should be to join the cool kids and enjoy their privileges.
This is a place where I think community radio can learn from college radio. Student-run stations have regular turnover and changes in schedule as a natural outcome of college life. Every semester or quarter students have new schedules which often means they need to find new time slots. Commensurately, most college stations revise their schedules on the same basis, and often require DJs to reapply or rejustify their shows before they get scheduled. This is both a humane and effective way of keeping a schedule from becoming too calcified.
One frequently argument I hear against this approach is the worry that the schedule becomes too changeable, upsetting listeners and degrading any sense of continuity. This is an understandable concern, though my experience is that arguments about continuity tend to be vasty overstated. While nearly any schedule change can bring in listener complaints, there’s a human tendency to overestimate how much these complaints represent the listenership at large. In most cases listeners tend to get with the program pretty quickly.
Furthermore, with volunteer DJs and programmers turnover is inevitable as people’s lives change. Listeners manage to deal with these changes. So, why are changes brought on by smart management of your schedule and staff any different?
More importantly, there are many ways to design a program schedule so that the turnover of individual DJs is not so significant. In fact, I think any community station wants to make a significant portion of its daytime schedule reasonably predictable in terms of genre, tone, style or some other factor. Yes, every DJ should bring something unique and valuable, but that really should mean every DJ, not just some anointed ones. Making a consistently listenable schedule will let your station and your listeners better deal with inevitable and necessary turnover in on-air staff.
Understandably, it’s no fun to effectively fire DJs or take them off the air. But, on the flip side, if you don’t, then what you communicate to the rest of your on-air staff is that qualities like longevity, obstinence and conservativeness are actually more important than cooperation, receptivity, accountability and willingness to change.
Please understand – this is not a problem that is easy fix when it actually becomes a big problem. It’s a problem to fix right now, when you’re putting your first programmers and DJs on the air. The culture you create today is the culture you’ll have five or ten years from now. Educate, cultivate and enshrine the values you want now, and you’ll increase the chance you’ll have cooperative and forward-thinking DJs down the line.
Has your station dealt with this problem? Have any recommendations or innovative solutions to share? Let us know in the forums.
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