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Sound Advice: 5 Ways New LPFMs Can Build Community Support Today

This might surprise you, but I spend quite a bit of time thinking about how community-focused broadcasters (and podcasters, for that matter) can create healthy organizations that result in amazing programming. Part of this requires shaking off decades-old assumptions about community radio, as well as embracing the challenges of today’s media environment.

Many of my thoughts are sparked and formed by the questions I get asked and the conversations I have with broadcasters of many stripes. With this first “Sound Advice” feature I aim to begin sharing these ideas with a wider audience, and hope to stimulate discussion that taps into the Radio Survivor readership braintrust.

In the last few months I’ve had a number of conversations about how new low-power FM stations can build both awareness and support in their communities, especially taking into account that building and operating a new station is already a lot of work.

These tactics are simple, direct and intended to take advantage of the hyper-local nature of LPFM. With less geography to cover, it’s easier to step out and actually meet face to face with your neighbors–and that’s a good thing.

Although I wrote this post with low-power stations in mind, I think the principles and the approach are applicable to any community-oriented broadcasting venture, from traditional full-power community radio to college internet stations.

1. Make Friends with the Local Press

A new station going on the air in your community is news, so make sure that your local press know about your station. Put together some talking points that explain why your station will be unique and how it will serve the community, along with instructions for listening. This will help prepare for any interviews or be used write press releases, or could even be part of an information sheet.

In particular, contact newspapers, local TV news, as well any local online community or news resources. Take advantage of any personal contacts that any station staff have at any news sources, but also don’t hesitate to contact individual reporters or editors, especially those who cover local businesses or media. Keep in mind that local news survives on tips, so you’re doing them a favor by letting them know about your project. At the same, understand that most reporters are under a lot of pressure, so be friendly, helpful and patient with helping them meet deadlines, and understanding if a story gets rescheduled.

In larger metropolitan areas be sure to pay attention to hyper-local media, like neighborhood newsletters and websites or weekly town or regional newspapers. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pitch the big daily paper–just understand that it may be more difficult to get coverage.

2. Make Friends with Local Businesses

Turn LPFM’s limited broadcast range into an asset for your local businesses that don’t get much notice or coverage on other radio stations. The corner cafe down the street from your station may never be able to afford radio commercials, but may be able to afford underwriting or be able to partner with your station on events.

Make it a point to meet the managers or staff at locally-owned businesses within your listening area. First, you want them to be aware of your station. Second, many of these folks will have good insight and opinions about the needs of your community–and not just business needs.

That’s why my strongest advice is to be ready to listen, not just to pitch your station or solicit donations. After you’ve introduced the basics of your station, ask these businesspeople how it might better serve the community. What kind of information needs do they see? Are there announcements that your station might help with? For instance retail businesses like stores, cafes, restaurants and clubs often have performances or exhibitions that your station could add to a community calendar.

In smaller towns or rural area there may be very little truly local radio that can or will make these announcements, while in bigger cities bigger stations often can’t announce everything that’s happening. Make sure to emphasize how your station’s hyper-local focus can help to foster awareness of what’s happening nearby.

3. Make Friends with Community Groups and Non-Profits

Non-profit groups and community radio are natural allies, but collaboration is often constrained by the fact that they face similar restrictions on funding and staff time. That’s why it’s good to proactively introduce your station. But, again, go in with the intent to listen, not to sell.

You’ll ask a lot of the same questions that you’d ask local businesses: what are the information needs of the community? And, what is that organizations communication needs?

While formal partnerships can be great, don’t go in with this as your first agenda item. Instead, start simple, and low effort. Figure out how you can set up an information conduit between your organizations. How can groups let your station know what’s going on? Do they write press releases or PSAs? And, how can you make this easy for everyone involved?

4. Be Ready to Listen and Educate

Keep in mind that many of the people you talk with will not be familiar with community radio, nor understand how LPFMs are more restricted than commercial radio. Be ready to educate about LPFM as well as your station.

This is where having an info sheet can come in handy. In addition to answering common questions, it can serve as a calling card, and can help frame discussion.

No matter whom you’re talking with, listen to their thoughts and suggestions with an open mind, and write them down. Even though you probably won’t be able to take every suggestion, you may hear a lot of the same things over and over, which can help point to a common need or problem, or be the inspiration for a novel solution.

Don’t forget that the folks you’re talking with are your audience, as are their customers, staff, volunteers and constituencies. Some of your station’s programming might express different political or cultural points of view, but you still should be able to find common ground with many people and groups. Be a good neighbor.

5. Be Organized and Share the Load

While straightforward and minimalist, these outreach efforts still take time and energy. To make effective use of your resources, make a list of all the businesses, groups or media outlets you want to connect with. If you’ve got more than a dozen, start to prioritize them. I’d begin with media outlets, then move to the businesses and community groups. If I needed to prioritize the businesses and groups, I’d start with the ones located closest to the station, since they’ll be easiest to get to.

At new stations it’s often a station manager or board of directors chair who leads these efforts. However, resist the temptation to do it all. Ask around your staff and volunteers to see if they know anyone in any of the organizations, then ask them to reach out. Again, having an info sheet will make this easier on everyone.

These ideas are just a starting point. I’d love to hear some suggestions from Radio Survivor readers? What are some simple, but effective ways to begin building a community around your community radio station? Let us know in the forums.

Photo credit: Jonathan Lopez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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