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Trapped in the Grid: Why Community Radio Risks Irrelevance

This is a transitional time for community radio, unprecedented in the medium’s more than 60-year history in the U.S. Thousands of new LPFM stations are going on the air bringing service to communities that never had community radio, or adding new services to supplement existing community stations.

At the same time many community stations risk becoming irrelevant, more so than ever before. This would be a tragedy, and one that can be averted if station programmers and management are willing to question some age-old assumptions and take a fresh look at their schedules.

We’re in the middle of a tectonic shift in how people use mass media. The internet delivers audio, video and text to people almost everywhere. Yes, radio is still used weekly by more than 90% of Americans, but how it’s used, and who uses the medium has changed more rapidly than most community stations’ ability to keep up.

Stations cannot take their value for granted. People in your community do not use media like they did 20 years ago. In particularly, young people do not use radio in the same way, if they use radio at all.

Trapped in the Grid

Take a look at a typical community radio station’s schedule grid and you can’t help but think little has changed since 1996 (or even 1976). What you’ll probably see is a patchwork of shows of varying formats and genres. Many stations lend some predictability to the schedule by laying out strips of similar programming, typically on weekdays, reserving, say, 5 to 7 PM for news and talk programming. Even so, the apparent coherence of these programming strips may belie the fact that programming will vary widely depending on the DJ or producer who has that slot on any given day.

Don’t get me wrong, eclecticism and heterogeneity rank amongst community radio’s great qualities, differentiating it from strictly formatted commercial stations. But this kind of schedule has always been an Achilles’ heel, too. That’s because the average person doesn’t know how to listen to community radio.

A Listener’s Learning Curve

The average listener is raised on single-format radio, simply because that’s what 90% of the dial sounds like. Scan the dial just about anywhere in the U.S. in you’ll learn that you can rely on one station for country music, another for soft rock and yet another for public radio talk. It’s so knit into the fabric of the medium that when someone hears Led Zeppelin blaring from 95.9 FM, they immediately assume that’s where they can return to hear more dinosaurs of hard rock. They don’t tune back in to hear Dwight Yoakum or Mozart.

Of course an eclectic schedule is not a difficult concept to grasp. Despite the trend on cable towards more homogenous channels, a single TV network affiliate still programs talk, news, comedy, drama and sports on one channel, and viewers have no problem navigating it. But it’s always been that way–the model has has been around since the dawn of television, and so viewers of all ages grew up learning to use it.

I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing to ask your listeners to expend a little effort to get the most out of your station. The problem is that there is less incentive for them to do so than 20 years ago.

In the mid-90s if you wanted to explore music from the continent of Africa it either required a trip to the public library, blindly buying some CDs, or checking out a community radio station. Taking economics and effort into account, the community station might have been the path of least resistance–it cost nothing, you didn’t have to leave home, and a knowledgable DJ would be your guide.

Today that music is just a click away in Pandora, Spotify, Youtube, or any number of dedicated internet radio streams. Certainly, that expert community radio DJ probably picks better tunes and will give listeners much more information and context than a Pandora stream. But that hardly matters if the listener never even looks for a community station.

Or maybe she does, but every time she tunes in she hears talk programming. So, let’s say that our listener checks out the station’s website to see when she can find some African music and sees the show airs Saturdays at 3 PM. Only that’s the time when she has other obligations and can’t listen to the radio. Game over. It’s much more expedient to just fire up that Pandora stream.

Now imagine that our listener is more like 18 or 21 years old. Would it even occur to her that she should turn on the radio to find something other than the usual?

The Dream of the 90s, Faded

Certainly these barriers existed in the mid-90s, too. Except there were far fewer alternatives. Back then I knew many people who were like me. When they went to a new town one of the first things they did was scan the radio dial looking for something good, unique or out-of-the-ordinary. Special attention was paid to the left end of the dial, understanding that’s where you might find that special college or community station. These days, it’s the rare young person who tells me he does this–rarer, I’ll argue, than a 20-something in 1996.

The conundrum this poses for community radio is declining audience, as would-be listeners choose other platforms and young listeners never develop the habit. This means many listeners who really benefit from community radio will miss out.

This is not mere inconvenience, but a tragedy waiting to happen, as we wait for the mainstream media to fall in line to further soften and normalize the racist, xenophobic and misogynist policies of our president-elect and his administration. Community radio cannot be an effective corrective and beacon for humanist values if the people who need to hear the message don’t know to tune in.

What to do?

So what’s the solution? Destroy the programming grid and start from scratch? Take a card from commercial and public radio’s deck and homogenize as much as possible?

No, I think there’s another way. A way in which community radio can retain it’s diversity and eclecticism, while also becoming more accessible to more people who need to hear it. I’ll make that proposal in my next post.

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One Response to Trapped in the Grid: Why Community Radio Risks Irrelevance

  1. RK Henderson December 2, 2016 at 4:39 pm #

    “This is not mere inconvenience, but a tragedy waiting to happen, as we wait for the mainstream media to fall in line to further soften and normalize the racist, xenophobic and misogynist policies of our president-elect and his administration.”

    This is key. I’ve been profoundly disappointed in NPR – the network that was originally intended to provide independence in media – and its marked tendency to do exactly this: to “normalize”, as you say, whatever’s conventional at the moment. Its early coverage of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was if anything even more fawning of the party line and “our fighting men” than the commercial networks. They didn’t come around to the critical line until it was well-established in the general media. It felt like network decision-makers were afraid of being called disloyal.

    Public media are supposed to lead, not follow. To say nothing of getting dragged.

    And now, as you say, we’re seeing a slow, predictable rise of “it’s not that bad, folks” editorial stances. It _is_ that bad, and it’s gonna stay that bad, and we need, now more than ever, voices that are willing to say that, and repeat it, to the public.

    With so many communities in our society now specifically targeted for official, or officially-tolerated, abuse, community radio is more crucial than ever.

    Thanks for the post, Paul. These are vital issues you’re raising.

    RK Henderson
    Program Director

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