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Public Access vs. Public Service – Addressing the Biggest Hidden Tension in Community Radio

One of the greatest tensions for community radio stations lies in the spectrum between public access and public service. Although this conflict may not be explicitly discussed, it implicitly affects every single programming decision.

It’s time for this tension to be made explicit, and for stations to actively grapple with how to balance a focus on serving communities the information they need, with the desire to provide open access to the airwaves. I believe this is a vital for refreshing community radio’s significance, building listenership, and addressing the problems I outlined in my last blog post.

To recap, I argued that the eclectic schedule grid–even if it has some predictable programming strips in some dayparts–poses a learning curve that many listeners will never take on, if they even know about your station. Instead, it is easier and more expedient to use alternatives like Pandora, Spotifty, YouTube, podcasts and other freely available on-demand media. Young people, who are “digital natives” rather than “radio natives,” are the group community radio most risks losing, leading to rapid declines in listenership from here on out.

Tackling the public service question, however, will help your station figure out what needs to be done to remain or become relevant to the listeners and communities you want to serve.

Defining ‘Public Service’

First let’s define what I mean. Public radio–news/talk in particular–is the clearest example of public service radio. It’s designed to deliver news and information programming to listeners at times when they want it and can listen. It’s not an accident that NPR and member stations expend the most resources on drive time anchors “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” A significant majority of listeners are in their cars or transitioning into or out of work and ready to find out what’s going on in the world.

Other shows will be programmed in between, often featuring more long-form discussion and interview, sometimes less “hard news,” assuming that listeners’ needs change through the day. These days, public radio programming strategy is rigorously tested with ratings, pledge drive revenues, focus groups and surveys.

Shows that don’t perform are replaced, even over the vociferous objections of small groups of listeners. Public stations can pull this off because they’re entirely professionalized. On-air public radio jobs are desirable, and programmers serve at the pleasure of the management. If your show gets cancelled, it’s tough luck for you. The airtime never belongs to staff–it belongs to the station and management.

On the plus side, this means public radio has developed into a very reliable news and information service. If something newsworthy is happening listeners can easily rely on their local public station to inform them.

On the minus side, as I recently noted, programming is highly mediated and edited. Very few people are allowed significant time to speak for themselves. And while public radio is not nearly as soundbite driven as television, the tendency is towards concision and having professional journalists relay most information. Inevitably, this means voices are left out, and the spectrum of acceptable discourse is narrowed.

Defining ‘Public Access’

Public access is what a large percentage of community radio schedules feature. Shows are typically programmed by one DJ or a small team who proposed a particular idea, genre or format and were then “granted” a time slot (and “granting” airtime is both problematic and pernicious), often for an indefinite length of time. This is the foundation for the infamous patchwork schedule, and why in some cases a hardcore punk show might follow a folk show, making for a jarring listening experience for all but the most dedicated listeners.

Most stations have a well-honed system for evaluating show proposals and determining if and when they get on air. Though the process varies, there are some consistent factors. One frequently important factor–even the most important at some stations–has to do with judging the experience and reliability of the volunteer proposing the show, and her availability. An obvious factor is the quality of the proposal, often based upon criteria like how unique it is compared to other stations, and more ineffable aesthetic judgements. One of the last considerations–if explicitly considered at all–is: who is the audience, will the show serve them, and will they be able to listen?

I call this public access programming because it emphasizes giving people a shot at being on the radio, focusing on voices, ideas and programming that otherwise wouldn’t be on air. It’s a hallmark of community radio, and valuable.

The problem is that it tends to pay much less or very little attention to the needs of audiences. In fact, a pervasive assumption is that public access is tantamount public service, that the public needs to be exposed to these programs, and that’s it. While I agree that public access is important, this equation is only partially true.

Leaning Towards Public Service

Few community stations operate on a pure public access model. The existence of strip programming and public affairs programming argue that a public service model is at work.

When a station chooses to air syndicated news programs like “Democracy Now!,” the management is likely acting out of a perceived need. The scheduling of these shows is more like how public stations program “All Things Considered.”

Though logistical details probably play a stronger role in community radio, if you look at a sampling of program grids you’ll mostly see “Democracy Now!” scheduled during AM or PM drivetime, or over the noon hour, times when it’s presumed (with reason) that more people can listen to the radio. This show, which is broadcast live from New York at 8 AM Eastern, will be tape delayed to fit time zones when it otherwise would be on very early in the morning when fewer would hear it.

Stations will often program other news and public affairs shows in a block around a show like “Democracy Now!” under the fair assumption that listeners tuning into that anchor show will want to hear more similar programming. Again, this choice tends to emphasize service over access.

Yet, once we consider locally produced talk shows, things start to bend more towards public access, as the specific shows programmed in a news block may be chosen based more upon the availability of certain hosts rather than based on how their topics do or don’t make sense to the listener.

Because topics and quality of these local shows may vary widely, so does the ability of the station to hold on to listeners after DN ends, which impacts how well a station serves listeners.

Bridging the Divide

The way out, then, is for stations to prioritize public service for specific portions of the schedule and certain types of programming. News and public affairs blocks are an obvious first place, but I don’t want to argue that music programming does not constitute public service and shouldn’t be considered.

The single most important aspect of public service airtime is that it is explicitly the domain of the station and its program director or committee. That is, airtime is not “granted” to individual programmers who can then hold it like real estate until they get bored, move away or die.

Public service airtime is not programmed based upon submitted proposals and the convenience of programmers. Instead this airtime should be programmed based upon a clear-eyed assessment of what your community needs, and who can listen at that time.

Because it’s peak listening time in most markets, making morning and evening drive time public service is a logical move. It’s also easier to implement, since there’s probably already syndicated or magazine-style news programming slotted in, and therefore fewer volunteer programmers who are directly affected.

Brass Tacks

While I strongly urge stations to make this transition, I also advise to do so carefully and respectfully. Making huge schedule changes or throwing programmers off the air usually results in turmoil that can undermine your intent.

The first step is to agree upon some programming goals before you ever touch the schedule. What are some communities that would benefit from airtime? Who are some voices that should be added to the mix? Who are some community leaders and allies who can help us answer these questions?

It’s important to get out of the mindset of setting up discrete shows for specific communities or interests during this block. Let’s say that you determine that the Latino community should be heard from more. While it is important that listeners within that community hear these voices, consider that it’s also important for people across many communities to hear them, too. Instead of creating a weekly Latino hour that resides in drive time, think about Latino voices can be integrated more regularly and holistically into your drive time programming.

There are two downsides to creating these kinds of special interest shows in your public service strip. First, it requires that members of a particular community or group commit to being available to produce the show every week at the same time. This is a particular challenge if you hope to bring in community leaders or other active folks who likely are already overcommitted. They may be able too spare time every week or two for an interview, but not a full half-hour or more.

The second challenge is that a special interest shows signals who it is for, and who it isn’t for. Of course we’d like to think all of our listeners are open minded and curious about cultures and experiences different from their own. The reality is that many will simply tune out when it seems like a program isn’t for them. Moreover, sequestering programming focused on a particular community to a single hour or two means you won’t be serving listeners from that community who can’t listen at that one time.

Embrace the Magazine

My strongest advice is to transition this public service strip away from atomic special interest shows and towards a more dynamic magazine format, not unlike “All Things Considered.” This gives you the flexibility to schedule interviews, segments and packages based upon when guests are available and when news happens.

The upside for your audience is a more consistent listening experience. Just like “All Things Considered” features reported packages, headline news and interviews, your listeners will learn to expect something similar from your station during drive time, except with a broader, more critical community radio take on it.

The task for your station is to find and develop talent who can produce the show. You’ll need hosts and producers who are willing to commit to a show that isn’t strictly theirs. This won’t happen overnight, which is another reason why it doesn’t make sense to turn over your programming all at once.

Take an opportunity to work with the programmers who are on the air during your new public service strip. Some may be open to these changes, so focus energy on working with them. If you have programmers who are less open to feedback or change, let them be for the moment. You’ll have a much stronger case later if you start to develop a few solid hours of magazine programming a week.

If resources permit, strongly consider creating paid positions to create and host this show. While paid hosts are often anathema in community radio, hosts of your drive time magazine aren’t like your other hosts. They’ll be held to a level of consistency and, dare I say, professionalism, that volunteer hosts aren’t.

More importantly, economic disparities are an easily overlooked reason why certain voices are underrepresented on community radio. Simply put, not everyone has the time to volunteer to make radio. From needing childcare to having jobs with frequently changing schedules, there are many people who can’t make the necessary commitment. However, if you can pay them a fair wage, or provide assistance with things like transportation or child care, they may be able to prioritize making radio.

It’s easy to assume you need to run out and hire a full time news director or producer. Go ahead, if your station has that kind of resource. More likely, you’ll need to build up to that point. So consider making some strategic part-time hires, emphasizing times and areas where you need the most help. Look to local community agencies to see if there are work or service partnerships out there, and talk to supporters in the business community who might be willing to underwrite an opportunity for people who otherwise might not be on air.

It’s Not All or Nothing

Hiring programmers and hosts is only one approach, and isn’t a necessary pre-requisite for creating public service strips of programming. The key is that this programming should be driven by community needs, who should be heard from, and the programming that will most benefit your community.

It’s also vital to take a slow approach to build a strong team of programmers and host, as well as the agreement from your volunteers and programmers that this is a productive and worthwhile change. The payoff is creating consistency through the most listened part of day that will keep listeners tuned in, while also increasing your overall service to the community. This should lead to a bigger audience and more support for your station.

I do want to emphasize that I think these public service strips can and should live alongside traditional public access program blocks, which will likely still form the majority of your weekly schedule. I still love eclecticism in radio, and so do many of your listeners. However, there is a declining number of stations that can expect all the people who might be listeners to embrace the patchwork schedule.

Luckily eclecticism and predictability can take up residence on the same station.

What do you think? How realistic is this proposal? If you’re starting a new LPFM can you create your public service strip at the very beginning? Let us know in the comments.

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