Mea culpa. When one sets out to launch an ambitious critique of community radio programming mistakes will be made, and I made them. This is a necessary aspect of testing ideas, as is coming back to revise, tweak and clarify.
I am very grateful for the comments, feedback and criticism of my last two posts, “Trapped in the Grid,” and “Public Service vs. Public Access – Community Radio’s Hidden Tension.” The comments came in by social media, email and private conversations, revealing many of the fissures and omissions in my analysis and proposals. I attempted to address some of this in episode #74 of our podcast, and here I’ll attempt to fill in the cracks some more.
Before I dive in I want to be sure every reader knows that we readily solicit and accept your responses on this (or any) topic. We want Radio Survivor to be a platform for discussion and sharing, not just a pulpit. Note that we do hew to a few editorial standards (for instance, we abhor ad hominem attacks) and may suggest some copyedits, however our intention is to highlight your thoughts and concerns on an equal footing with our own. Please email your proposals or posts to: editors(at)radiosurvivor.com.
Not All Stations (but Still Too Many)
First off, I aimed too broadly and failed to make a critical distinction up front. I do not mean to say or imply that every community radio station with an eclectic grid schedule is doomed. There are many stations so programmed that are surviving and thriving, and I am not a soothsayer nor a time-traveler from the year 2021.
Sincerely, if you and your station are happy with the size of your audience and the level of community support, and your station is financially sustainable, then I have no desire to tell you to change your schedule. I have no doubt that there are listeners who don’t just tolerate an eclectic schedule, but love it (I’m one of them). If every realistic indicator you have shows that your listeners like or love your grid, or that at least it poses no significant barriers for maintaining and growing your audience, then there’s no problem.
Yet, the unfortunate truth is that many community radio stations are struggling. There are any number of symptoms. Pledge drive revenues remain flat or are declining, even as costs continue to rise. Volunteer morale is on the wane, or it’s become more difficult to recruit air staff and keep parts of the schedule filled. There’s a creeping awareness that some programming has grown stagnant or the number of overall supporters is down.
Even if a station is mostly stable, it may have difficulty growing and evolving. There’s enough resource to maintain the status quo, but not enough to embrace new technology and platforms, like podcasting, add paid staff or
Your Community Is Your Audience, and Your Base of Support
The root cause underlying all these symptoms is audience: not serving a sufficient number of listeners, which in turn leads to an insufficient number of donors. A bigger audience means a bigger donor base, which results in more revenue.
Look, this is something everyone in community radio recognizes, and yet I suspect that some readers’ chests begin to tighten when I put it so plainly.
I get it.
Community radio is founded as an alternative to the commercial system which values audience size and targetable demographics above all. Linking audience size to donation revenue seems precariously close to the edge of a slippery slope that rushes headlong into prioritizing the tastes and desires of affluent listeners at the expense of the underserved.
Yet, who starts a community radio station with the desire NOT to have listeners? It sounds absurd when put that way. However, that’s the opposite side of that slippery slope, the one you descend into when building and serving audiences stop being a priority.
Many folks will argue that they don’t want their community radio station to appeal to everyone, and that programming for too wide of an audience is a fool’s errand because it means competing with commercial and public radio on their terms. I agree, but only so long as you actually know who your station is for.
Finding Your Community, and Your Audience
My argument is not that stations should target and attempt to appeal to biggest possible listenership. Rather, stations should make every attempt to know who the audience should be, and then work hard to serve that audience well. My guess is that if your station is suffering at all, then it’s a strong warning sign that you’re not actually serving everyone you intend to serve, or perhaps not doing it effectively.
Certainly many stations–if not most–have a general conception of their audience. Common descriptions hit on the idea of serving underserved audiences and featuring unheard voices. This is a great starting point, but not specific enough.
Your community is full of real people, with specific identities, information needs, cultural affinities and desires. A community station’s job is to identify and name the groups and smaller communities that need to be served.
It’s important to begin this assessment without first looking at your program schedule. Don’t just pick shows from the grid and then map them onto known or supposed listeners. Instead, consider all the people you hope to serve (whether or not you think you’re serving them now).
Next, ask: Are these people, groups and communities connected to your station in some way, and is there any communication? Could you ask them if your stations serves their needs adequately? If so, how? If not, why not?
This assessment needs to be honest and unflinching. No station is perfect, finding gaps is inevitable, and there’s no shame in failing to fully attain the lofty goals community radio aspires to. The real test is making realistic and sincere plans and efforts to improve that service, therefore growing your audience and donor base. It’s a win-win.
A Comfortable Tension and a Happy Medium
As I argued in my second post, I believe one of the most effective ways to serve a wide swath of your desired audience is to adopt a public service model for parts of your broadcast schedule. Those strips–which should be drive-time in most places–should not be atomized slots granted to individual programmers, but programming blocks that are consistent and predictable from day to day.
While I used NPR’s “All Things Considered” as an example for a magazine-type format that would work well in this strip, I recognize that it wasn’t the best one. Some folks object to using public radio as a model, worried that it leads to something that is too homogenized, too polite and too filtered. I understand that concern. ATC also sets a high bar with regard to production value–that show’s paid staff alone could probably run a dozen community stations.
I also want to emphasize that the programming strip does not have to be news, talk or public affairs. Indeed, some community stations have little or no talk programming, or reserve talk for weekends. If that’s working for your station, then I don’t want to convince you to change up your drive-time from music to news.
What goes in that public service strip should be based upon the needs of your community based upon realistic and thorough assessments. It should be programmed based on what the community needs, not only based upon the proposals you get. Music can be utterly appropriate for your drive-time public service strip, provided the genres and mix truly fill a critical niche and are presented in a way that is consistent from day to day so that listeners can learn to trust and rely upon it.
Let me also make clear that I’m not arguing that a community station needs to flip entirely to a single type of programming or genre of music 24/7. The key is to find a balance between public service and public access. While drive-time may take up about 6 hours of the schedule (roughly 6 – 9 AM and 4 – 7 PM), it still leaves 18 hours a day on weekdays for other approaches. That’s the happy medium.
Illustrating the Magazine
If your station programs public affairs programming in the morning or early evening hours then I still advocate for a magazine format. Based upon the feedback I received, it’s clear that I need to be more specific, since for many people the idea of a magazine format show understandably conjures up a program made up of many highly produced segments. It sounds like something that requires much more labor per hour than what many stations can pull off. Luckily, it’s not quite what I mean.
The most important quality of a good drive-time magazine are a good host who can ably read headlines, weather and announcements, but especially conduct interviews. Guests are a critical component that add variety and diversity without adding a ton of production work.
If a station has the capacity to produce reported segments, then definitely add them in. Or maybe that’s something to work towards. But I don’t think that production capacity is a prerequisite to start on this path.
Fortunately, there are reliable sources for individual reported news packages that are ready for a community station’s daily magazine. Free Speech Radio News is one great source. The Public Radio Exchange and Pacifica’s Audioport are two valuable marketplaces for finding additional segments ready to drop in.
As my colleague Jennifer pointed out on the podcast, other shows on your station are also a rich and untapped resource. Ask hosts and producers to contribute interviews or other segments from their own shows that can be highlighted in the daily magazine. These could be news reports, discussions of important local issues, or even live appearances by local musicians. If you think about the typical magazine show on public radio, even if it’s news heavy, there are also arts and culture pieces to mix things up. There’s no reason these can’t feature in your daily magazine.
The best part of featuring segments from other shows on your station is that it gives them additional exposure, potentially building more audience for them.
Keep in mind that the magazine is also that time to feature voices and communities who need airtime, and who your audience needs to hear from. Invite on leaders from these communities along with average folks with something to share. Whether it’s a quick phone call or an interview recorded at their convenience, a magazine show gives you the flexibility to meet many people where they are, rather than requiring that they be able to conform to your schedule or the rigors of producing and hosting their own shows.
The whole point is to be sure your station serves the underserved, and highlights those voices in a way that is most listenable and accessible for the largest audience–which includes people in those underserved communities. And don’t doubt for a minute that if you highlight a person on one episode that she won’t tell all her friends and family to tune in. Not every single person will become a regular listener, but some will.
Continue the Conversation
This is just one proposal for how a station can program a consistent and reliable drive-time public service block. Intentionally, it’s flexible and open.
More important to me is the principle that stations prioritize this public service at the times when there’s the greatest potential listening audience.
This is not an original idea, and I’m quite certain there are many community stations already doing something like this. I’d love to hear these stories and the lessons learned from doing this programming.
Let’s continue the conversation. Already my thinking has been informed and challenged by the comments, feedbacks and critiques from passionate community radio folks. Together we’ll evolve the thinking much faster and better than any one of us alone. Leave a comment here, comment on our Facebook page, tweet at us, or send an email.
Feature image credit: flickr / Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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