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Bursting Bubbles: Podcasts as Filter, Community Radio as Revival

Election day meant a lot of things to a lot of people. For community radio, this moment, so troubled for many, could be our time to shine as never before. We may even have podcasting and the ascent of president-elect Donald Trump to thank for it.

The win in November by Trump took most of the public media and podcasting glitterati by surprise. I say surprise because, if you’re on the coasts, like some of my favorite podcasters, you may have not fully understood the momentum Trump had built nationally. By my colleagues’ version of events, Trump had a snowball’s chance in Hell, with even that based on neo-Nazis and alt-right trolls, rather the more complicated blend of matters that ushered the former reality television star with no political experience to the White House.

There have since been more than a few thinkpieces, to say, essentially: WTF? Two of the more illuminating discussions were the public-media-land NPR Politics podcast, hours after the election, and the podcast-land FiveThirtyEight show around the same period, in which both give a sense of the bewilderment some people felt.

For podcasting’s true believers, election night was a wakeup call. I’m one of those people. I have written extensively about podcasting. I love it, as do many folks around the world. Edison Research indicates [PDF] podcast listenership, which cuts across the political spectrum, has seen considerable growth.

I am still dazzled by a lot of dynamic podcasts and try to listen when I can. However, this post-election period has prompted me to fall back in love with community radio programming. At a time when Trump is about to be inaugurated, I am more convinced than ever that community radio has a wonderful juncture to lure back audiences wooed by podcasting.

Community radio can win back lapsed supporters by reminding them about the vital, and honest, local connection it provides.

The post-election months have forced a lot of us to think about filter bubbles, those media spaces that are highly personalized to our interests, based on our choices and a platform’s algorithms. On the one hand, Google can update you on your favorite team, Facebook can put up front updates from the friends online you interact with most, and Twitter tells you what your compatriots there liked recently. Yet the clear problem with filter bubbles is that they can be harmful.

Filter bubbles can shape our perceptions of the news, our cities and residents around us. In addition, filter bubbles create a far more profound challenge.  According to the New Statesman this technology reinforces individuals’ conscious and unexamined biases. Letting any form of media’s echo chamber close us off from what’s happening in the rest of the nation damages democracy tremendously.

Months after the election and with the inauguration almost here, many Americans, like myself, are taking a critical appraisal of our media habits. The podcasts we listen to, potentially cushioning us from mainstream realities, are all part of this internal dialogue. From those recommending technology tools to others recommending conservatives to read, the journalists who fucked up this prediction stuff are feeling your pain. They know Americans need to expand their viewpoints. Enter community radio.

For towns and cities all around the world community radio is a democratizing force. People come together to share music, ideas and the strength and beauty of their neighborhoods. Even at my old station, part of the ultra-left Pacifica-owned quintet, there were conservative DJs, libertarians, liberals of every stripe and many who considered themselves relatively apolitical. Such is the case at many community radio stations. Beyond liberal or conservative, many community radio leaders want their organizations to represent their communities and the value of inclusion. I wish more media embraced such a mission. I wish community radio shouted these core values from the rooftops.

Community radio journalism is rich and hyperlocal. Mike Henry remarks how the energy he saw from low-power community radio at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference is plainly about community and “stands in stark contrast to almost all commercial and noncommercial broadcasters, who emphasize a top-down strategy utilizing nationally syndicated content.” The passion for reporting, as Molly Stentz says, speaks to diversity and representation. For good reason. Community radio’s service areas are ground zero for issues Vox and the New York Times don’t cover, because they’re mostly the America outside of Washington D.C. or Los Angeles.

Where can community radio cleave off podcasting’s audience? It starts with effectively talking about its advantages. Podcasting has on-demand digital delivery, convenience and growing interest. Beyond the usual things we think of – localism, authenticity and heart – community radio helps people serve themselves in a way podcasting can’t.

If the United States ever needed a national New Year’s resolution, it might be to question and challenge how media has defined our reality. Community radio is a necessary antidote to the filter bubble. It’s not the music and culture borne of Pitchfork. It’s not the news brought to you by Snapchat. Community radio should be talking up itself as the revival tent for American soul searching. Filter bubbles led us astray. Podcasts sadly can reinforce filter bubbles. Community radio has the power to get us back in touch with the people down the street.

While community radio needn’t attack podcasting, or any medium, to stand on its own, this post-election instant and the money pouring into podcasting demonstrate something obvious. Like television programs, podcasting is episodic and selection-based. It is rather easy to find podcasts that fit my worldview or challenge it. Either way, I’m pushed to go pick something.

With community radio’s myriad patchwork schedules, my TuneIn app provides me an almost endless chance to discover a new thing, have my buttons pushed or be prompted to consider experiences I had not before. Jacobs Media’s 2016 Tech Survey reminds us that people still listen to learn new things. Community radio must continue to emphasize itself as a place to grow together. Community radio is constantly tussling with how it is perceived and how it should be presented. However, this disparateness is part of why it is powerful.

Community radio is certainly not perfect. There have been points in time when sloppy breaks, labyrinthine content and verbally nomadic hosts annoyed me to no end. I heard the same thing from listeners who were attracted to podcasts’ accessibility and range of voices. But isn’t community radio representative of America, in so many ways?

Those voices and tastes and ideas we don’t always vibe with can be community radio’s departure to talk about listening to each other, even if we don’t always like it or agree.  With a more open mind and ears I now listen to community radio in a new way. Citizens wanting to understand one another want to be pressed to hear others. Community radio is part of that process.

Remembering to appreciate those voices in front of microphones in communities not my own is an act that asks me to be more informed about my country. Listening to someone and something outside my carefully edited podcast list, I want to think, helps make me a better person, one who wants to understand where the United States is headed. I suspect community radio can talk about this unwritten service to those in its community, since they, like all of us, hunger to be better too.

With a new administration before us, reminding audiences how community radio serves democracy is important not only in drawing in new listeners, but bringing back those who might have forgotten that.


Ernesto Aguilar is Membership Program Director for the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and the former program director of KPFT in Houston, Texas. You can read more of his writing at ErnestoAguilar.org.


Image credit: flickr / SquiffyEye (CC BY 2.0)


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