The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at www.radioworld.com.
Community radio, from full- to low-power, remains exciting, imaginative and creative as ever. There are unique programs, fascinating voices and local spirits that enliven us to believe radio’s future is bright. And hopefully it is. However, with the end of fund drives approaching, community media everywhere is reckoning with its tomorrow.
There are many reasons to worry. From the ongoing trend of universities selling off stations to organizations doing longer on-air fundraising campaigns, our task of inspiring neighbors to give feels more daunting than ever. I have talked with many general managers who fret about what community media ahead looks like.
One of the greatest challenges is a generational disconnect. You may have read the encouraging news on Radio World that data indicates those with smart speakers like Google Home and Alexa still tune in to local radio, especially music programming. These statistics were undercut by the troubling assertion that those aged 16–39 did not own smart speakers or radios and interacted with radio much less than their predecessors. These audiences are critical because they represent donors, DJs, station cultural figures and the next community media leaders.
Reams have been written about the graying of noncommercial media. Aging volunteer programmers and listeners are as much the case at full- and low-power community stations as they are at NPR. For community stations, which depend heavily on local volunteer producers to come to the studios and play music as well as host shows, the aging base is, stations are finding, getting harder to replace as those aforementioned 16–39-year-olds do not find as much a place in their lives for radio. The same can be said for donors, who are being wooed by many media options.
An equally puzzling issue is filling that 168 hours each week with good programming hosted primarily by volunteers, while being responsive to trends and making original content that is interesting and accessible to streaming and other non-radio audiences. Podcasts are alluring, are skewing younger than our core audience, and offer opportunity. But even then, standing out remains a challenge.
Although many stations continue to do well today, more and more face difficulties in their daily operations. Others see the writing on the wall. Pledge season may be winding down for community radio, but questions remain. Is it too early to ask how long this can last?
Changing course from a possible tsunami means it is important for community media to take a brave look at itself and step forward with purpose.
Recently, Jake Orlowitz of the Wikimedia Foundation suggested widely sourced initiatives not unlike community media can rise or fall based on several issues. These factors include whether your circle is diverse or has a variety of mindsets, or frankly that another more interesting or better-crafted opportunity comes along. To me, there’s an ounce of truth in such observations that can vastly benefit community radio’s need to prioritize new leaders.
A program director once sardonically remarked over coffee that often, in her experience, stakeholders’ ideas for expanding audience and futurecasting always seemed to involve them. “Attract younger listeners” was coded language for “Get young people to listen to us.” “Do more news” meant “Do more of what we do until people get it or just come around.” We tend to forget people can be smarter than we give them credit for, and may in fact be aware of us, and even more aware than us about what we think we know better. Sometimes, these kinds of discussions require us to set aside egos and envision stations with the next generation, not us, in charge and at the microphone.
Similarly, planning for community media’s fresh phase means dispensing of what we think of how things are done. Studies show millennial volunteers are more active than their parents and like giving through their employers. However, older stakeholders can make assumptions of what attracts a new demographic to one’s station, without ever engaging those people in decisions. Crude caricatures — put on hip-hop, EDM, indie, etc. to draw in youth — fill in the holes when there’s a lack of real conversation with young people. Stations gain nothing from these exercises ultimately.
There are many community radio stations with exciting youth cultures. Low-power FMs in a few areas have succeeded in drawing in our next Bill Siemering or Sally Kane. However, time is ticking.