This year has had many critical stories for noncommercial media. Scandals, journalism conversations and the future have affected everyone in the wider public media ecosystem. Community radio stations have been pressed with challenges galore. How does one capture the tumult of 2018?
You can’t, really. After a year like this one, you can only stare in amazement. Here are just a few things the year will be remembered for in community media.
Emergencies were everywhere, and the need for action in service of an educational mission was never clearer. Stations were asked to respond to local needs. From wildfires and other natural disasters to station-based stress, community radio had so much to contend with. Many of the best and brightest stations held campaigns to support residents. More stations offered interesting contextual reporting and the overlooked basic emergency information that people rely on when web searches and other media are not available.
The good news — or bad, if it was a disaster affecting you — is that stations seemed to take their responsibilities to heart. More managers now are asking questions, reaching out to local first responders and formulating local plans. Still others are trying to craft good coverage — stations like KWMR and KCSB have done interesting work utilizing their communities for on-the-ground coverage. While not enough community stations have it fully together, 2018 marked a true turning of a corner.
Speaking of “getting it,” traditionally contrarian and iconoclastic community radio is coming around to the benefits of getting with the times. Stations were seeing the advantages of training, podcasting and trends as sparkplugs to fundraising and engaging new listeners and donors. While very small stations are not quite delivering big-station results, they’re learning fast. And perhaps slim station nimbleness will make community media the one to watch in 2019.
In addition, the march of time presented, and still presents, stations a challenge they haven’t seen in, some cases, decades. People like FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and legendary attorney John Crigler are among those to head into the next chapters of their lives. However, there were many noteworthy retirements in community radio this year as well. There were also some rebellions resulting in the ousting of leadership. Whatever the case, this largely generational shift prompts a ton of questions. Can station shore up the collective will to bring in those not usually in their orbits? And, if no, can they survive by doing things the old way when the old way is just getting older? After years of resisting it, what do these community radio stations have to offer the digital world now? How can the stations attract the next generation of leaders? To all of these queries, there are no simple replies.
Boards universally say they want new, young managers who have all the answers to the digital, content, engagement, revenue and (of course) regulatory needs a station may have. However, I want to encourage board members to create relationships with the cohorts of said leaders; to offer pay appropriate for those skill sets (and not dangle the experience carrot as a justification for low-balling next generation leaders); and spend time considering what your organization really needs, and dispense with the idea that hefting a millennial at your issues is going to fix those issues. By the same token, I would encourage those prospective managers to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, to consider where a role fits in your life plan (e.g. is it something you’ll make a long-term commitment to, one you want to stay in for five years or less, or something else) and being upfront, and do a lot of asking around about prospective positions — organizational culture, the climate for new voices and rate of turnover before you got there will matter to you later. I believe community media is a good option, but not every circumstance and relationship is optimal. Homework on all sides benefits everybody.
Related to staffing, 2018 was the year chickens came home to roost. The 2017 affairs that broke open at WNYC, WBUR, Minnesota Public Radio and other organizations saw some resolution in 2018. Investigations launched, terminations were issued and incensed listeners and producers made it clear they were not having it with perpetuating abuse. CPB stepped up with training on safer workplaces that stations were accountable for completing. Moreover, this year saw a better effort by organizations to see harassment-free workspaces as not just a legal requirement, but part of a pact of trust with donors. With Laura Walker, the WNYC head largely blamed for ignoring harassment at the megastation, announcing this week a mutual decision between her and the board to step down, a particularly sordid chapter comes to a close.