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Community Broadcaster: Avoiding the Rabbit Hole of Angst

Recent media success shows community radio the way

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly

The news cycle is always a difficult one, one where conflict draws attention and numbers, but it often feels like a rabbit hole of angst. More studies are indicating that social media and its tapping of the rage-filled churn is lending to depression and mistrust. Everyone’s unhappy about it, but few seem willing to alter the narrative.

Some recent bright lights are a hopeful reminder of community radio’s potential to shift our national conversation.

Plenty of people would surely never associate the words “community radio” and “shift our national conversation” in any universe. To these cynics, I suggest that community radio remains important in towns across America and has the potential to be tremendously powerful far beyond their respective city limits. Reading through the fascinating case studies in the Association for Independents in Radio’s report, Break Form: Making Stories With and For People, I am often struck by the resilience of communities in hoping to tell their own stories. Change is happening all around us. It is simply a matter of how we listen for it.

A handful of stories of late should remind you that innovation is less about money and more about serving local needs and speaking to constituencies who need your station. Your radio station could pick up an idea or two from some of the work being done in the phenomenal noncommercial radio system.

For example, Milwaukee station WUWM has a program called “Bubbler Talk,” programming whose name is a regional reference and focused squarely on answering audience questions about the community. The stories are probably the things you may have heard at a local pub or among family. They simultaneously draw new listeners in while introducing them to a sound that isn’t about commercials. Why didn’t a city get a hockey team; how roads are salted during ice storms; and where roads originated are among the most curious discussions. “Bubbler Talk” blends history, contemporary contexts and sources into a mélange of radio that sounds unlike most of what you hear, and is unapologetically local. Community radio prides itself on localism and could learn a few tricks in endeavors like what WUWM is doing.

In Ohio, WOSU’s “Stories for the Ages” was profiled by Current for its service. The podcast and radio program reflects on something everyone has to contend with: the experience of growing old. What makes “Stories for the Ages” stand out is how fundamental a conversation it initiates, while doing so with sensitivity and humor. Listening in, I thought of the many community radio stations whose counties sometimes have no services for the elderly and what that means for families, churches and neighborhoods. Some people are fortunate and have senior citizens live healthy, independent lives. Many more seniors experience medical issues or a slowdown that creates a deeply personal reckoning. When catastrophic conditions like Alzheimer’s strike, the virtual bomb it lets off in a household can be devastating. Community radio can begin to collect these stories and experiences in their own towns. In the process, stations can bring people together around a subject we all are passionate about: ensuring our elders have lives of dignity and respect, and families get the help they need, at times desperately.

On another front, in Pittsburgh, WYEP has announced a $150,000 grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation for its Music Ecosystem Project, a collaboration with business leaders to encourage growth of the local music community. According to the Post Gazette, organizers including the radio station are using music metropolis Austin, Texas. as inspiration for boosting Pittsburgh’s scene. Arts and culture are not just feel-good endeavors. Increasingly, a lively music scene means good money for local hotels, venues, restaurants and record shops. City leaders understand that live music can make a city into a destination, as it did in Austin. Collaborating with stations to popularize the music and industry can pay huge dividends for tourism, conventions and civic life. As a strategic partner, WYEP shows other radio stations a means to break out of the noncommercial media bubble and into a space where it is a player on a much bigger mainstream scene. Could your community radio station do it as well? There are big opportunities here.

Innovation has long been a buzzword in media, and absolutely so in public media. Too often, that phrase comes across as synonymous with “big budget.” For community radio, where the finances are decidedly tighter and staff members fewer, innovation feels like a faraway dream. That’s because many community media participants ponder how realistic innovation can be on a smaller scale.

Community radio in 2018 can do such incredible programming with some creativity and commitment. Your station leaders need only to look around.