This week, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters introduced “Free/Low-Cost Programming for Community Radio,” a directory of free and low-cost programming available to community radio stations. In a world of slim budgets and greater needs, pairing producers and innovative stations with those wanting to share engaging programming is more necessary than ever before.
Small stations increasingly contend with demands from listeners for the best programming possible. Many, such as KOPN, KKFI and WERU, do a splendid job covering lots of those bases with local programming. They and others also look to nationally syndicated shows to fill in the gaps.
National programming can be controversial at some community radio stations, where the opinion may be that it should feature solely local programming. For others — from college stations that have spots in fill when students are gone to stations in isolated areas with few volunteers — syndicated programming is important. If you’re an ambitious producer, distributing a program is one way of getting your voice heard nationwide.
Why is a directory so helpful? The maze of syndicated programming may be hard to navigate for noncommercial stations. On the commercial side, there is no shortage of networks, distribution channels and firms ready to offer stations a veritable 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week stream of content. Podcasting, by virtue of its internet dependence, picked up on distribution fast. Radiotopia, the hybrid podcast/radio collection, is one of the best-known networks in the podcasting world. Having a place for a station to look is a godsend.
Such catalogs are good for producers as well. Syndicating a community radio program has faced many pitfalls. With so much of community radio programming based on volunteers, a person making the time to do all the work associated with syndication is not easy. Getting attention on your show is equally hard. Programs as a result come and go.
The web has democratized distribution in exciting ways and removed some barriers. The granddaddy of online distribution for community radio programs may well be the Ainfos Radio Project, better known as Radio4All. Launched in 1996, Radio4All is a minute-by-minute stream of programming, ranging from established community radio programs to one-off or occasional shows posted to its servers. There are a few filters, but it is a wild mix of content. Though it has faced near-closure on numerous occasions, Radio4All is simply one of the internet’s most longstanding free hosts of content for community radio.
Lots of producers and stations over the years have been content simply post programs on their websites, using RSS feeds, the Public Radio Satellite System or old-school FTP technology. The inherent problem is that you may never find out which station is carrying a program, have a good feedback loop, or determine how you can make such programming help to pay for itself.
For many stations, upload and distribution services like Radio4All are fantastic. Still, stations may wish to give some thought to matters of sustainability and equity. I spoke once with a producer who distributed a program via RSS feed. It turned out dozens of stations were carrying the show. All of them had all kinds of demands. The situation was all the more difficult when it was just one person having to do everything, week in and week out. Because the station and producer received no remuneration — and none was offered — they had no resources to increase the producer’s hours or to hire some help for that individual. Overworked from the rigors of creating programming and serving many masters, the producer eventually shelved everything completely.
Admittedly, 98% of stations may not care about having money come in to support syndicated programming they make. The two percent who do, however, have a compelling case. It is often observed that recruiting youth, people of color and those who should be in front of the microphone will only be harder if we can’t create opportunity and demonstrate the viability of our space to live on. For stations, producing programming for other stations can be costly, and defraying this expense could change the fortunes of some community radio outlets.
Endeavors like Public Radio Exchange seek to address this by introducing a point system that gives producers and emanating stations control. One can choose to give programming away or charge points, which stations can purchase in multiples of 20, 50 and more. It is not perfect, of course, but it is an intelligent step to address a major challenge.
NFCB’s directory, which collects information about costs to stations as well as pertinent details any station might need to know, is intended to make finding good programming easier for a station. The directory also offers producers a chance to have their programming heard by community radio stations nationwide.
We live in an era of unprecedented content availability. More radio stations than ever before are offering to their peers excellent programming that introduces a fresh element when a station needs it.