A multiracial America presents challenges to noncom media

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

In a discussion last week, my friend Andrew Ramsammy remarked on an issue we all read about, but seldom consider when it comes to public and community media. What happens when the nation’s dialogue is no longer one of simply black and white?

Indeed, the United States’ demographics are changing dramatically before our eyes. Pew Research points out multiethnic births have tripled in 30 years. The Brookings Institution predicts intermarriage, declines in majority populations and a growth in the number of multiracial Americans born will change the country’s composition in another 30 years. The biggest disruptions are happening among Latinos, where old media characterizations of working-class immigrants and high school dropouts are disintegrating to what studies reveal is a growing multiracial Latino community, which is college-educated, upwardly mobile, increasingly does not speak Spanish, and has surpassed the digital divide in stunning ways.

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Such racial statistics get lots of play on bad cable news, but the realities of a changing nation are bound up in common desires. Debate over assimilation as we do — and the New York Times did — one thing that never changes is the aspiration of the young to fit in. It happens to first-generation kids born to parents from Latin America, and to rural African-American high schoolers. Chances are, 15-year-old and 17-year-old versions of ourselves wanted to blend in with other kids, to be seen as cool, to be liked and to have friends. And all of the parents of these kids want their children to have the American Dream, to be successful and to achieve. In this young idealism is a notion of equality, the hope it can be said upon which America was founded.

Combining this with increasing numbers of mixed-race youth is something many young people say are part of their core values. A March study from the Knight Foundation says college students highly value diversity in a democracy. They’ve grown up in a different world than their parents and grandparents. Their world is one in which racism is unAmerican and inclusion is central to a strong nation.

How public and community media meet this demand and interest remains to be seen. Like the earlier question, community radio must ponder what its broadcasts sound like when the traditional groups fade. What happens when a new, multiethnic generation that sees life in a different light than the aging audiences stations rely on becomes the new base?

Answering this question is easier said than done.

For years, community radio has been consumed with a focus on valuable programming targeted to particular constituents. While undoubtedly important, doers in community media may want to consider how relevant these programs are today to young people, what they’ll mean to existing listeners in 10 and 20 years, and how programming is being plotted out now that appeals to new audiences. Moreover, such introspection may foster a conversation about how much such programming conveys the growing multiethnic experience of young African-Americans, Latinos and Asians, among others. Are emerging talents representing those youth in your community informing those programming choices? They should be.

A similarly complicated discussion awaits community radio stations that make broadcasts in multiple languages. There are a few instances where virtually all-English-language stations may offer multilingual programming, presumably to monolingual neighborhoods in the broadcast signal area but have little to no institutional relationship or credibility in those communities. Such are questionable issues in and among themselves. However, it might also be a necessary exercise to convene millennial leaders from these communities to see if they’re listening. What language of broadcast would get them talking to friends about a station’s programming? Does multilingual programming serve a need among their peers? If KPCC’s experience is any indication, the future of attracting nonwhite audiences relies less on Spanish-language programming and more on the quality of one's selections and programming philosophy.

Part of the issue speaks on the aforementioned topic of trust. As Jacobs Media remarks, when time constraints and news fatigue are factors, an organization’s credibility is everything. Moreso than pivoting on a particular kind of programming, the integrity of what a station does counts far more. Such public perceptions are a clear edict for community radio to determine the values it conveys in its programming, and convey it strongly across all its platforms.

Diversity, inclusion and equity are some of the hottest topics to visit right now. For community radio, what diversity, inclusion and equity look like for a station later, though, may determine its existence going forward.

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