Community Broadcaster: Listening Closely

Good community radio news may take different thinking and attention to audience
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The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at www.radioworld.com.

The world is filled with think pieces lamenting the demise of local news. But what if our orientation with what we think audiences want and need is wrong?

While attending a recent Online News Association local meetup, of which I am one of the organizers, I struck up a conversation with a colleague working for a community newspaper network. Community newspapers are those hyperlocal papers that cover issues in small towns, suburbs and the neighborhoods of all stripes. Like radio, print has had its share of challenges — and doubly so for the smaller-scaled worlds of community print and community radio. Layoffs this month at the Denver Post prompted a rebellion among remaining staffers, but such instances are rare; most papers just let people go, and they have in growing numbers. Ostensibly ad sales are down due to digital. Radio and print are both having that existential crisis where we are seeking ways of responding to audience trends and the appeal of online options. Community outlets face an uphill battle for interest in this regard. And everyone in our respective systems is looking for an answer.

One might expect a tale of woe, right? In fact, the paper was looking to add to its circulation and things were profitable. This colleague was optimistic. Anyone who supports local journalism and wants to see it expand might be curious about what this community newspaper is doing right.

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In a previous Radio World column, I suggested it is healthy for community radio to rethink its news programming, including daily local news. The desire for it from the wider public, and the likelihood of troubles in producing it, makes this a worthy conversation. If a community newspaper managed to tap a city’s interest in a manner that made local news sustainable, stations endeavoring to do local news would be smart to listen in on how one model is effective.

The secret? Frequency.

In the course of launching scores of community newspapers, managers noticed that they had to be selective in their content and how often the papers were published. Readers, the paper’s staff realized, did not feel an impulse for local news that those providing the content assume. And their interest in local news covers the issues they affect their lives and their families: schools, traffic and business, primarily.

While that footprint may seem unsexy, there was much latitude to connect dots. However, the journalists understand that these matters are cornerstones that cut across income, race, gender and virtually any other demographic. Residents care about the schools their kids attend. They care if traffic is about to increase in their neighborhoods. However, they generally are not seeking out local news in print (or broadcast, it can be argued), because they live there.

[Read: Community Broadcaster: Youth Power Radio’s Future]

By posting an article or two online a day, and then complementing that coverage with a less frequent print schedule, this community newspaper has not only stayed sustainable, but grown exponentially. That is a model community radio could not necessarily repeat — stations, after all, have broadcast obligations – yet there are potential lessons.

Many community radio stations could benefit by selecting areas of content focus, like this example. This is not to say one rejects stories not in one’s content focus, but rather that you start to play to your strengths and to cultivate a relationship with your audience. People like consistency. They want to rely on stations and see them as places they can trust for information and ideas. If your community radio station is lightly staffed, perhaps listeners could benefit if you become a go-to on schools or transportation in your community.

For stations considering local news initiatives, the idea of financing the launch of radio journalism can be daunting. Like this community newspaper, with its years of audience experience, community radio may consider starting small. Occasional on-air reports, podcasting and delivery methods like Facebook Live and Twitter Live/Periscope, supplemented by web content, are far less staff and resource intensive and might be a means of dipping in a toe and doing an assessment of costs and benefits in the process.

It was hard not to walk away from that conversation with a colleague without a bit of hope. All the ghastly headlines about local journalism and its future are cause for concern. But still, our neighbors still love and appreciate local news. What we give them and how we provide it as community radio are surely keys to engaging our loyal listeners and those who have yet to discover the beauty of community media.

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