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Community Broadcaster: New Year’s Resolutions

Community radio can chart a makeover in 2018

The new year is here, and this month is the time many of us decide to map our course for the rest of the year. For plenty of people, those gym memberships, new classes and other resolutions fade away by February. Community radio is not off the hook so easily.

Last year, community media had lots of ups and downs. Net neutrality, public funding for noncommercial media and the march of new media prompted many sleepless emails and calls from general managers around the nation. On the plus side was the reemergence of radio to people weary of all the choices. The catchphrase “fake news” highlighted a major problem, too: the lack of trust in many sources for news and analysis. Yet even as everyone was declaring radio dead, audiences still craved community and connection.

The goodwill comes at a time when it seems to be needed most.

Right now, there is so much change happening around us. Community radio institutions like KALW, KAOS, KSJD and WJFF are among those who have completed or are in the midst of replacement of their top leadership. Other stations are looking for ways to remain competitive with podcasting and the myriad media challenges. And difficulties large and small — public feuds, bankruptcies and financial challenges among them — magnify larger issues before community media.

The National Federation of Community Broadcasters will organize Regional Leadership Summits this year to support stations in building their local capacities. However, 2018 will also require community radio leaders to set plans in place to move ahead. In effect, community radio will need to stick to New Year’s resolutions, for the betterment of local media and neighborhood culture.

What kinds of issues should be on community radio’s New Year’s resolutions? Here are but a few recommendations.

A digital-first project. Every community radio station should be looking to launch an endeavor online, even if it’s something small, to engage their audiences being wooed by others’ initiatives. Thankfully, these projects do not need to be wildly expensive: a podcast, local news on one’s website, a Facebook Live talk show and a Spotify playlist are a few small things community radio can try. Experimenting with all the resources before us is a powerful thing, and develops a station’s capacity and confidence to do more.

A community engagement effort you’ve never done before. Local concerts, co-sponsoring events and tables are a staple among community radio volunteers, because they’re good, fun and reliable. However, all stations should have as a New Year’s resolution making connections in new ways. Maybe you can do a donor appreciation party, a local forum on an issue in your city, a house concert for your major contributors or live event collaboration with a group in your area you have never worked with? Remember that a good resolution means breaking out of your comfort zone and doing something fresh. May 2018 prove to be your year to foster relationships in reinvigorated ways.

Substantially involve youth leadership. Community radio’s great white whale is the millennial listener. So many stations talk about attracting new demographics to their signals. Playing rap music or indie rock is not going to cut it. Creating a new space for audiences younger than traditional noncommercial radio listener takes a particular focus. This endeavor likely involves making room as well as making way completely for the new generation to lead, and to take part in that objective. Young people want radio that is interesting, relevant and engages them, and does it consistently. Is bringing in young audiences ambitious for you? It is for everyone, but it is becoming more urgent a priority.

Take a long look at your organizational chart and workflow. Many stations have been operating just as they were when they started, or wanted to look at evolving with the times, but just have not gotten there. As money gets tight, more managers are being pressed to do more with fewer dollars. Before that it your station, perhaps early 2018 may nudge you to review how your local station is structured. Is everyone working optimally? What skills do your people need to be the best support for your station? What does your station require that your current model is not providing? What could it use to do what it does better? Appraising local demands is a good first step in being responsive to the new times.

Many of us have that family member who never quite took the running shoes out of the box, or just did not follow through on her or his resolutions. The consequences for not doing proper community radio goal setting are far bigger than unused shoes, and affect many more people as well as their cities and towns. Now is the time to let the New Year be your signpost for community radio success.