What is community radio’s near-future?

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

Recently at the Grassroots Radio Conference in Portland the team at the Radio Survivor podcast posed a question that has perplexed many of us. It is a query far deeper than the future of radio. Rather, what will the direction of community radio be in five years?

Such a question is fraught with nuance, some of which I explored with PhillyCAM’s Vanessa Graber during the live recording. We often consider 10, 20 or 50 years. Five is a bit more urgent. Yet, my answers today are everchanging. I am wondering how you might address this sort of topic? In all, our near futures weigh heavily on us all.

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Community radio is embracing some trends by putting an interesting twist therein.

For instance, podcasting is the hot thing these days. A recent National Federation of Community Broadcasters survey indicated about 40% of community radio is getting into podcasting. How substantive that is, and consistent it remains, are unclear, but stations traditionally seen as strapped for resources jumping into the digital fray is encouraging. Community media presents massive potential to create local podcast collaborations with regional nonprofits, the general public and municipal leaders. In fact, there are stations like KRCL and Radio Boise, which do exactly that. They train residents, utilizing their studios and gifted staff, to teach next-level audio skills to aspiring podcasters. At stations like WTIP, local podcasts are offering a flavor of their home communities, and the results are stunning. Although the majority of stations have yet to make the leap to digital, one might expect this number will only grow.

Community engagement is something that is pretty strong among stations, in that many outlets partner with others in their cities. Deepening those roots is a perpetual objective, however. Efforts that frequently come up for stations center around music and cultural events. The recent Music Cities Convention hosted a panel on the importance of community radio for cities wanting live music to be a draw for tourism and more. “All of [the panelists] talked about how community radio stations are important outlets to create, foster and develop diverse music talent in their cities. Community radio stations, both public and commercial, give artists their first breaks, provide credible guidance, bring people together and benefit locals in manners that most commercial radio stations never could.”

NFCB has found local engagement has been the strongest suit among stations. How well they integrate into the so-called creative industries — a term coined by Creative Many in Michigan to demonstrate the interrelated nature of employment and wages locally to advertising, artists and agents, creative technology, culture and heritage, design, broadcasting, literary, performing arts and other disciplines — as well as tell our story persuasively remains to be seen.

Community radio in the next five years must get better at providing service that is multiscreen, multiservice and user-centric. More and more frequently, being more assertive with content means pivoting to digital. Fortunately, the bar to entry has never been lower and radio has a natural advantage with audience and expertise.

In addition, it is valuable for community radio to go beyond local collaborations and events, but getting a clear idea of why you do them and what your station brings to your town and its economy. Potentially complicated math, to be certain, but numbers that will demonstrate impact to donors, grantmaking organizations and many others.

These engagement, financial and programming decisions impact your community radio station, no matter if you are a megawatt blowtorch of local voices or a small but mighty low-power FM. And although they certainly feed into your station’s viability, these are also matters that speak to your mission. Here lies the best kept secret of the next five years: though our programming and ability to engage listeners matter tremendously, in a world where values and content count, stations that exemplify their missions and center them in their work will be truly poised to flourish.

Are you a champion of localism? Perhaps it is time to look at where your station stands in this regard. Do you focus on music discovery? Maybe your station needs to explore whether it is representing those music communities as well as it could. Whatever your mission is, today is the day to go a little deeper. Listeners expect it.

Community radio’s long-term future is as bright as we imagine and can make it. Gatherings like the Grassroots Radio Conference remind us how unique, powerful and inspiring community media can truly be.

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