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Community Broadcaster: Community Radio Relevant as Ever

Iran, the elections and impeachment underscore local radio’s role

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

Amid tensions with Iran simmering, the ongoing impeachment impasse in the national consciousness, and the election season looming, radio listeners are turning to stations as never before. They want coverage from their trusted source: noncommercial radio.

New demands may create stress at stations, but this interest offers incredible opportunities as well.

How significant is all the attention? Radio Research Consortium, the nation’s purveyor of audience data for noncommercial radio, issued a study this week into impeachment broadcast listenership. RRC’s numbers show a spike in audience for stations airing impeachment hearings and analysis.

[Read: Community Broadcaster: The Last 2019 To-Dos]

“[F]or 50 full-time noncommercial news stations across 44 PPM metros, the six days containing special coverage saw more total AQH listening than any of the 14 days absent of special coverage,” the team notes. “Not only did the six days with special coverage outperform the 14 days without special coverage on a day-by-day basis, listening was higher for this set of stations on an hour-by-hour basis, as well.”

Off to the side, many stations are skittish about interrupting their regularly scheduled programs, especially their most popular ones, for what can seem like dry Robert’s Rules of Order procedurals or blatant grandstanding by lawmakers. Nothing could be further from the truth, it seems. Audiences love their regular programming but in times of urgency and uncertainty, the numbers indicate these listeners crave more the context and clarity your station can provide.

“All well and good,” you may say, “but how can a lightly staffed or an all-volunteer station compete with the giants in doing this breaking coverage?”

My encouragement to everyone in community radio in these moments is to stop thinking about competition and focus on, realistically, what you can provide to your community. That’s a hard pill to swallow for many of us, because we have been raised around the idea of outdoing others, beating others to whatever we’re racing toward, and with winning. Noncommercial radio should always assert itself, of course, but community service is really our goal. Unlike for-profit media, community radio does not need to chase whatever winds the markets are blowing in. In fact, no matter what you do, collectively or individually, you will discover someone is always bigger, better, more resourced and quicker. So why not instead place your energies in how your station can serve its listeners and signal area best?

Perhaps your station can collect voices in your community with area reactions to the issues of the day. Candidate forums or one-on-one visits with candidates in a given race might give your audience a chance to cast an informed vote, or even to find common ground with perceived opponents. How are your Congressional representatives responding to the matters facing the nation now? These are all avenues your station can take to deliver coverage that do not demand tons of resources.

Some nonprofit media organizations are seeing tremendous returns with partnerships that pool resources and deliver coverage jointly to everyone. Especially for thinly resourced stations, collaboration is a fantastic way of delivering what audiences want without undercutting the rest of your operations.

2020 is shaping up to be a tremendous year for radio. The presidential election, races for House and Senate seats marked by several prominent retirements, and natural disasters mean community radio still has a big role to play. We can make a real impact, but such will require fresh thinking and commitment.