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Community Broadcaster: Do You Matter?

Beyond numbers, community radio must ask about relevance

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

Looking at the statistics, it is hard not to feel like the Toronto Raptors flying into Oakland for the team’s 2019 NBA Finals battle against the feared Golden State Warriors. For radio, the deck may feel stacked against us. Streaming numbers are cresting. More and more Americans report, at least according to this Pew Research interactive map, that they rely mostly on television for local coverage. In spite of good, reliable numbers, it feels like all of radio’s challengers are flashier, better resourced, and indestructible.

In times like this, noncommercial radio is pressed to look inside for its greatest strengths. While we may not have the big budgets or splashy ads in Times Square, we have a trust built with our audiences over the years. That relationship is a good foundation to build from, and to consider where we go from here.

[Read: Community Broadcaster: Words and Deeds]

Unfortunately for a few community radio stations, long-term relationships and the satisfaction of not being “those guys” is where things stop, and inevitably end.

This is a story that’s told far too often, in fact. The notion of self-importance afflicts many a nonprofit, but rarely is it more fatal than for community radio. It is a belief that says we are important because we do fill-in-the-blank — we provide contextual news, inspiring music or unique hosts and therefore we are valuable to the listener. It is therefore surprising to some when the loudest voices with these suggestions behold community media outlets that struggle to coax even subsistence operating capital out of listeners, underwriters and grantmaking organizations.

Why? If these stations provide such critical coverage and serve such an honored place for culture in a community, how on Earth is there such a titanic fight to even keep the lights on? Needless to say, but this declaration of value is just that: a unilateral declaration. The people who are the audience obviously did not buy it, and decided other things are more important.

In many a conversation, I hear hints that audiences just don’t “get it” about community radio yet or would if we had advertising money and the like, but they will, and, when they do, we’ll be here. Some stations have held firm to this opinion for years. Nevertheless, it is the kind of top-down approach of a bygone era, one that says we know what’s best and we will just keep giving you that, whether you the listener listen or not. The feelings may come from a well-intentioned place, but the results can be disastrous.

Nina Simon, a trailblazer on the subject of relevance and a keynote for the 2019 Community Media Conference on June 19, calls these moments lightning strikes. Lightning strikes are basically like, well, waiting for lightning to strike. In this instance, a station could cling to its contention of importance until a crisis, a happy accident or a promotional windfall occurs and audiences appear, instead of reviewing one’s current offerings for audience relevance, responding instead to local needs and becoming more crucial to people.

Hoping a lightning strike will suddenly happen is a gamble she calls a delusion. Mattering to people, she says, is more complicated:

“Most of our days, most of our experiences — both important and mundane — are steered and filtered by what we deem relevant. Most of the books I read as a child were NOT the ones I pulled off my mom’s shelves. Those were the rarities. I found many more life-changing books through relevant channels — school, age-appropriate book lists, friends’ recommendations — than I did through the random mystique of her living room.”

Does the random mystique theory hold your station back? With the NBA Finals, the summer months are upon us. Perhaps it is a time to do a reset that will guide us for the rest of the year. What better place to engage in a reevaluation of our noncommercial stations and our place in the world than looking at our foundation and, just as importantly, our broader objectives?

For a lot of noncommercial radio, knowing what people really want is not easy. Dave Sullivan of the Radio Research Consortium is expected to dive into audience, giving and listening trends in an upcoming State of Noncommercial Media 2019 presentation, and stations can take advantage of such lessons. Focus groups, local surveys like the one community radio station KALW did, and new networks also help.

In part, relevance is about trusting what our communities are telling us about what they find important. It’s also about fostering trust by being part of their ongoing conversations and their lives. Our stations depend on our courage to do exactly that.

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