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Community Broadcaster: In It Together

Engagement and membership are media’s most crucial conversations

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

This fall, the good folks at marketing consultancy Hearken will host their first Engagement Innovation Summit. It is one of those rare moments to bring together public-interest media of all kinds to talk about audience engagement and, more importantly, how to involve the communities we serve in bold ways.

Hearken is, in so many respects, the conscience of journalism. Jennifer Brandel and team have prodded everyone from commercial to nonprofit media groups to think differently about our work and the communities we cover. Whether it is working with journalism organizations abroad or showing up at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters’ Regional Summit in Grand Rapids, Hearken is ever present. The firm’s message is important: journalism must listen more, and newsrooms can help to cultivate a more engaged community in the process.

[Read: Community Broadcaster: Turning It Up]

Given the media landscape, such conversations could not come at a better time.

Countless case studies share the woes facing media organizations. Growing numbers of content providers, polarized coverage and income inequality all are contributing to less revenue. Layoffs and further audience attrition are the outcomes ultimately. On top of that, the public is saying more and more that the news cycle has them beleaguered and tuning out coverage.

For community media, often on the periphery of the journalistic ecosystem, these trends create calamity as well as opportunity. Shrinking donations for community radio mean we have to be more responsive in how we create content and develop our storytelling. Finding ways to reengage people in media and discovering what is important to their neighborhoods must be a priority for all of community media.

The times also demand that community radio stations be very frank when evaluating how their engagement work aligns with their strategic goals. Are we realizing our full potential? I ask because, in my professional life, I hear of many stations that say they simultaneously involve wide swaths of their communities, are diverse, and provide space to everyone, and yet are also struggling financially for even the most basic needs. In all but a few cases, I encourage stations to take a long look at these two matters — the large community supporting the station and the fact keeping the lights on is a real question — and find avenues to be most relevant. Sometimes, improving fundraising is as simple as asking. More often, it’s talking with the people we serve and exploring how we could more inspire their confidence, trust and investment.

Fortunately, journalism outfits everywhere are trying to solve the puzzle of audience and money, As Hearken shares, listening is proven to pay dividends. Groups like the Membership Puzzle Project offer plenty of examples of media organizations stimulate new conversations with a goal of making journalism sustainable. All of this research, and the October gathering, should give community radio a lot of hope. While big, for-profit newspapers and public radio may feel miles away, many of them are working on the subjects of engagement and membership. Their studies benefit everyone.

Community radio stations are finding our groove in a media saturated and increasingly difficult world. Fortunately, our media fellow travelers are lending the support we all need.

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