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Community Broadcaster: Rocket Fuel

Community radio podcasting gets a boost, and a reminder of its potential

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

There was big news recently on the podcast front for community media outlets. Community radio hosting service Radio Free America emailed its partners to announce a pilot project in collaboration with a nonprofit journalism funder to adapt programming from its member stations for podcast distribution.

RFA’s announcement is perhaps the first real rocket fuel as far as developments in community media podcasts go. According to the message, Radio Free America will format a station’s terrestrial originated radio programs for wider podcast distribution at no cost.

RFA’s Jeff Abrams, a former head of community station KRBX/Radio Boise, commented for Radio World, “In addition to providing free access to thousands of archived community radio shows every week, Radio Free America is now working with stations to serve new audiences by adapting their locally-produced public affairs programming for podcast distribution. RFA feels that by using all delivery mechanisms, stations and producers can stretch the reach of their content, and thrive at a time when audio is bigger than ever. It’s really just another way to accomplish their local mission. It’s the natural extension of their core area of expertise. There’s no reason why great radio shows should only be heard on the radio.”

[Read: Community Broadcaster: A New Day]

Abrams adds that Radio Free America does expect to introduce advertising inserts of various types, but has not decided how these messages will be implemented or what the editorial nature of them will be. However, RFA expects to consult with stations ahead of making any decisions regarding ads. In addition, RFA’s monetization model does include revenue sharing with its participants and other content partners “at an appropriate juncture.”

RFA moves from its traditional archival vertical into a relatively wide-open space. Virtually none of the known podcast players have been associated thus far with community media, either radio or the Public, Educational or Government (PEG) television side. How this absence came to be bears examination.

Truth be told, there are some dynamic community radio podcasts for sure — check out superlative podcasts like WXPR’s “We Live Up Here,” Marfa Public Radio’s “West Texas Talk” or WTIP’s “Boundary Waters” podcasts as some of the best in class. However, it is fair to say there may be some unrealized potential so far. There are perhaps a dozen or more quality community radio productions that would flourish brilliantly as podcasts, but lack the wherewithal to make a splash in the already crowded podcast system.

It is possible community media’s pace may be a deterrent. Why has community radio approached podcasting so gingerly? Literally every station certainly has high-quality gear and studios that would make any podcast sound good. Instead, the hesitation may be due to resources, lack of clarity on digital capacity, or any number of issues. Potential partners could see this lack of in-house skillsets and local investment in podcasting to be a major obstacle. In this regard, RFA’s commitment to handle the production end of the work and give technical know-how may be exactly what community radio stations with the right talent need to get ahead in the podcasting space.

As an intervention of sorts, content quality has to also be acknowledged as a stumbling block. Unfair though it may be, it is not hard to find those who perceive community media content to be inconsistent and at points marginal. It can be on occasion, and more than occasionally in some pockets. Addressing this issue may simply come down to stations countering that perspective by delivering more with what they have, where possible, and zeroing in on audience needs over internal inclinations, which may favor a bygone sound. To be clear, there are many stations offering top-shelf podcasting and content. May they inspire others to raise the bar locally.

As more radio listeners and younger demographics are being wooed to podcasts, rarely has there been a better time for community radio stations to hop into podcast offerings. These podcasts could be original productions or repackaged radio programs — and more studies indicate audiences like to hear traditional radio shows in an on-demand fashion as podcasting inherently provides. Audience interest is growing. Stakeholders such as governing boards love a station in the podcasting game as well. In addition, radio station donors want to see their dollars put to work keeping a station up with the times, as podcasts undoubtedly are doing for organizations like KPCC, which just launched a local podcast studio.

Still, it is incumbent on a community radio station to consider where podcasting fits into its strategic plan for its content and programming. Stations have so many competing priorities at any given moment that each needs to decide the time, resources and attention station podcasts can occupy. Such may call for a review of a station’s long-term objectives and its allowances for emergent needs. With proper focus and balance of all the demands at the station level, however, there are many wins to be had.

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