The Future of Community Radio

Source: Maverick Media

Will audiences keep tuning in to radio if the information and music they want can be more easily accessed by other means? Can FM compete with the quality and reliability of new portable devices? And will listeners continue to pay attention to long fund drive pitches? These are some of the difficult questions public and community radio must answer in the near future.

At the moment blogs are undermining newspapers, DVRs and TiVo are allowing viewers to skip commercials and time-shift the viewing of their preferred shows, and iPods are revolutionizing the way we access and consume music. The good news is that there are traits and features specific to radio that can help. But broadcasters need to open themselves to the inevitable convergence with new media and the Internet.

So, how can community radio prepare for the future? Three ways: embrace convergence, focus on unique and thematic content, and use radio’s traditional strengths while combining them with the power of new technologies. This can lead to a new form of radio that doesn’t abandon the airwaves, but also brings quality programming that can’t be found elsewhere to new audiences and emerging media platforms.

What are Radio’s strengths, especially those can be leveraged and integrated with some of the new opportunities?

IMMEDIACY: Radio’s edge is the ability to be truly "live." No recording, no streaming, no delay. Instant real-time broadcasting can take place from nearly any place or location to chronicle "live" local – and national – events. There is still considerable untapped potential here. Think street reporting, reality radio. Hearing a live voice is a totally different experience than any other. It can be powerful, touching and engaging. Being able to listen to something that is happening this very moment in another place is inherently fascinating. Returning to its roots, radio needs to leverage the huge potential of live coverage.

EMOTIONAL POWER: Radio is about both informing and relating to people. When you do both, people change. As the great and underappreciated broadcaster Larry Josephson said, the power of radio is simple: it’s personal. Radio needs to bring back the emotional power of direct, spontaneous reporting and talk delivered by strong, credible personalities. Without that, it will be difficult to compete with new portable devices. Like popular bloggers, the successful community radio stations of the future will be characterized by a strong, unique style. Podcasting is already affecting radio, putting the heart back into it, focusing on unique content and a compelling source. Heart, passion, and a personal connection: These can’t be over-estimated.

IDENTITY: Podcasting also draws attention to the value of niche entertainment and thematic content. Specific kinds of news, commentary or music become more important than generalized radio content that must appeal to as large an audience as possible. "New radio" needs to have a clear focus, theme and identity. This means applying some lessons from blogs and focused independent news sites to news, public affairs and music programming. Grassroots broadcast-plus-online radio stations can be debut vehicles for new music, news and reporting talent. Being a talent clearinghouse can be a very powerful theme in itself. Scouting, identifying and cultivating new talent is what some of the best bloggers and talent scouts do. Radio can do it too, especially as platforms multiply.

THE LOCAL CONNECTION: Radio is ideal for maintaining a sense of community. This is especially true in times of emergency, or when a local event – a rally, accident, or tragedy – bursts upon the scene. People already realize that their needs and interests aren’t being well served by distant corporate entities with no real community connection or concern for local needs. A strong focus on "local" news, music, events, people and issues – especially coupled with "global" access – provides a winning combination. More people distrust “the media” in general these days, but they still have some confidence in their local outlets. Proximity can breed respect, something to be considered in the response to media consolidation.

ADAPTABILITY: The distinction been producers and consumers is breaking down. In the future, radio will be more about the user participating in the show, potentially becoming a producer, host or DJ. In some cases listeners will become stars, core contributors and creators of content. Technological developments make it possible for them to create shows, compilations, live entertainment, and become street reporters, reaching where few press reporters can. Providing tools and programming space for them to develop, edit and compile their own programming is a winning strategy that reflects the revolution taking place in other media. At an affordable cost, radio has the ability to adapt, providing tools, facilities and access to content that allows more people to research, edit and compile unique documentaries, investigative reports, artistic montages and focus-specific anthologies.

As the current media revolution continues, radio stations can become search engines for specific content and music on which they focus. Some stations will build their programming by drawing thematic content from an infinite number of external sources and contributors. Stations will also become multi-media providers, offering video as well as audio – from a camera in the broadcast booth to exclusive coverage of special events. We’ll increasingly see webcasts and webisodes. Recording and archiving, something Pacifica Radio has done better than any other radio operation, will also be increasingly important. Allowing access to every show, interview or news item is inevitable.

The change underway in mass media points to two common traits: convergence and participation. In the future, effective stations will be multi-channel and multi-format. Multi-format means gearing and adapting segments and shows for various audiences, something that doesn’t have to entail major costs. Multi-channel means making the content accessible via various platforms to a multitude of media devices. Radio will also be more participatory, with listeners becoming active contributors. 

In terms of journalism, it’s not about Old Media: vs. New Media, but fair and accurate reporting versus trivialized news and public relations spin. In any case, it’s better to think in terms of AND rather than OR; in other words, “mainstream” and “new media” journalists learning from one another. If more skills are shared and the best of both “new” and “old” are combined, today’s “citizen journalists” are more likely to become tomorrow’s responsible reporters and programmers – invaluable messengers who deliver information and ideas that people can use, content that educates rather than distorts public discussion. 

So, will it be chaos or conversion? As Old Media enter what could be a terminal phase, New Media are about to end their carefree adolescence. Online platforms may eventually be viewed as public utilities, and possibly even subject to regulation to protect the public’s remaining privacy rights. For now, however, the outcome of this period of transformation remains an open question.

Material in this series was first presented in January 2008 at a KPFT strategic planning retreat.

For more writing from former Toward Freedom Editor Greg Guma, visit his new blog, Maverick Media: Inside and outside media politics and the alternative press. 

Photo of radio studio by Brandon Cirillo, republished here under a Creative Commons License.