Community Radio’s Instructive Failures

I’m applying a lot of what I’ve observed in community radio (and NPR affiliates for that matter) for putting together a membership model for a rural newspaper. Here we go:

Instructive Failure #1: Disinvestment

Time was, if you had a pulse, a foundation would give you money to build a website that promised some kind of community involvement, some kind of participation in the production process. Most community radio stations either weren’t paying attention or didn’t have the vision to take advantage of this free cash to take advantage of experimental platforms ( I’m thinking of spot.us, or even the Public Insight Network.) The lesson here is to find a little bit of money, preferably someone else’s, to create a sandbox that the station could learn from.

Instructive Failure #2: A Failure to Create Fundable Hyper Local Content

Time was, the money was on hyper localism. The problem with hyper localism is there’s no business model there. The community radio fundamentalists will say that they have always been hyper local. Not really. Hyper local is not having a bunch of people coming in to play blues or jazz or a free form ska/punk show. And the bulk of community radio program schedules are music, so very little is actually devoted to creating hyper local content. The community radio business model is exactly like the PBS and NPR station business model: most of the revenue from the pledge drives comes in during the popular music shows (and these genres are usually doo woo, 60’s pop and classic blues.) The content is national in its nature. In rural areas, a lot of community radio stations air NPR programming, usually All Things Considered or This American Life. These programs provide a significant anchor for the station’s finances.

Instructive Failure #3: Inability to Collaborate Nationally

Time was, the Pacifica Network had built up a national network of programs to offer as an alternative to NPR style programs. Ideally, these national programs would build up audiences, which in term would build up membership support at the local station level. Democracy Now! has built an entire non profit media mini-empire on this model. But the show can’t last forever, and it certainly can’t deliver the type of audiences community stations need to remain financially viable. Community stations could create their own programming network, but the programming committee structures at the stations are such that it would be nearly impossible to get agreement to release even an hour a week for a collaboratively produced community radio show. With Pacifica’s help, I was able to get Sprouts, Radio from the Grassroots, off the ground. It has become popular amongst rural stations and new low power FM stations, because it creates access, but without even a small investment to hire talent, it will remain small and off the radar.

One area where stations could more nimbly collaborate is in a shared membership and underwriting model. Minnesota stations have demonstrated that this is in fact possible, as well as Coast Alaska. So it is possible, but in both of those cases, the building was either on fire ( like in Alaska) or CPB needed to move some money out the door and Minnesota was the beneficiary. Wouldn’t it be great if stations could chart their own destinies instead of responding to threats or waiting on the benevolence of a single funder?

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