The next great American podcast may not be incubated from Gimlet, Midroll, Panoply or Loud Speakers, but from community media.
Podcasting affairs are okay right now, of course. NPR and many organizations are doing well financially with podcasts. How long it lasts is more uncertain. Diversity remains a persistent issue. In a December essay, Eric Nuzum worried that the podcasting space is mirroring what the music industry became. Stratification and money will empower NPR, ESPN and big players to shut out independent podcasts, much like major labels did to indies in years past. Nick Quah remarks similarly, stating that independent podcasting is going to need to self-organize. That is, as Nuzum points out, if majors don’t buy them out first.
Indeed, in this world, not #everybodyeats.
Nevertheless, that independent podcasting energy is alive and well. Gear is relatively inexpensive and sites for learning are plentiful enough where more and more people are getting into podcasting from homes across America. Enter community media, especially radio.
Community radio — those hyperlocal, producer-centric media spots in big cities and small towns across the United States — is exciting because you have people creating audio stories, sharing community visions and mixing great music, not for CPM or pre-roll guarantees, but because their communities matter. I acknowledge people doing it for the love of doing it rather than a check sounds quaint as an old punk rock record to some. But bewitching art comes from that kind of integrity. Like the music Nuzum speaks about, it’s never perfect, but there’s something to it that sticks with us.
Community radio is poised to deliver great podcasts for several reasons. First, most are rooted in different creative circles than the topline podcasts are at. Quah is right about the coming podcasting class war. New Yorkers may think the world outside the city limits is Mogadishu, but in fact there’s a remarkable nation of better, hungrier, more engaged talent and culture elsewhere. Second, community radio has the tools readily available for local producers. From broadcast quality microphones to soundproofing to digital editing software to, in many cases, 24/7 facilities, community media organizations nationally have the means to put new podcasts out around the needs of producers at little to no cost. Finally, the diversity of talent and experiences is going to naturally offer a glimpse of America that podcasting currently doesn’t represent. No more shots at New York, but I suspect we can all agree the experiences of Latinos in Texas, African-Americans in Illinois and working-class Anglos in Oklahoma will have an authenticity and resonance that we should hear more.
You may say, “if that’s all the case, why isn’t that happening now?” For organizations and communities, there’s a major need to develop bigger financial investments in their infrastructure. That’s more than the station, but leadership currents in the public media system (read: invest in community media, please) and among civic leaders. The other issue is discovery. How much are we talking about the wonderful podcasts community radio is doing?
I am often impressed by all the appealing podcasts I hear come out of community radio stations every day. If you’re curious about what community radio offers in terms of voices and interests, I recommend you start here:
- The Island Wave | KRCL (subscribe): KRCL started its Podcast Partners program in an effort to bring diverse voices to the microphone. It includes a year of mentorship and studio time, as well as general studio leasing for aspiring podcasters. The Island Wave is part of this initiative. It highlights the experiences and culture of those of Pacific Island descent living in Utah. It’s not obscure as you may think. Utah has, per-capita, more residents with ancestry in Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Guam, Fiji and nearby areas than anywhere else in America. The Island Wave is thus a fascinating podcast, and KRCL is a visionary community radio station for making it happen.
- The Disclaimer | WMSE (subscribe): You’d think a community radio station licensed by the Milwaukee School of Engineering would be nerdy as Hell, but manager Tom Crawford and team have put together a dynamic program schedule. I’m a fan of learning about a city with a good podcast, and The Disclaimer delivers. On it, WMSE’s Ryan Schleicher, Evan Rytlewski of the Shepherd Express, and the Milwaukee Record’s Matt Wild talk about all kinds of Milwaukee miscellany. Urban development, the best sounds in the local music scene and race/class collisions are just a few subjects of past podcasts. The Disclaimer is always lively, filled with guests and interesting dialogues regardless of where you’re from, because the hosts speak to issues many cities experience.
- Notes From The Electronic Cottage | WERU (subscribe): Speaking of popular, technology programming (as in podcasting, not Python) is having its day in the spotlight right now. From re/code on down, tons of websites and media groups have tech podcast endeavors. Why is this one great? Well, for starters, it is fluff-free. No idle banter of self-promotional subliminals here. Notes From the Electronic Cottage is a brief, bright news and analysis shot covering privacy, technology, politics and surveillance. It’s very much more wonk than InfoWars, with lots of links and references to help you be more informed about issues sure to be key in the Trump years. WERU, a little community radio firecracker in Maine, plays host.
- Stories With A Heartbeat | WUNC (subscribe): The North Carolina community radio station boasts some stunning podcasts such as WUNC Politics, but Stories With A Heartbeat is one of its best. Each episode explores the human condition and sources of conflict. That may sound broad, but in our current climate, some nexuses of tension seem ripe to examine. Rather than think tanks, however, the podcast welcomes poets to share their words with listeners, delving into issues like criminal justice, race, identity and history. Catch up with season one of this touching podcast before the next round comes your way.
- Downtown Soulville | WFMU (subscribe): WFMU is pretty much the level boss of community media and public radio podcasting. Ken Freedman’s eclectic station has been podcasting and using online community tools years before NPR and everyone else was, and still does it in service of independent music. Downtown Soulville is very different than the mishmash of noise shows and wild tracks you get on other WFMU podcasts, because it’s straight up old-school rhythm and blues. Soul songs from 45s (yes, that’s as in 45 RPM vinyl) are on the platter every podcast. I know, I know, you’ve heard it before, but I assure you, you’ve never heard it like this, and never this good.
- How On Earth | KGNU (subscribe): A nationally recognized science podcast, How On Earth originates from Boulder, Colo. community radio station KGNU. Along with things you’ve probably heard about lots, like climate change/global warming conversations, are plenty of unusual subjects, like forensic plant science. Ticking in at just about half an hour per episode, it’s a lively way of looking at the world around us in a new way, without getting boring.
- North Woods Naturalist | WTIP (subscribe): Speaking of natural science, Minnesota’s WTIP offers an outstanding podcast in North Woods Naturalist. Botanist Chel Anderson shares her knowledge of the region’s flora and fauna with vivid descriptions and vigor. The locale of this community radio station has some of the area’s most unique wildlife and plants, and sees quite a few migrating birds not native to the region. Anderson’s narratives aptly demonstrate her passion for the place she lives, and its changes with the seasons. If you’re someone who enjoys the outdoors, her stories are incredibly engrossing and friendly.
- Arts on Grounds | WTJU (subscribe): I recently wrote for Radio Worldabout the uptick in universities selling off their radio licenses. One of the big problems I saw was how stations needed to be integrated into university life, and to engage the campus, administrators and departments into seeing their power. The more a station is part of its school, the better off it is. WTJU is creating an artful example of this with its podcasting, including Arts on Grounds, a well-produced podcast featuring professors, graduates and others sharing the stories of music, culture and arts on the University of Virginia campus. Gorgeously done and atmospheric, Arts on Grounds is what community radio should do more of as far as arts podcasting.
- Health Matters | KIDE (subscribe): A deceptively named podcast is more interesting as you listen. Licensed to the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, KIDE is a Native American broadcasting hall of famer. Its call letters are adopted from a word in the residents’ language for an antler taken off a deer and used as a tool or decorated. The radio station operates amid challenging circumstances on the reservation, and the podcast relates issues of minority health issues for the community. Illegal drug proliferation and mental health matters are real everywhere, but take on a different weight for Native American communities. Health Matters shares the stories from the rez with compassion, honesty and a commitment to its community.
- The Compost Pile | KOPN (subscribe): Artist Meredith Ludwig lives on the Missouri River. If you don’t read the description, trust me, you will quickly find that out, as her short, personal stories warmly bring you into her life there. These podcasts are very short, oftentimes no longer than three minutes. What makes them shine is how inviting they are. Storytelling is all the rage in public radio and community media. Seldom is it pulled off consistently well. This legendary community radio institution in Missouri offers a storytelling podcast that, in fact, manages to draw you in every time.
- Inflection Point | KALW (subscribe): San Francisco, Calif.’s KALW needs no introduction. It’s one of community radio’s heavy hitters. From a range of national programming to first-class local producers, General Manager Matt Martin’s organization has won many awards and gotten recognition for the great things it does. Inflection Point is one of them. Host Lauren Schiller talks with women in activism, arts, business and culture. The outstanding podcast, which has made its way for a bit, was just included in PRX’s Project Catapult. Listen once and why it was chosen becomes readily apparent. Programming focused on women and thought leadership is growing. Inflection Point does an uncommonly good job at it.
- West Obsessed | KVNF (subscribe): The Paonia, Colo. powerhouse KVNF made my list of great music stations, but this collaboration with High Country News shows the community radio station can do news and public affairs well too. Such a model is an example of how snappy partnerships work. This penetrating podcast is an insightful look at the political football that is the American West. As an award-winning publication, HCN has a reputation for rock-solid non-profit journalism. Its podcast lives up to expectations, and does not disappoint. From covering sexual harassment, abuse and sexism at public lands agencies to the impact of Donald Trump on regional politics, you’ll want to binge listen to this one.
Superb podcasts all around, I believe. If you’re a hater, pick the most meh of what you just heard and ask yourself, “if there was 1/100th the investment that’s in fill-in-the-blank topline podcast, how much stronger might this be?” Now you get the picture.
Community radio represents the United States and the spirit of democracy and media as few outlets today do. Discovering its podcasts, celebrating its daily work and defending its growth can only benefit producers, podcasting and non-profit media.