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What do listeners want out of community radio? It is a common debate.

Some think it is programming located on particular places of the schedule. Others think it is niche programming. Still others say community radio must find particular kinds of hosts or formats of music. All are true, but none are true when it comes to what community radio listeners want. A study commissioned not long ago may give clues.

“A Sense of Place: The Value and Values of Localism in Public Radio” was released in 2006. In it, focus groups from around the country came together to talk about what they liked in public radio and what they did not. What they shared about radio could be a blueprint for how radio stations and programmers go forward.

Listeners interested in news are same market-to-market. All participants surveyed valued such aspects to the sound of radio as civility, global perspectives, depth, intelligence and authenticity. Other qualities in programming listeners stated they appreciated included bringing intelligent, insightful news; and intense discussions of issues that affect us locally.

In one presentation I attended on “A Sense of Place,” speakers noted listeners want to learn about the global connection of programming. They are excited when programmers find something that might sound irrelevant, and make a difference with it.

Questions that connect the dots for community radio listeners include:

  • What unique meaning does it have?
  • Has it happened here before?
  • What is the cause?
  • What is the impact?
  • How does this make sense?
  • How did it affect the community?
  • How will it affect the world?

Community radio’s future rests on our ability to meet the standards set by the programs our listeners most value. Listeners expect us to make informed choices on their behalf. They want facts and data, not platitudes or pitches to their emotions. They don’t want to hear something they’ve heard 300 times before.

In short, community radio listeners want stories, or something unique. If you do something personal, use people not generalities.

Even then, newspapers were not held in high esteem by radio listeners. Listeners believed local metropolitan newspapers have deteriorated in terms of quality and coverage; as a result, listeners are seeking national and global coverage from the Internet, including via websites for the New York Times, BBC and the Manchester Guardian. This was a consistent finding across all the cities surveyed.

Radio listeners held a dim view of local media in the study, and community radio producers should take notice. Listeners will not cut you slack because you are local. In truth, many surveyed said they felt the core values of radio were more important than the local angle: history, the environment, culture and such are more critical than having a local programmer. Listeners compare local programming to the best of national programming and see no particular starting advantage to any program just because it’s done locally. Another consistent view was actual performance of local news does not live up to its promise.

For local programming and news opinions, listeners preferred fewer stories in relative depth. Local community radio programmers and reporters must give complexity and depth that listeners demand. Listeners want local programmers and reporters who present a subject’s complexity and depth. More notably, listeners notice when programmers and reporters are not even interested, but just giving a bunch of details. Listeners think the programmers and reporters are dumb if they sound like they’re just reading. They find it disrespectful if programmers and reporters don’t sound like they know what they’re talking about and will turn it off. As you might guess, here is where participants in “A Sense of Place” had a problem with call-in programs: some don’t want people formulating their opinions right in front of you, but instead do some research before talking. Rambling should be replaced with guiding the interviewees.

Briefly, listeners want programming and news that speaks to core values: a desire to learn, intelligence, depth, civility, authenticity and a global perspective.

Do not assume listeners stay riveted to the radio. They don’t. If you do not have news that resonates with listeners more than as merely a local story, they don’t care. We must ask: how can we take this from being merely local? How do we communicate we are part of a whole? Are we truly demonstrating our global context?

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