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How does community radio forge relationships with new audiences?

Attracting fresh listeners and donors is a constant for community radio. As audiences age, finding new fans and supporters is an imperative. Community radio does creative programming, interesting genres of music, provocative talk shows and fascinating journalism. By that measure, community radio should be drawing millions every day. Yet it isn’t.

The naysayer will argue the content just then isn’t that good. Nonsense. Show me someone who makes this claim and I’ll show you someone clueless about the social media space, digital options and streaming. Community radio’s quality outstrips, charitably, a sizeable minority of content on several of these verticals. The morass of hackneyed storylines, clickbait journalism and numbing playlist algorithms is absolutely remarkable. You might think the amount of money that goes into bad content would prompt evaluation. Nope.

While not every grassroots music program, newscast or talk show is winning awards, there is a lot for community radio to be proud of when considering content. But what if it isn’t the content itself, but how we tell the story that is the problem?

When Ellen’s Mayer’s essay on news bias made the rounds over the summer, it prompted much discussion. In brief, Mayer points out that stories that relate to communities must tell more than what journalists intellectualize to be news, but about history, culture and enterprise, among other subjects. She says:

I think the hard news bias puts an emotional muzzle on journalism, limiting the range of feelings a news story can evoke. I believe that audiences need to experience the news and feel something other than fear, helplessness, or sadness. Otherwise, the natural reaction is to disengage.

Her words sat with me for a long time, because it pushes community radio to consider what it covers, and how it centers a particular concept of programming that leaves out so many. Since then, more journalists have talked about what that removal from communities can mean. The New York Times just shared a thoughtful word about how care for one’s sources can help tell a story. The intellectual distance, briefly, just couldn’t make the story as impactful.

In the political arena, missing voices and stories being told from a particular angle of what is popularly considered news has ginned up anger. From the long simmering conservative contention of bias to fights among liberals, Jeff Jarvis shows that community radio has an opportunity to go deeper into stories and serve their communities in ways even our areas do not expect.

Empathy, as one Poynter commentary put it, makes us all better broadcasters. Perhaps discovering our own richer compassion is exactly what we need to help community radio break though.

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