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If you ask a community radio station if it does engagement well, chances are, you might hear “yes.” But are we, as community broadcasters, truly engaged?

What can we tell, in detail, to someone new in town about the diverse communities in our midst? Can we put them in touch with leaders and stakeholders we know? What are three local matters our audiences talk about? Can we ask for a meeting with those in our divergent neighborhoods and expect to get it?

In a time of micro-communities, online influencers and unprecedented grassroots activism, media makers can’t just assume we are engaged because we have the microphone. We also can’t assume our challenges with new audiences, diversity and next-generation producers will be fixed by offering people community radio shows. Community should not be mistaken for commodity; placing people on the air might benefit a local constituency, but it is important we look deeply at our reasons for doing so. Simply placing diverse, young producers in time slots could make us feel good. Engagement with these communities requires more effort, however.

While many noncommercial broadcasters have Community Advisory Boards, some of them have yet to do so. A few media organizations, including major commercial publications, are taking the extra step of creating advisory boards for news coverage. Whether you have such community representation or not, engagement is a 24/7 conversation for community media.

How might we start thinking about rebooting our community engagement? A few ideas:

  • The Listening Post Collective is renowned for its Playbook, a framework for you to begin rethinking local engagement. It’s a refresher that explores how people who are involved in communities have evolved. You can walk through the playbook on your own time and rhythm, find downloadable resources, and read about how media makers across the nation are implementing these strategies in their own communities.
  • Gather has released the Guide to Ethics of Engagement. It offers recommendations for how your organization can be respectful and compassionate in engaging communities around content, especially with non-media sources. “When collaborating with non-journalists throughout the news process, there are additional needs for transparency and accountability beyond what is expected in traditional journalism ethics. By involving non-journalists with lived experience, journalists can better understand how community members talk to each other about the issue.”
  • Good engagement starts with fostering empathy. Engagement leads to trust and relationships media organizations can build on. If you are working with communities that have historically faced marginalization, this empathy matters even more. The Empathetic Newsroom, a new report by the American Press Institute, aims to equip you with techniques to make your engagement better. From making one-on-one time to presenting your questions effectively, API presents tools to make your community connections more authentic.
  • Is hyperlocal media the antidote to polarization? The Journalism Innovation Project writes for Nieman Lab about more organizations focusing on authentic conversations over reaching huge audiences. “Remembering the importance of forging deeper, narrower and stronger relationships with audiences, emphasizing physical encounter and investment in niche audiences over scale,” they write, has been a key tactic in recalibrating audience engagement in response to platform dominance and partisan attacks. The author suggests a model you can try.

Actively listening to and talking with your community is one of the many subjects on the agenda at July’s Wish You Were Here 2021 unconference. We welcome you to join. See the agenda here.