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How Community Radio Speaks on Race Amid Tragedy, Conflict

By July 24, 2016August 12th, 2019

Race has been a major subtext in this year’s election season. Our communities are talking about it. How can community media engage on a subject so prominent today?

The recent killings of Alton Sterling, Charles Kinsey and others, and the shootings of police officers in several cities, have raised painful issues about race in America. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein and Donald Trump have all spoken about criminal justice, Black Lives Matter, the benefits and challenges of diversity, and where the country is headed. Pew Research recently posted findings on voters’ attitudes about race and the election, revealing divides, and conundrums that have potential to seed meaningful conversations.

This is a critical moment for non-commercial public radio and community media to take up the needs of our respective towns and cities. Sounds all well and good. But how to do it, effectively and with appropriate sensitivity? Don’t think of it as what you don’t have, but what you can build on. Community radio has no shortage of leads.

Take cues from affected communities. In late July, the Columbia Journalism Review covered a story on the work of Black media in telling African-American stories in a digital age. Authenticity, building and nurturing audiences on Twitter, focusing on the necessity of raising awareness, and valuing the experiences and stories outside of one’s traditional mix are important. If your community media organization — be it radio station, digital outlet or something else — doesn’t have the relationships yet, shouldn’t this be your chance to seek out local stakeholders, have a meeting, and work together to have a greater collective impact?

Talk about this story in ways non-traditional audiences consume media. Broadcast continuity is essential for fundraising, audience retention and more, but our fixation with the air needs to have a tough question for a postscript: are the people who are already involved in this conversation locally, the people most affected, and the people we want to connect with listening to stations already? If they’re not, what are they listening to and how are they listening? Some stations think there’s something to preempting lots of programming to do special programming on a matter. While that’s interesting, and maybe (just maybe) those audiences will become regular listeners, I suggest it’s better to appeal to the audiences in ways they already like, rather than push them to come to us.

Scan what’s being done on these subjects and apply lessons locally. From the delightful Code Switch podcast to the Black Lives Matter panel on Tax Season, dozens of podcasts are talking about race, policing, the election, Black Lives Matter and more. If your organization is talking about podcasting, perhaps it’s time to do it with a series of discussions on these issues. The outstanding Association of Independents in Radio is looking at events as engagement for diverse communities. How can your station partner with others in your area? Tons of necessary work is happening, and your station can learn from it.

Ask questions and assume nothing. Community radio seeking to get involved in conversations on race in 2016 must be willing to accept it doesn’t have the answers to everything, and it has a lot to learn with our communities. The Aspen Institute in its report with recommendations for covering race puts it well: understand the history of issues and don’t be afraid to go beyond the statistics to talk about impact. It’s also crucial to expand partners, voices, sources and one’s leadership circle. New initiatives like Reporting Stories Hidden in Plain Sight have sought to provide resources for organizations covering race.

The police killings of African-American men, recent shootings of police and the repercussions of each on the race to the White House are not just of interest to your base, but to your future donors, members and allies. Please take some time to understand how you can show your community how truly powerful our community radio institutions are today. Radio is more essential than ever in times like these. We just need to demonstrate that.

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