How to stay relevant? It’s about trust

It’s been a week since I returned home from the NFCB’s Twin Cities Summit, held in hot weather amidst urban corn fields at the University of Minnesota’s agricultural campus in St. Paul. The summit felt intense and memorable, all in a very short span of time. I met station managers and program directors, reporters and hosts, dogsledders and gardeners. Though most attendees were from Upper Midwest states like Minnesota, we had a hint of the global, with a Minnesota-based manager of a station in Nigeria in attendance, and a presentation from Developing Radio Partners about working with small stations abroad. I felt a sense of busy lives and projects taking place in both city neighborhoods and remote towns – but all with a sense of collective effort and shared goals.

When keynote speaker Bill Siemering spoke about Developing Radio Partners‘ work with radio stations in African countries like Zambia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, he conveyed a sense of radio’s strong presence in many communities. Radio can be a way to liven spirits, transmit emergency information, or hold politicians accountable. Radio stations are a trusted source of information, and everyone’s listening. I started thinking about this idea of trust, and how we build, maintain, or return to it. I think there’s more to trust than simple facts true or false. I think it also comes from a sense of engagement; a sense that a station, for example, is not only truthful but relevant.

As the media landscape continues to evolve, devoted radio listeners are changing habits of how they listen and where their news and music comes from. This can have an impact on what people think of as their go-to, trusted news source. As stations and producers, we’re learning we have to do more than present facts, and increase the feeling of connectedness and understanding.

How to do that? The afternoon workshop I attended at the NFCB Summit focused on community engagement, and ideas for how to stay relevant and fill a gap in a crowded media landscape. Julia Kumari-Drapkin, creator of the crowdsourced climate-data project iSeeChange, points out that you have to ask your community what they want – not just one time, but a lot! As a journalist, I ask a lot of questions; and I love the idea of turning outward with questions and figuring out how to respond to the ideas and needs in my community.

The idea of trust also came up in Neenah Ellis’ keynote presentation, entitled “Back from the Brink: WYSO Case Study.” She told a story about how volunteers became angry when big programming changes were made without consulting the community. Their sense of trust was eroded. But, as Neenah shared, after she became General Manager, she and her station earned back that trust, through surveys, thoughtful programming changes, and an innovative journalism training program called Community Voices.

Today, it’s raining, and I just finished hosting Morning Edition for my local station, WXPR in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. “It’s quite a downpour outside our studios,” I informed our listeners, probably unnecessarily, for most could probably see plainly that it was, and is, indeed, raining – but just in case someone had not yet left the house, not yet grabbed an umbrella, not yet re-evaluated plans to spend the day at the lake, I said it anyway. And I would hope that listeners, if they were not surprised by the announcement, at least felt understood: or felt a sense of shared experience thanks to the stormy weather going on outside.

One last note before signing off: I keep thinking about something NFCB President Sally Kane said: “You look at the stars – and you ask how do they shine? How did they get there?” Thanks to NFCB for reminding us to continue to be inspired even when the going gets rough, and to keep asking how we can do better, and better.


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