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What is the future of community radio music programming?

In the economic downturn, I am regularly asked by community radio programmers in various areas about how they position themselves to stay relevant and community supported. I often tell them there are three keys to success.

Radio music programming is intensely competitive. Commercial radio spends millions each year on focus groups and HD Radio has given corporate radio opportunities to focus on niches often served by community radio programmers. Satellite radio is biting into public radio and community radio, though not as much as was initially expected. And last but not least, the Internet, podcasting and iTunes have changed the landscape forever.

Community radio music programmers face tough odds when considering how best to serve the community. There are three ways of taking community radio programming to the next level in terms of music.

First, strengthen the core of what you do. Know what you do well and the service you provide. Perhaps your program offers old-time bluegrass. Maybe the programmer individually has an encyclopedic knowledge of ska. When you understand what you do well, you can expand on it and create unique content. I often sugest programmers personally look at what is popular on their stations (what listeners support and listen to) and build programming on what listeners like.

Second, great music programming is embedded in community. Clear Channel, RadioOne, Sirius/XM are interested in demographics, not people. Community radio programmers stake their best programming, in part, on the relationships they build with listeners and artists. Ultimately, then, strong community radio music programming is less about music and more about community. To remain relevant, community radio programmers must be more connected to the area constituencies, many of which are looking for radio support and exposure. Every area has an identity and culture of its own. Many of your local music communities are very activist and very involved. The music coming out of these circles feels more alive, and good music programming taps into it by linking with local artists, etc.

Finally, great community radio programmers look at new music channels. The Internet is competition for community radio programmers, but you can harness it by looking creatively. You do not need to necessarily do a separate net stream, but it is crucial for community radio programmers to see the more places you can be as a community radio programmer, the better you are. Look at ways to produce something once and distribute through many channels. KEXP, for example, posts live performances in its studio and special music mixes as regular podcasts. Though community radio programmers should coordinate with stations to ensure legal compliance with music licensing, it is good to think creatively about how a community radio programmers can expand reach through different models.

Community radio, in a crowded music market, needs to have a soul to connect to people. Utilizing a few basics can be a recipe for success for programmers.

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