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What Community Radio Can Learn from #ONA15

By October 7, 2015October 13th, 2016Industry News

Storm clouds swirl around media wherever you look, but digital media’s optimism offers something for community radio.

Nearly 3,000 attendees of the Online News Association’s annual conference came to Los Angeles to network, learn about and discuss the evolution of media in this unique period. ONA is the essential organization representing and tracking trends in digital media culture and business. It’s the place where National Public Radio, Google News, Slate and Disney/ABC converge. For non-commercial media, ONA is also a valuable place to learn about everything from analytics to engagement to new journalism models.

This was my first ONA conference. While I am a seasoned conference attendee, with sundry visits to Public Radio Program Directors, National Association of Broadcasters and National Federation of Community Broadcasters gatherings among my travels, nothing quite prepares you for the density of ONA. Yet amid the big exhibits, bigger receptions and scores of sessions were critical lessons for non-commercial radio.

Your audience is mobile. For plenty of good reasons, ONA was heavily focused on mobile. It stands to reason that, if the ESPNs, CNNs and other big media organizations are seeing massive growth in people who access their content via mobile, your audience is there too. How content is rendered on mobile, what the mobile experience is like, and how you keep mobile audiences were part of the ongoing dialog in a variety of venues. It prompted me at many turns to consider how my station, KPFT, and others in the non-commercial radio universe could be presenting ourselves better to mobile audiences. We depend on apps like TuneIn for some listenership, but my nagging question was about how we in community radio could better provide on our sites that memorable visual or sound that gets people coming back.

The youth movement is real. ONA’s attendance was in significant part composed of people under 30. This year’s event had around 1,000 first-time attendees. How ONA has attracted young leaders was reflected on well by MediaShift:

“Since ONA began, the newspaper industry has shed half its reporting force. We’ve seen digital media companies balloon and then burst. But young people keep coming. They don’t know what the future’s going to be, but they’re optimistic about it. They believe they can build it.”

ONA made me consider all the doom sometimes circulated about community radio. These hyperlocal outlets could learn a great deal from linking up with with digital journalism as well as engaging in leadership by young people.

Diversity must be a priority. ONA seemed to focus on racial and gender diversity at its Los Angeles event. Not simply in the presence of people of color in newsrooms, but as a fundamental shift in how news is communicated and how media constructs and considers a story. Just as importantly, there were many conversations about how to make such efforts sustainable in hiring, promotions and recruitment. The important thing to remember is that there are plenty of candidates: The deeper question came to one of how these efforts can expand. Such matters made me quietly wonder, ‘how seriously does community radio take diversity’? If your answer is ‘not very,’ the shifts happening in media, symbolic of ONA’s growth, must be your wake up call.

Content is still key. Everyone’s talking about podcasts, but there’s still clarity about the need for great content. Look no farther than a few of the projects ONA recognized as part of its awards this year: interactive coverage of the Freddie Gray case; conflict zone reporting; and the Ebola crisis were among subject matter. Dry to some, what made the coverage so good was the creative takes each organization made to draw in audiences. From video to data-based journalism, rich content was enhanced by new media tools, but it was still strong reporting that has been at the heart of iconic media. It was also a reminder that, as journalism tries to walk the line between popular coverage and substantive journalism, you don’t have to sacrifice, but do have to innovate. Most relevant to the current at ONA was, ironically, a few days later at PRPD, where Audible exec (and former public radio leader) Eric Nuzum remarked his goal was independent of platform. His mission? “I create great listening experiences that stay with the audience long after they’re done listening.”

Investment is creative and financial. It’s daunting to see how many community radio outlets defeat themselves by thinking small. The focus tends to be more on resources, what we have and don’t, and how we do with less, not how we can hustle up more. ONA had so many examples of creative journalism that institutions and readers would clearly fund. I am certain community radio has no shortage of stories in our respective neighborhoods. However, we need to be willing to first, focus on how to tell them in new and exciting ways, and second, radio needs to be willing to put some money into the people and methods to tell bold stories.

ONA is one of the most exciting developments for journalism. With diligence, community radio can pick up a few lessons along the way too.

You can listen to some of this year’s ONA sessions on Soundcloud and find links to slide decks, notes and more presentations on Twitter.

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