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Where is Our Radiotopia? Why community radio is still waiting for its podcast moment…

By July 21, 2015August 12th, 2019Digital Strategy

Public media loves podcasts. Big time. There are thinkpieces, studies, analyses and projects — oh projects upon projects upon projects – that give you a sense of just how committed public media is to this burgeoning content.

In this world, Public Radio’s Exchange’s Radiotopia has been the unspoken poster child. Millions of dollars are coming in, dozens of NPR and other stations are broadcasting its content, and its programs are hailed nationally. It isn’t alone. WNYC and others are scoring accolades and more for their efforts.

For public media, podcasts are a wonderful thing, really. The medium is having a rather serious age and diversity crisis. Podcasts address a number of problems before public radio particularly. And the early returns indicate betting on podcasts is a smart gamble.

All is not rosy, unfortunately. For community radio, the hyperlocal outlets that were long a cornerstone of public media but today largely fly under the radar, this is a renaissance that’s passing one of the country’s great treasures by.

Chances are if you’re not attuned to the media world, you just don’t know what it is when people say community radio. So what is it? From low-power FM to 100,000-watt stations, community radio graces many cities with a blend of music, talk and news. It’s not NPR. In fact, community radio probably is more like college radio or public-access television than the venerable public radio institution. Community radio often operates largely with volunteer hosts, its content is generally quite specialized, and it values localism perhaps most of all. Picture an all-vinyl show, a reggae program, a city/state affairs talk show, an open-mike hour and a program heavy on local music all in one place and you’ve profiled, well, easily the majority of community radio.

Now, community radio was all about engagement and the other buzzwords in the public media bingo game, long before it was cool. How it lost that swagger over the decades depends on who you ask. Some might say it never lost it at all. One thing is certain though. Community radio is not running game in a space in which it is a natural leader.

In fact, community radio has more in common with podcasting than NPR-centered stations. It’s independent in orientation, operates more like a startup than the public radio you’re used to, and has access to community voices because of its infrastructure. What’s more, with its sometimes weird, sometimes fascinating blend of genres, subjects and niche programs, it is far more diverse than a lot of public media.

With all this going for it, why is community radio failing so badly at podcasting?

Goals. Deciding what its podcasting objectives and sound are may be among the many obstacles before community radio. At a March summit by the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, PRX’s John Barth, a public thought leader and one of Radiotopia’s great minds, suggested community radio consider podcast networks. While that sounds like a huge undertaking, it represents innovative thinking for stations that are too used to putting their own spin out there, and not thinking about the bigger picture of representing community radio. Community radio needs to consider its vision, what it wants to present in the digital space, and what compelling things it can share to inspire conversations in communities across the United States and the world.

Focus. In community radio stations so diverse, and with so much emphasis on the terrestrial signal, a lot of energy must be put into understanding why podcasting matters. At virtually every community radio station I’ve encountered, the dominant din of bickering is over FM airtime. In these studios, it’s still a game of small ball, where appointment radio reigns. Podcasting, video streaming and are not seen yet for the critical opportunities they are. These options are a fantastic way to reach an audience that probably isn’t listening to the FM signal anyway. Community radio needs to look upon podcasting as a chance to build new relationships, rather than as a throwaway to terrestrial radio, which may be struggling with money and audience already.

Awareness. Once community radio is focused on the importance of podcasting, it needs to be aware of its trends if its leadership hopes to own radio’s place there. Radio is by no means special when it comes to podcasting, and needs to bring an enterpreneurial mindset, because the independent podcasts, public media operations and others are way ahead right now. Moreover, community radio needs to move from a 2003 mentality with podcasts. These days, recordings on a broadcast aren’t podcasts simply because there’s an RSS feed. Community radio needs to be actively observing podcasts, and stepping up to do interesting sounding content. Lessons like the Latino Public Radio Consortium research give hints on how stations are crafting sound to appeal widely. Overall, understanding the change around us is crucial for success.

Dedicating resources. Community radio almost always lives on few assets. For purposes of podcasting, such isn’t the worst thing, since a lot of great podcasts are the product of one or two people. However, the strategic orientation for community radio must be about both devoting money and adding talent to these projects (rather than piling more work to overworked staff) and creating alliances with local podcasts to share intellectual as well as practical capital. This requires a reorientation of staff and leadership, not to just devote a part-timer to working on podcasting, but for the stations to change how they work, and to recognize great talent not in a station currently who can take that institution to a new level.

Community radio has many challenges before it in joining the podcasting revolution. Like NPR, it must answer strategic questions. How does a podcast align with existing content? Or does it sound completely different than one’s existing programming? What are the hallmarks of community radio’s sound that a podcast must embody? Given its unique history, community radio is poised to meet the challenge.

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