Ramping up for Regional Summits this summer.
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“Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”
Teddy Roosevelt
Every time I hit the open road to visit stations I am reminded of the simple wisdom in Teddy Roosevelts’s often quoted words. In many ways, his words encapsulate the spirit of community radio and localism more broadly. It’s about showing up where you are and having the courage to care and the motivation to demonstrate that care.
One of the best values NFCB provides a station is providing a view of the larger community of community radio. This view eases isolation and allows for new ideas to enter and old ideas to be vetted. Our summer summits are the culmination of months and months of collecting information, processing data, and deep discussion about how to preserve the best of community radio and expand beyond that to keep the legacy alive. These affordable and high-quality convenings are unique to community radio and will not require translation for your context….we’ve made sure of that.
Do what you can to get there, from where you are, with what you have, and then take the experience back to your shop and plant the seeds. Lots of things are increasingly complex in this world….showing up for one another doesn’t have to be one of them. It’s what communities all across the world are built on.
Hope to see you this summer,

Sally Kane, CEO
National Federation of Community Broadcasters

Community radio today

At one of the most turbulent periods in the United States, it is hard not to wonder where community radio fits in. Who do we serve best? Who listens? And how do stations see themselves in a world where raucous headlines and alluring digital options vie for attention?
These are questions many community media organizations struggle with. We wonder if what we see is just our station, or if other organizations are experiencing the ups and downs we witness in our cities and towns. Finding listener data is a challenge. Above all, we want to know how community radio makes a difference.
As part of an ongoing survey of member stations, NFCB has begun to develop a new understanding of community radio in 2018. With its diverse membership, including strong representation among low-power FM to much larger university and community licensees, few organizations could undertake such work as NFCB is doing. And the preliminary results are startling. We're seeing trends that, for a long time, were simply anecdotal.
NFCB's membership is primarily rural, with 64 percent of stations classified in this fashion. Among members, stations are doing a lot with very little. Nearly half of stations in the survey operate with budgets under $150,000 annually. 63 percent operate with four staff members or less. However, these stations are nonetheless crucial in their communities. Local service, opportunities to partner with divergent stakeholders, and a passionate volunteer base continue to create hope and optimism.
Other insights:

These observations are not isolated to noncommercial radio. Making stronger local programming and responding to the demands of digital, for instance, are issues faced by commercial radio as well.

The biggest difficulties for community radio stations fit into three areas, and easily could be qualified as "the future." They are:
  • Development. Stations are experiencing stress with pledge drives and are concerned about their long-term fundraising, such as major giving, and underwriting.
  • Audience growth. Stations are dealing with more than just matters of attracting listeners, but how they can also welcome a new wave of volunteers and donors, ostensibly from its audience.
  • Staffing. Retaining talented people, attracting the new leaders, and handling transitions are top concerns. Stations also contend with an aging volunteer base and existing staff worked beyond capacity.
NFCB CEO Sally Kane will give an address on the state of community broadcasting at Native Broadcast Summit later this month. Here, NFCB expects to dive more into where community media is going, the federal landscape and community radio's place is a media saturated world.

You can follow NFCB on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more statistics on where community radio is today, trends and innovation.

Matt Murphy, WERU

Matt Murphy is the general manager of WERU Community Radio, which broadcasts along the Midcoast and Downeast Coast of Maine, as well as up the mighty Penobscot River.

Matt has been involved at the station since 1993, first as a volunteer working in outreach and promotion, then as a board member, followed by a stint as Underwriting Manager and finally as General Manager since 2000. He has also hosted a number of programs over the years, most recently showcasing Maine musicians performing live on the air. Prior to joining the staff of WERU, he worked in education and boatbuilding.

What got you into community radio?

I was, of course, a dedicated listener, but I also worked at a boat yard up the road from WERU. I drove by the station every day after work and got thinking: “I ought to help out there.” Before I knew it I was the volunteer editor of the monthly program guide, amongst other things. It was very cool meeting so many nice and interesting people, and being part of such a community-oriented organization. 

What are the biggest challenges your station faces today?

When WERU started thirty years ago in a big converted chicken coop, it was the area’s only local source for alternative content outside mainstream and corporate media. Now there is an abundance of options available for entertainment and information, and thus our competition has never been stronger. Another challenge is demographic, as we live in a rural area of the oldest state in the country, listeners and volunteers under 40 are in short supply, and our core audience and volunteer pool is aging. Both in terms of fundraising and volunteerism this is obviously a big problem, one that we share with a great many other stations.

WERU recently re-launched its website. How did this project start, progress and conclude?

A couple of years ago, we decided that our decade-old website was crowded, cluttered and not particularly user and management friendly. It was time for something new and clean. The project started with polling of staff and key volunteers to determine the requirements for a new site. We then put out an RFP and chose our consulting firm from a field of six. Progress was slow because our once-a-week IT person and I had eight gazillion other things going on, but we persevered in working with our design consultant. Ultimately we did beta testing with a small group of staff, volunteers and listeners we know well, and then launched near the end of last year. We are currently in the stage of finding and fixing things that aren’t quite right, but for the most part it is working. Reception of the new website has been largely positive. Grant funds and personal gifts paid for the project.

What has strategic planning for WERU been like for you?

It has been both a fun adventure and a nerve-wracking experience.

First, the fun: community member focus groups and an online listener survey. It has been very interesting to see themes emerge and dovetail between the groups and the survey. Also very interesting was a Board and Staff Summit to work on goals and outcomes for the plan that will ultimately emerge. Our small Strategic Planning Committee is now working a summary of the research (which actually goes beyond the focus groups and survey) and a draft plan out of notes from the summit.

The nerve-wracking part is that there is so much information to summarize and so much is riding on this plan for the next one in three years. Nearly everyone is anxious about the challenge of aging listeners and volunteers and many people (inside and outside the organization) hope that this plan will provide answers. There is a lot of pressure for this strategic plan to be really, really good.
How has digital factored in to your station vision?

That is a matter yet to be determined in strategic planning. Our online presence will obviously have to continue to grow in quantity and sophistication. Actually, I’m hoping to pilfer ideas from other stations as they evolve like us. Seriously, though, there is so much information that our stations have to share.
As a longtime manager, how can new leaders avoid burnout in doing work they love?

Recognize that you can’t be all things to all people. Don’t try to do everything. Align your priorities with your board’s priorities (through strategic planning). Delegate. Have some non-station activities and endeavors that you do to recharge, be creative and connect with people without your community radio hat on. Don’t be a community radio GM all the time!

A matter of trust

Whether your station airs all music, all news/talk or a mix, political polarization is impacting all broadcasters. A growing number of Americans say they feel media is biased, dishonest and otherwise fails to tell the whole story.
Paula Kerger, president and CEO of Public Broadcasting Service, recently spoke on the matter of distrust. She remarked on the necessity of an informed citizenry and how consolidation of ownership in media has created tensions for Americans. The 24-hour news cycle blurring the lines between opinion and news, and reporters not coming from the communities they cover, were among other issues she said contribute to the public's skepticism of what they get from media. In addition, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism points out media's reliance on characters may draw attention, but can reproduce negative stereotypes about the community. These sorts of stories, in turn, erode trust.

As locally focused, locally sourced organizations, community radio may be poised to avoid the media backlash. But are you doing enough to foster more trust?

The problem is compounded for nonprofits, which depend on contributions but are facing some scandals on the international front. Oxfam launched an app to rebuild trust, but it could be a long road. Moreover mistrust has major consequences for community-based media. Relationships are your key to donations, volunteers and ultimately survival.

How are organizations like yours looking to create more trust? Here are some starting points:
  • As context, the Columbia Journalism Review points out that mistrust has been simmering for a long time, for complicated reasons. "The Trump administration can hardly be held responsible for every crackdown against the press or incident of intimidation or violence; there are numerous factors at play, and plenty of countries have had issues that long predate Trump’s arrival on the world stage."
  • Adding on, Pew's latest research on trust points out "the rise of the internet and social media has enabled entirely new kinds of relationships and communities in which trust must be negotiated with others whom users do not see, with faraway enterprises, under circumstances that are not wholly familiar, in a world exploding with information of uncertain provenance used by actors employing ever-proliferating strategies to capture users’ attention."
  • An opening: emergency preparedness. An overwhelming majority of Americans want noncommercial media to provide information about disasters. "Leveraging the vast public broadcasting infrastructure can serve as a highly effective means to deploy life-saving advance alerts for all Americans, including those with disabilities, living in rural areas, and for low income communities."
  • There is an extensive list of tools to help your station understand trust and how you can identify and address gaps in trust in your community.
  • Trust is fostered by understanding and awareness. Kim Bui asks, "Can journalists use similar techniques to provide more representative coverage of communities that are unlike them?" She points out that the goal of inclusivity in media is to understand different kinds of communities and portray them more richly and accurately.
  • Former NPR CEO Ken Stern has suggested distrust is oftentimes prompted by the bubbles of reporters and others who make assumptions "Some of this loss of reputation stems from effective demagoguery from the right and the left, as well as from our demagogue-in-chief, but the attacks wouldn’t be so successful if our media institutions hadn’t failed us as well."
  • The failures of one project may instruct you in ways to build trust from audiences. Said one former principal, advice is simple: “Introduce yourself with a sense of openness and humility, and say: You know more than I do. Here’s what I want to try. Here’s how I would love it if you could help. What might you be able to do?” It’s not about throwing up a form and expecting magic to happen, but actually doing the work to get out there in front of people and meet them."
The good news is strengthening trust for your audience has major benefits. Young people and those with college degrees and higher levels of education say independent media matters to them, and that they're willing to pay to support it. How your organization positions itself amid the upheaval is up to you.

We hope to see you soon at the NFCB Regional Summit events near you.
Copyright © 2018 NFCB, All rights reserved.

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