In a small town in Minnesota, WTIP shares intimate stories of its community through a newly launched locally focused news department. The coverage includes oral histories, interviews with visitors to the community and reporting on the challenges that residents of small towns face. The stories are touching, funny, and often help people keep a pulse on what is happening in their community. WTIP’s journalism is one of the few places where voices from this rural region on the north shore of Lake Superior can be heard.
Community radio stations like WTIP don’t have big newsrooms or teams of developers working on their websites. Broadcasting at 25,000 watts, WTIP’s newsroom is run by one or two staff with the help of volunteers. It covers issues important to the city of Grand Marais and Cook County, such as the impact of opioid addiction on local Native American reservations. WTIP does a lot with very little.
This setup is very similar to those found in community radio stations across the nation. By persisting against the odds, community radio stations have defied the predictions of many media professionals. On paper, there is no reason why low-power FMs, rural radio stations, Native stations or other grassroots media outposts dotting the country should be making it at all. Where everyone else in public broadcasting talks about economies of scale, community radio upholds the beauty and power of the small.
Through their connections to local service organizations, faith communities and schools, the staff and volunteers at community radio stations stitch the ordinary stories and experiences of people into an extraordinary tapestry that gives dimension and authenticity to the content. They curate narratives that are accurate representations of their communities, and they often serve as important local institutions generating as well as strengthening place.
Community radio helps people tell the stories of where they live. Ohio’s WYSO, for example, reported on the regional opioid drug epidemic and its human costs. During recent protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, KLND in South Dakota used social media posts to give its audience up-to-the-minute reports on conditions on the ground. KNBA in Anchorage chronicled the story of climate change-based relocation of entire villages. These examples and numerous others provide evidence of public media’s ability to find and amplify the voices of the citizenry. Journalism as a whole benefits from this.
Community radio stations provide unique value to their listeners, supporters and our democracy precisely because they are small. They are invested in particulars that are demanded and defined by communities. They serve as microphones for towns or regions, fulfilling the ethereal promise of media that serves all of the public. That promise is often relegated to the category of an ideal that’s rarely achieved within the larger U.S. media system. By serving a broad spectrum of communities, these stations help center the public in public media. They provide the greatest source of diversity we have in public media talent and content.
The National Federation of Community Broadcasters is committed to supporting this diversity. We have a simple mission to provide services that enable locally based media organizations to best serve their communities. Many of our members struggle with capacity issues brought on by economic and other conditions in their communities, which often have been historically underserved by public and commercial media. And yet, they persevere, demonstrating remarkable resilience and continued relevance.
The story of how community radio and NFCB respond to new demands placed upon all public media organizations exemplifies the vital entrepreneurial spirit that smaller scale organizations can demonstrate quickly, out of necessity. As we work to improve our fundraising and technology, we emphasize the importance of mission, of appreciating what we have created in a challenged and challenging space. We see our role among legacy media institutions as important, but not more important than the roles filled by others.
How community radio stations continue to carry out their missions despite being chronically underfunded and under resourced is worthy of conversation. Community radio has served as a veritable rookery for incubating talent and leadership in the larger public media system for decades. We still carry that torch and ask our public media colleagues to continue to recognize the value of this when discussing how our institutions must adapt and change.
If consideration and understanding of community radio’s role is lost, public media will lose a part of its soul. With its deeply rooted, local orientation, diversity of talent and commitment to opening its microphones to a rich chorus of voices, community radio helps distinguish public media from all the rest.
We’re navigating in a media environment that requires significantly distinctive content to capture the minds and imaginations of discerning listeners. It’s always been that way, but the competition for listeners’ time and attention has never been so fierce. Community radio continues to make that case on main streets and in neighborhoods, where listeners recognize themselves, their neighbors and their communities. That’s an effort worth noticing and even celebrating.
Sally Kane started volunteering at her hometown community radio station, KVNF in Paonia, Colo., as a teenager. She returned 20 years later as a deejay and board member and later led the station as general manager and executive director. In 2014, she joined NFCB as executive director, bringing her experience as a trained facilitator and nonprofit management consultant.