News stations should watch for competition from low-power upstarts

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A recent New York Times article that spotlighted the growth of low-power FM stations should serve as yet another wake-up call for local NPR news radio stations.

The Times hypothesizes that, as well as being a valuable outlet for ethnic and community groups, LPFM stations are quickly finding paths as truly hyperlocal news outlets in the vacuum left by some NPR news stations that are not adequately covering their communities.

One slice of the story in particular should get the attention of NPR stations and NPR News itself. Media writer and historian Matthew Lasar accuses many public radio stations of abandoning local news and information. “There’s a lot of stations that just go on automatic pilot and play NPR and satellite downloads,” Lasar said in the Times. “That’s Low Power FM’s ace in the hole.”

The Times also focused on a Connecticut LPFM:

An early low-power success story is WNHH 103.5 FM in New Haven, Conn., started by Paul Bass, a veteran journalist. Mr. Bass founded The New Haven Independent, an online newspaper, in 2005; it has largely eclipsed the more than 200-year-old New Haven Register as the city’s civic watchdog. The key, he said, was eschewing the news industry’s growing enthusiasm for click bait, hastily shot videos and incessant tweeting, all at the expense of actual reporting.

Of course, WNHH is on the leading edge of what most LPFM stations are doing. It is probably a work in progress and likely does not enjoy the resources that some NPR stations have at their disposal for their news teams. Some stories now on WNHH’s website, such as “Chocolate Emporium Opening on Whalley,” are not likely to make news directors at public radio stations quiver. But others, such as coverage of a 14-term U.S. congresswoman and her view of how the country’s political system has changed, are indeed the type of local stories that could come from an NPR News station.

Some LPFM operators recognize that this opportunity exists because they perceive that local NPR stations are not defending their local turf. While it’s early in the game, LPFM stations such as WNHH are developing a path for other LPFMs to follow.

In June, LPFM operators swarmed the National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference in Denver. These new broadcasters were young, wide-eyed, community-focused activists using their new radio toys in ways they never thought possible at a local level. They see many possibilities and are trying as many different approaches as there are LPFM frequencies.

There are now more than 1,500 LPFM stations in the U.S. and its territories, with more than 750 licensed since 2014. These stations serve immigrant communities, take up advocacy, give students a shot at the mic and address a wide variety of other niches.

Seeing the enthusiasm for our old medium among the LPFM broadcasters at NFCB was both refreshing and rewarding. What struck me most was how their singular, bottom-up focus on their neighborhoods, communities and cities stands in stark contrast to almost all commercial and noncommercial broadcasters, who emphasize a top-down strategy utilizing nationally syndicated content.

I’ve been on this soapbox since the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I spent five years consulting for what was then called “National Public Radio.” Paragon’s research found a huge hole in American media for an in-depth, credible news source for international and national news. This is precisely how and when the “NPR News” brand was born. Since then, NPR News’ weekly listenership has grown from about 6 million to over 30 million listeners a week.

However, we found that a critical local component must be in place for the NPR News mission to succeed. Local NPR news stations must replicate on a local level what NPR News does for national and international news. That means local breaking news, local in-depth news, local investigative reporting, and local human stories behind the news. In essence, it means doing everything that NPR News does better than any media in the nation with national and international news, but at a local and regional level to seal the deal.

Sixteen years ago, “National Public Radio” was a mix of news information and cultural programs. But it saw a path to be the recognized leader of in-depth national and international news coverage, and the network boldly switched gears to become “NPR News” and take advantage of a huge opportunity. Here we are in 2016. NPR News is fulfilling its role as a major media brand in the U.S., but some local NPR stations are simply repeaters of nationally syndicated NPR content with little or no local news focus. Shame on those stations for operating no better or differently than the cost-cutting commercial radio groups we rail against.

To stations that are embracing local content, hats off! There are wonderful local leaders, such as KPCC in Los Angeles, WNYC in New York City and KCUR in Kansas City, Mo., that complete the proposition with excellent local and regional news coverage. KCUR has invested heavily in local reporting and in producing coverage of agricultural issues through Harvest Public Media.

St. Louis Public Radio and North Country Public Radio are among the growing number of stations producing locally focused podcasts. And KUT in Austin launched Texas Standard, a new weekday show focused on the state. Now it’s incumbent upon NPR and more of its member stations to step back up to the plate with staffs and budgets for producing local content to complete the local mission together.

Henry

Henry

The reality is that most LPFM stations are eons away from truly competing with an NPR news station. Their greatest strength — small coverage areas and defined communities that allow them to be hyperlocal — is also their greatest weakness — small audiences with limited revenue upside.

But in a world where new media competition comes unexpectedly from different directions, if it’s not LPFM, then some other form of local media will rise from new technology and make a concerted attempt to provide hyperlocal community content. Though digital forerunners such as AOL’s Patch failed, they also buoyed the efforts of local journalists who continue to focus on hyperlocal news.

So whether by LPFM or new competitors, there is a quiet race for ownership of hyperlocal content that NPR news stations are in the best position to own. Recognizing the opportunity is again the first step.

Mike Henry is c.e.o. of media consulting firm Paragon and a 2012 Peabody Award winner. His consulting clients for public radio have included NPR, American Public Media and public radio news and music stations. He is also a co-founder and brand manager of VuHaus, public media’s new music video platform. Email him at mhenry@paragonmediastrategies.com. This commentary was adapted from a post on Henry’s blog.