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.
WYSO? NPR member.
KLND? NPR member.
KNBA? NPR member.
Now now, no need to be so territorial and snarky about it. Though I agree, it’s weird that Sally would highlight the work of a pretty standard-issue NPR station like WYSO as being representative of community radio, especially in a piece where she’s explicitly defining community radio in comparison to public radio.
You should’ve seen what I deleted. :)
Anyhow, WYSO, despite being run by Noah Adams’ wife, has a history tottering between professional pubcaster and community station as you might expect from a non-com run by a small left-of-center college in a college town that’s never really been a student-run station (that just happens to be part of the Dayton market), complete with at least one attempt at a volunteer revolt over NPR membership and professional on-air staff and the accompanying “Save WYSO” web site. It’s not surprising that Kane would consider the station community (and it just might be an NFCB member, but it doesn’t carry Amy Goodman and most of the on-air volunteers are at night or on weekends nowadays and overnight is BBC World Service tied to the automation, just like most NPR News stations). BTW, WYSO is probably the only station in the country that has picked up “Prairie Home Companion” starting this season, which leaves APM with a net loss of a little over 100 stations.
BTW, WTIP doesn’t say it’s an NPR member, but they do carry “World Cafe,” which last I looked was an NPR program.
And it seems to me that the NFCB has tried in the past to make community stations more like pubcasters and failed, first with the so-called “Healthy Station Program” back in the 90s (although I wish there was something on the Internet from someone who was in favor of it) and then with their mostly-fruitless attempts a few years ago to get stations to pick up “The Takeaway” when it was competing with “ME” in morning drive.
Whether or not a a station carries NPR programming is not a litmus for them being a community station. Many community radio stations are also NPR members and feature a mix of volunteer inspired as well as syndicated programming. It’s no secret. Why does it have to be one or the other?
Our goal was to highlight inspiring work happening in the community radio space and to celebrate it. Plain and simple. WYSO’s Community Voices is a program initiative that Neenah Ellis was asked to talk about at an NFCB summit and our national conference. She has been a valuable mentor and source of inspiration to many who are looking to increase and expand the involvement of community members in local journalism efforts.
More than anything, these comments reinforce the need for a new conversation about the value of a broad spectrum of public radio stations existing across this country and it would be refreshing to do that without pitting them against one another. There are bigger fish to fry, but if naming NFCB’s past failures or criticizing a piece that was offering a positive perspective on community broadcasters (who happen to include volunteers in their efforts) makes you feel better, have at it.
A colleague of mine at a college station I used to work (fulltime) for put it quite elegantly: “Just because it’s college radio doesn’t mean it’s required to suck!”
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