Urban Alternative stations seek to educate listeners about voting

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As the election approaches, several public radio stations that focus on serving people of color are promoting voter registration and education in their communities.

Four of the stations air the CPB-backed Urban Alternative music format. Their coordinated campaign, “The Movement Continues – Vote 2020,” encourages young people to vote while educating them about registration and important deadlines.

The Urban Alternative format was created to engage younger and more diverse audiences in major cities. The stations carrying the format are Chicago Public Media’s Vocalo, KTSU in Houston, KUVO’s The Drop in Denver and WNSB in Norfolk, Va. 

“These are all new types of radio stations serving an audience that public radio has never served before,” said Paragon Media CEO Mike Henry, a consultant for the Urban Alternative stations. “So it became pretty obvious that this was a campaign that spoke universally to all four stations and their markets on a nonpartisan basis.”

Each Urban Alternative station is partnering with local nonpartisan organizations to educate its audience about voting in local and national elections. Some of the stations plan to hold voter registration drive-thrus, while others will share information related to voter registration and rights through interviews, on-air promotions and social media posts.

The campaign “is the first example of the four Urban Alternative stations in public radio working collaboratively on a single effort,” Henry said.

Nikki Swarn, GM of The Drop, said she sees the campaign’s mission as fitting for her station’s presence in Colorado.

“Everything we do is community-facing, so getting behind voting and having young people understand the impact of voting — it’s germane to our overall messaging of impacting our community,” Swarn said. 

The Drop will participate in a Get Out the Vote campaign with Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and is planning to host registration drives throughout Colorado. The station is also creating content related to voting, including a program that will feature sound bites from interviews with community members about why they plan to vote. 

The Drop has been “a friend to the community,” and part of its mission is to make sure listeners know how important their individual votes are, Swarn said.

“The reason why we’re encouraging everyone to vote and take part in the political process is because they have a responsibility to be amongst the fabric of our state and our nation at large,” Swarn said. “We want to see change. It starts at the voting booth. It starts in our community.”

KTSU, the newest Urban Alternative station, celebrated its Sept. 4 launch of the format with a drive-thru voter registration the next day at Texas Southern University, the station’s licensee. The event was held in partnership with the Houston chapter of the NAACP, Houston Area Urban League Young Professionals, Project Activation and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. KTSU also plans to partner with local businesses in the coming weeks on giveaways to encourage voter registration. 

“For the launch, it was really, really important not only that we bring quality music but that our name becomes synonymous with social progress,” said Holly Charles, KTSU’s marketing and community engagement director. 

Like The Drop, KTSU is making a conscious effort to be a resource for its listeners in Houston, Charles said. The station aims to serve an audience of “Black and brown” listeners who are of a lower socioeconomic status, she said. 

“The way I look at it, how dare we not give information that we know is greatly needed in these communities?” Charles said. “These are the people who show up to our events. These are the people who call into the radio.”

KTSU GM and staff with Texas Southern University President Kenneth Huewitt and his wife at the launch of the station’s Urban Alternative format. (Photo: Courtesy of KTSU)

The voting campaign among the Urban Alternative stations is a vital service for their audiences, Charles said. 

“[The] Urban Alternative format has a lot of people who are underinformed or haven’t seen the system work for them,” Charles said. “So we want to make sure that they understand that this is our time to exercise that right to vote.”

Though not an Urban Alternative station, WCLK in Atlanta will feature discussions about the election on air, along with information about voter registration and the U.S. Census. 

The station has previously produced yearly content about voting. For the first time it is partnering this year with Black Radio United for the Vote, an organization of 11 radio stations focused on providing information about voting and the Census to Atlanta’s African American community. The station is unable to host its usual in-person events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Listeners began calling WCLK about voting resources in especially high numbers even before the station began airing election content, said Shed Jackson, the station’s communications and marketing director. The urgency for voting information came after Georgia’s primary, when voting machines malfunctioned and ballots were scarce.

“We exist for the purpose of bettering our community; it’s our responsibility,” said Wendy Williams, GM of WCLK. “To me, there would be no point of having airwaves or having a broadcast signal if you are not helping to sharpen the thought of your community.”

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