Ron Lombard was settling into retirement after more than 30 years in TV news when he received a call in September 2021 from WCNY CEO Mitch Gelman asking if he wanted to return to his roots in radio and run the station’s FM operations.
Not only did Gelman want Lombard to take over the station’s flagship Classic FM station, he also had an idea for how WCNY could use HD Radio to reach different audiences in the region like veterans and immigrants.
“Mitch told me that he wanted me to start thinking about how we use one of our HD stations to create a station that’s about local people, local perspectives and positive stories about the community,” Lombard said. “He was looking for something that would tap into untapped resources and give voice to the voiceless.”
Lombard started as WCNY’s director of FM radio in October 2021, and Gelman’s idea turned into CommunityFM, a community-focused stream that launched in summer 2022 on HD Radio and online. Lombard said the project aims to provide an outlet where individuals and organizations in the greater Syracuse area can promote their work and provide informative content.
CommunityFM also stems from the Digital Transformation Program run by CPB and the Poynter Institute in 2022. WCNY was one of 75 public media stations selected to participate and developed Our New Neighbors, a series to engage central New York’s growing immigrant audience. The work on that project helped establish connections that led to a monthly show on CommunityFM, the first on the stream.
The HD station CommunityFM occupies previously played 24-hour jazz, which local programming has gradually replaced. CommunityFM started with 14 hours of local programming per week in July 2022. That has grown to 48 hours per week as of last month, with a goal of getting to around 60 hours per week by the end of the year.
CommunityFM’s shows include Syracuse (On)Stage, a show about the region’s theater scene, and Check Up From the Neck Up, hosted by a local psychologist who discusses physical and mental health. Most shows tape a new episode each month in WCNY’s studios. The shows air on HD channels through the month and are posted on the station’s website. The station also broadcasts audio versions of WCNY’s TV programs and partners with local podcasters to air their episodes.
Leaning into partnerships
Lombard said he read a little about the history of community radio as he was thinking through what the station would look like. But he mostly relied on his gut instinct and trial and error to figure out what worked.
“We collectively dreamed it up and said, ‘OK, well, what if we did this? What if we did that?’” Lombard said. “Fortunately, things have worked out pretty well. All in all, we haven’t had a show fail yet.”
Both Lombard and Lauren Easton, WCNY’s manager of marketing, public relations and events, acknowledged that getting listeners to tune into HD Radio can be a challenge and that they’re looking for listeners to tune in online more than on the radio.
“A lot of stations are pushing the stream on demand more than they are the livestreaming,” Easton said. “On social media, I’ll include calls to action to listen at a specific time but also include the livestreaming link if people want to come back later.”
Lombard said that from July 1, 2022, to April 26 CommunityFM had 395,000 streams from 17,500 users and about 5,000 plays of its online content. The most successful promotional boosts have come from organizational partners like Syracuse Stage or the veterans group Honor Flight Network sharing links to the shows they’re involved with.
“What we’re finding is that the more actively that our partners who worked with us on the programming will share the links on social media, the more likely it is that more people will find it and listen to it and seek it out,” Lombard said.
‘Real value’ in bringing people together
Dan Cummings hosts the CommunityFM show CNY Heroes, which tells stories of the area’s veterans and issues they face. Cummings and Lombard are longtime colleagues from TV news, where Cummings previously reported on veterans issues. He too was newly retired when Lombard called him to host a show but said the decision was a no-brainer.
“Every show so far has included at least one person who has served our country and now they may hold a different role in veteran services,” Cummings said. “I want to use the interviews to highlight bigger issues that veterans face as far as homelessness, poverty, the need for legal service and the need to reacclimate into society.”
Cummings said he also appreciates the chance to return to radio, where he began his career, and have long-form conversations that are not possible in traditional TV news reporting. He’s also hopeful about the power of community-centered media to break down silos and build new relationships.
“It’s a powerful way to use a radio resource that’s been long neglected,” Cummings said. “The media landscape today is so fractured into so many little slivers of attention that I think there’s real value in something like this that can bring people together.”
Moving forward, Lombard said the team is ready to add several new shows to the CommunityFM lineup, and he has a backlog of requests from organizations that want to participate. WCNY does sell underwriting on the CommunityFM programming, but Lombard expects it will remain a volunteer gig for community hosts.
“We’ve got a way now that we can begin to bring that subject matter in, and it’s really worked out well for something [where] no money changes hands,” Lombard said. “These are all volunteer hosts who want to get the subject matter out there that they feel very passionate about.”