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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Another essay I wrote on the future of Community Radio

Community Radio: A Thing of the Past?

       “There goes the last DJ, who plays what he wants to play and says what he wants to say. There goes your freedom of choice. There goes the last human voice. There goes the last DJ.” (Tom Petty, The Last DJ).

       Community Radio has been an all consuming passion of mine for a long time now. It’s what I think about in the morning when I wake up and what I think about when I go to sleep. It is the reason I went back to college to major in communication. It is also the reason I have tried to turn volunteering at the station into a full time career. In fact, as I am writing this I am at the Radio Boise, having just finished my weekly show. I have often asked myself why I am so passionate about community radio and have also wondered if radio even has a future, considering the challenges faced by radio. We live in a world where access to music and information is almost instantaneous and people have been predicting that radio would go the way of the horse and buggy since TV became the newest technology in the 1940’s. Even just a few years ago, the advent of satellite radio was supposed to be a precursor to the death of radio. After almost a year on air, I know we are making a difference in the community but I wasn’t sure exactly what it was. And more importantly, is radio going to survive the glut of on demand music that is available. I needed to see if I could find the answer.
     I admit it. I am a nerd. When I need to find out the answer to something I’ll do a little research. I went straight to academic articles. First, I looked up the definition of community radio since I’m very analytical and like to start things from the beginning. Right away, I found several definitions.

     One article by Reed and Hanson stated that,” In recent years, community radio has become a

 viable alternative to both commercial and public radio, which produce nationally oriented programming designed to attract mass audiences. Community radio offers an alternative to the growing dominance of radio by corporate-owned conglomerates such as Clear Channel and Viacom” (214).
      Elliot also noted that the purpose of community radio is to respond to the needs of the community (8). Community Radio is much more than just radio and can act as a means for community organizing and activism (Coyer, 1). “Community Radio is 90% community and 10% radio” (Coyer, 1). Yes, Radio Boise does all of those things. So, I had defined what community radio means academically. To me it means to being part of something larger than myself and providing the community with content that is available nowhere else in the Treasure Valley. For example, my show is the only world music show on FM radio in Boise, locally produced or otherwise. Community radio is run by and for the local community, with a wide variety of content, ranging from indie rock to jazz to world music. Community radio also gives an outlet to local musicians who are virtually ignored on commercial stations, which greatly enhances a community’s local music scene. Being part of the process of building a community radio station from the ground up has helped me realize just how important community radio is to our community. Prior to April 11th, 2011, Boise was the largest metropolitan area in the country without a terrestrial community radio station.

     Of course, this is all well and good but is radio going to even be a viable medium for entertainment in a few years? This was the question that I really needed to answer since it would ultimately be pointless to learn the ends and outs of a media that no one will be using in the near future. What got me thinking about this question was a lecture I attended at Radio Boise, given by a man named Petri Dish, the founder of the Prometheus Radio Project, which is an organization devoted to helping small, low power FM radio stations to get on air. (Obviously, Petri Dish is his clever radio moniker.) The lecture, held in late October, was called “The State of Independent Radio”. Petri Dish said in the lecture that within fifteen years highly commercialized radio would not be a financially viable medium and that to survive, stations will likely turn to their communities for support. This got me wondering whether radio as a whole could survive such a radical shift in thinking.
     I thought about how often people listen to radio and my first thought was of the people commuting to work in their cars as the most common place people would hear radio. Then I thought about the other ways listen to music: I-pods, mp3 players, satellite radio, online streams, CD’s and laptop computers. There is definitely no shortage of ways for people to listen to music. I know that before I became involved in community radio, I rarely listened to radio even in my car. One look at the current state of commercial radio illustrates why. Frankly, commercial radio sucks and most anyone you ask would agree. There is too much advertising and when there is music it seems like you hear the same ten songs over and over. The programming is generally uninteresting, with DJ’s who are simply personalities that engage in annoying, pointless banter. In many cases, commercial radio stations simply broadcast a pre-recorded feed on radio stations in multiple cities, removing any sense of localism from the broadcast (Reed & Hanson, 215).
     By creating automated stations, a program produced in Chicago can be heard in dozens of cities nationwide and by inserting pre-recorded station call letters, make it sound local. This is a problem for anyone who enjoys the sense of local connection that one gets from hearing a local DJ whenever they turn on the radio. According to a recent article in Spin magazine, Clear Channel, which owns over 1,200 radio stations worldwide (fair.org), laid off nearly two hundred local DJ's across the country, allowing the stations to cut costs and broadcast the same programming in multiple markets (spin.com). Cumulus Media followed suit, firing at least 27 people from two Los Angeles radio stations that it had recently acquired. Among those who became jobless was Jim Ladd, from Classic Rock, KLOS, who was known as the last commercial Free-form DJ in the country as well as the man that inspired the Tom Petty song, "The Last DJ" (Hogan). This clearly shows that corporate media owners are more interested in profit than promoting a sense of localism and connection to the community.

     "We're not in the business of providing news and information. We're not in the business of providing well-researched music. We're simply in the business of selling our customers' products," said Lowry Mays, former CEO of Clear Channel Communications (“Freepress” 2).
     No wonder people dislike commercial radio so much. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. An article by Luscombe provided some hope by pointing out the despite new technology, in the United States, radio still reaches up to 93% of the population over 12 years old (112). In fact, the new technology is actually enhancing radio listenership in some cases through webcasts and social media (Luscombe, 112). Most community radio stations embrace online versions of their terrestrial broadcast because this increases the potential listenership as well as giving locals who are out of town the opportunity to listen to their local station no matter where they are.
     “Radio’s strength is that it has endured both despite and because of competition from new media and the availability of new technology” (Luscombe, 120).
     One of the things that set community radio apart from commercial radio is that it is entirely geared toward the local community that it serves. What I mean by this is that a community radio station in Boise, Idaho will sound nothing like the community radio station in Allegheny, West Virginia (Reed & Hanson, 220). If I were to travel to West Virginia and tune into one of their community radio stations, I would not hear music or public affairs programming that is the same as here in Boise. Conversely, if I were to tune into a corporate owned “classic rock” station, I would likely hear a station that sounded virtually the same. Reed & Hanson noted that the key difference between Public Radio and Community Radio is that public radio, in the wake of cuts of government grants, has been forced to sacrifice a lot of locally produced programming in favor Nationally syndicated NPR programs, such as Talk of the Nation and Morning Edition (218). Also, public radio is becoming more dependent on corporate sponsorship, with underwriting spots that are sounding more and more like commercials (Reed & Hanson, 218)
     “The growth of community radio in the last ten years can be seen as a response to the growing concentration of broadcast ownership by major media corporations” (Reed & Hanson, 217).
     One problem that threatens both commercial and non-commercial radio is the passage, in 2009, of the Performance Rights Act (McIntyre, 135). The PRA put regulations in place that forced stations, for the first time in broadcast history, to pay royalties for air play on terrestrial radio stations (McIntyre, 135). McIntyre also pointed out that the annual fees that stations would have to pay would be a considerable portion of the budgets of many smaller non-commercial and college stations, forcing them to go off air (136). Both commercial and non-commercial radio stations have joined forces to lobby heavily to overturn this bill (McIntyre, 136).
     I think there will always a place for radio in our society. It's one of the last free ways to get entertainment. I also think community radio will become more prominent in the future as people get tired of the cookie cutter format of commercial radio and become more involved in radio geared for the community. I also think internet radio is also going to rise and give individuals the opportunity to run their own radio stations. Community radio is a great way to become part of the solution when it comes to bringing media back to the people. That is the beauty of it; anyone can become involved and everyone has a say in what is being broadcast on the station.

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