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Opinion Community radio has to partner with podcasters to stay competitive

National Guard troops keep watch while posted outside the Mondawmin Mall after the 2015 riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray. The mall was the subject of an episode of “Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City.” (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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This month, at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference in Denver, writer and activist Malkia Cyril told an audience of radio professionals, “Black speech has never been free. It’s up to us to become 21st century abolitionists.” It quickly became clear during her keynote address, as Cyril was met with head-nods and applause, that this kind of call to arms was typical at the conference, where broadcasters confronted the financial realities of their industry and the opportunities and risks that come with podcasting.

Community radio stations — stations owned and informed by geographic communities and communities of shared interest — are mission-driven. They tend to serve smaller towns and prioritize civic service or activism. There are currently 776 community radio stations in operation — 45 are Latino, 52 are Native American and 32 are properties of historically black colleges and universities. For decades, these stations have given voice to marginalized groups who are not often heard on larger public radio stations.

But for just as long, community radio stations have also been underfunded and under-resourced. This was another key theme of this year’s NFCB conference. In a separate keynote address, Corporation for Public Broadcasting Radio Vice President Erika Pulley-Hayes told the crowd, “Welcome to VUCA world,” citing a Harvard Business Review article that introduced the acronym — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity — to management communities this year. Pulley-Hayes suggested that VUCA sums up the obstacles community broadcasters are facing, as the technological boom continues and podcasts are experiencing a major resurgence of popularity.

Though community radio stations may have always been more attuned to the voices and concerns of the underserved, including low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, they’ve also had to adhere to the constraints of time, budget and editorial regulation. Independent podcasters circumvent many of those barriers and often serve the same communities without editorial oversight.

Broadcasters, then, are searching for new ways to compete, with limited resources, in an ever-changing audio landscape. One way they’re pursuing that goal is through strategic partnerships with independent podcast producers within the communities they serve. Many of those podcasters are people of color, members of the marginalized groups the stations have always sought to serve.

I was attending the NFCB conference in the first place because I’m currently working as an independent producer, in partnership with Morgan State University’s radio station in Baltimore. We’re collaborating as part of the Association for Independents in Radio’s (AIR) Finding America initiative, which selected and paired 15 public and community media outlets with 17 independent producers to create innovative, experimental projects and funding the work we’re building.

Most of the programming we create through Localore gets broadcast on traditional radio stations or television networks. My show, “Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City,” which looks at city institutions like Mondawmin Mall and Baltimore’s historically black banks, airs on the “Marc Steiner Show” on WEAA 88.9 FM.

Their premise has been that, with adequate funding, public media can attract new voices and create programming unlike any already available to the station. AIR and Finding America Executive Director Sue Schardt also noted during an NFCB panel that 73 percent of Finding America’s independent producers are women and 46 percent are people of color, emphasizing that stations, in seeking to establish partnerships with new media producers, should keep an eye toward diversity of race, gender and ability.

For community broadcasters, remaining technologically competitive is paramount. And for the communities they serve, the continued existence of the stations themselves is essential. It only makes sense for members of the community to find new ways to collect insights and create new media in partnership with the stations on which they rely. It is time for community broadcasters to become 21st century abolitionists, freeing and elevating voices that have normally been shut out of traditional outlets. But to successfully expand their reach, they’ll need to revolutionize their methods — and there are plenty of undiscovered community voices willing to help them accomplish that mission.