Thursday, March 5, 2009

Community Supported - but not so supportive - Radio

The Problem with Community Supported Radio

Balance. What we need is balance.

After years of listening mostly to Community Supported radio stations I rarely listen to the radio at all anymore. I have difficulty supporting these stations, for it seems to me that the problem with Community Supported radio is precisely the lack of community support by the radio stations themselves. These stations exhibit little interest in their home Communities, and thus provide little support via programming. It seems a questionable business model for the times.

There is an oddly persistent idea that what is outside of the Supporting Community is of far greater interest than what is inside the Community; that which comprises the very Community. This is not really a surprise I guess; our culture has the odd idea that This Here Now is always of far less interest than That There Then. Other and Them, They and Theirs are always far more interesting than we and ours. We aspire to be like Them, Later, and thus are pretty hopelessly unattractive Here Now as we Be.

This is perhaps most apparent in the realm of music that is aired by these Community Supported radio stations. Our local station, for example, has a two-hour local music feature each week. Two hours!! A mere 1.190% of total airtime. I live in Charlottesville, VA., the self-proclaimed center of the Musical Universe. Incubator of the next big thing, to hear the locals tell it. And local music gets 1.19% of airtime. Of course the argument will be made that a small handful of local media dolls also get their music played in rotation with the big guns. Okay. 1.2013%. Or something.

I don’t know how much music the average listener hears each week. Let say 25 hours, which seems a lot, and 2 hours of that is at a live show featuring local music. In this case the listener spends 8% of their listening time locally - more than 6 times the airplay allocated. I’d venture to say that in C’ville it’s more than 8%.

But it’s not just music. It’s apparent in the news as well, and special programming. The last time I heard an NPR station spend significant time in their community of listener-supporters is when 30-some people were shot dead at Virginia Tech. Hey, thanks; or something. Frankly I don’t recall the last time C’ville’s resident “Community Radio Station” spent significant time in the community. Admittedly though, I don’t listen much.

I have a hard time justifying financial support for entities that point to everything but our friends, our neighbors, and our community as being “the really good thing”. I am not convinced that some heartwarming story of bravery or overcoming the odds does not exist a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold, right Here, at home.

I personally am over the delusion that a singer-songwriter from Dubuque or Toronto brings more to my Community than the thousands of artists that live and practice here. I have also outgrown the childish idea that bringing them or their music into our community via the airwaves or a show at a local club for an exclusive audience somehow enriches our entire Community. In my experience this silly idea fosters continued practice of Audience Discrimination by these stations and the artists they promote.

Color me as you will, but I do not want to “be like them”, nor do I want my community to “be like theirs”. I want to be like me, and I want our community to be like us. If I wanted to live in New York or Philly, I would. I don’t. I am impressed with central Virginia. I am positively overwhelmed by the music here, and the arts. I am grateful for them. I understand what DC and Philly and the like have to offer that we do not have here, and I know how to travel to those towns.

Frankly what is being forgotten by these stations as well as by NPR is the simple fact of E Pluribus Unum. Without Communities there is no national news, music, arts, or anything of special interest. Our Nation is not only defined by certain communities like Philly or Boston or Lake Wobegon, which we are asked to support with our Community Radio dollars. Our Nation is not only defined by certain individuals.

As a community organizer with a 14 year history of direct community impact through music I can only say “thanks for precious little”, and I can no longer send money. As a local promoter who has tried endlessly to present a handful of talented, aspiring local musicians that have been thanklessly serving the Community that your stations turn to for support, again, “thanks for precious little”. I understand that your business model does not support the idea that your Community is of value beyond financing what you do, and I can not support this business model. It is not “the right thing to do”, as I have heard you say.

I called into a talk show the other day to present this idea to the NPR ombudsman – this idea that the Nation is built of Communities, and that I would like to see NPR place more focus on these communities that their supporting stations exist in and draw support from. She missed the point, and said this was a station question, not an NPR question. The host missed it as well, cut me off and took me to task for what he thought I was saying.

During his response he said that NPR listeners are “discriminating”, and want these “high-quality” programs. I guess this means they do not want to hear about their neighbors, except when 30 of them get killed. But then he let the cat out of the bag, for he said that fewer than 1/3 of these discriminating listeners that listen to NPR stations donate money to support them. I don’t know where he gets this or if he means locally or beyond, but it certainly lends a fresh meaning to the idea of “discriminating listener”, and the business benefit of catering to them.

I’m leaning more and more in the direction that the discriminating entity may well be the radio station, not the listener. Perhaps if they would quit discriminating against the Communities in which they hope to thrive they would experience improved Community Support.

Ultimately the news is available everywhere, anytime. NPR programs can be streamed & podcasted. There are a handful of NPR affiliates, and a couple more Community Supported stations that offer similar news. It's tough to justify supporting them all, for sure. And the music they broadcast is as well readily available from countless sources, so it's tough to say they provide some breakthrough insight into today's music.

Balance. What we need is balance.

E Pluribus Unum, and United We Stand...

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Best of Now, always,

Greg & Alice the Canine Messiah

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