Monday, July 24, 2006

radio with heart

the annual grassroots radio conference is coming up this weekend, july 27 - 30, in madison, WI. basically a bunch of radioheads from community, grassroots, volunteer run and low-power stations across the country will descend upon the town and spend a few days "figuring out more and new ways of social action, making new friendships and renewing old ones, and creating great radio." Sessions will include: "public journalism: philosophy and ethics," "activism around FCC, censorship and obscenity issues," and of course the ever-present "gender/womens' programming" topic will be covered as well.

i've been to a couple GRCs in the past and i have to say - while i may be considered a more conservative attendee (no, i don't actually think that 'democracy now' is our only hope for salvation. humor! people! a sense of humor can be revolutionary and edifying too!) - i can also vouch for the fact that something really special happens over the course of each gathering. the sheer passion that attendees have for their stations and colleagues is tangible, and contagious, and restorative. and people really really really believe in the power of the radio to make change, and educate, and stimulate listeners to important action. it's heartening to witness and participate in, especially since i spend so much of my time with independent producers who are struggling to make a career out telling stories on the radio, but are doing so often without the firm support of stations or communities behind them. the producers i work with often don't have something to care fiercely about, or feel proud to be part of in the same way i can always sense is all around me at GRCs. and i happen to think it's important to care fiercely.

though i respect, not to mention adore the community of public radio producers i've come to know over the past six years, the public radio system at large feels pretty sterile, isolated and starched compared with the sometimes crazy, often manic and totally dedicated community station devotees. (and of course, it's whiter than white. but that's another discussion for another time.) there's a lot of overlap between the public and community radio worlds, and also a lot of mutually agreed upon separation, but in the end maybe the easiest way to put it is to say that while they both offer invaluable services to their respective audiences, listeners and practitioners, the community radio world proudly wears a certain sense of moxie that's unmatchable, in its own right. simply - it's refreshing.

so, uh, see you in madison?


Man who's a Red Sox Fan said...

Well, can't speak much for other cities...but here in Boston the "sometimes crazy, often manic and totally dedicated" alternative radio crowd is preaching to the choir and nobody else. There's easily a half-dozen major and minor radio outlets for really left-wing community programming (not just college), plus the dozen or so small pirate stations (mostly 20-500 watts in the top of the AM band, but a few FM pirates, too). They're all ultra-niche...nobody outside of that niche listens to them.

I think the five years of Allston-Brighton Free Radio, a very public pirate that had strong emphasis on community activism and involvement, summed it up well: the station members and management were repeatedly told by all sorts of folks (from homeless to elected officials) that they loved what "A-B-free" was doing...but when asked if they ever listened, they said "no". Technical problems were part of it, but not all...the bottom line was that people thought the idea was nice but if they don't listen then they don't hear the fundraising begging or the underwriting, and both sources of revenue dry up.

Alternative sources usually are available but aren't enough to cover the costs. So the station eventually goes under.

Meanwhile, public radio has found a good niche to service and has tapped into a vast reservoir of funding from that audience (directly and indirectly). They have done so by realizing that when you try to please everyone (by being truly "public" radio , for ALL the public) you end up pleasing nobody.

Transmitters don't power themselves. Studio rent doesn't pay for itself. The right to the airwaves, if you can call it that, is not dissimilar to the right to a free press; I can't stop you from printing your paper...but you've got to fund it yourself.

If community radio wants to stay on the's got to realize that you've got to have programming that will draw listeners who are willing to support that programming. Congress hasn't been willing to support those costs for 20 years and if anything they're trying to support it less than the meager amount they do now...don't bother trying to get the government to give more!

Ehhh...I'm old and bitter. After 10 years of working with and for community radio people, it's not refreshing - it's just annoying. Watching the same heads bash against the same wall for a decade? You'd think so too.

Ann H said...

Agreed agreed. And recommended by The Current no less!