What should local radio be?

At last week’s meeting of the minds at NPR, there was much discussion about the difficult position local stations find themselves in as the value of their distribution diminishes. And it was said, as an article of faith or perhaps reflex, that going local is the answer — the same answer given for newspapers these days. But as I thought about it on the train ride back, I wondered what that really means.

Obviously, it’s not easy for a radio station to get hyperlocal; it has just one big pipe and no resources to cover a market broadly. It’s not easy for newspapers, either, but they clearly have a headstart with a larger staff of reporters and the ability to slice their products into local zones. So I asked myself what the strength of a radio station is and the answer’s apparent: promotion. A station can drive a sizable audience to something new online. But what do they get when they get there? And what content on the radio station continues to draw the audience to give it that promotional power? Not easy questions.

I’d start and the end and say that a local radio station must stop thinking of itself as radio. It has the power to develop local communities of news, information, and interest. It can use its promotional power to drive people there. It could, for example, get people in a market to record every damned school board and town council meeting and put them online, served by the station. It could create the meeting place where people share news and information, competing with or even in cooperation with local papers. It could be a home for talk about local issues and news.

So what is the on-air content? It’s not hyperlocal. But it could be a meta version of that: talk about the issues that cut across the region with reporting from the best of the local communities. It could feature the best citizen critics giving you reviews of local arts and entertainment. I don’t come up with much here. So I’d say that the station has a limited time frame in which to use its promotional power.

Here’s Zadi Diaz’ take on the same issue out of the same meeting:

So why listen to radio?

There will always be a need to connect in real-time. To know that there is another person on the flip side that can give you perspective on the present and can communicate back to us. It’s a living, breathing thing. And in a world that becomes progressively automatic, the need to connect on a deeper level will grow.

People like to be social. Twitter is proof of that. To me twitter is the text version of a well-oiled ham radio. People sending out ideas, and questions, and mundane little things that may only be of importance to a handful. But it’s that instant live connection that makes it so special. You know what someone is doing at that very moment. And in a sense, it puts you there with them.

People also love to tell their stories. To each other. Conversation. The thing about Twitter that makes it electric is that there are multiple conversations going on at once. You become a receptor, a connector, and a storyteller all at once. I feel this is the key to the future of live broadcasting:

Becoming a converstation. No misspellings there.

Creating a converstation within NPR can only benefit everyone involved. Maria Thomas, who invited us to the panel discussion spoke about how NPR was born of storytellers. It immediately conjured images in my mind of people sitting around a campfire and sharing their stories. Around that campfire there is the storyteller and the people listening. The storyteller isn’t in a vacuum, there is ambiance, they occupy space, they are also listening to the listeners. The storyteller is the independent producer who is an expert in the story they tell. NPR can build small campfires and enable those storytellers to begin and ultimately develop the grandest story of all.

Local member stations+storytellers= campfires

Campfires can especially grow in a beautiful way online. The use of a website becomes less about providing news (we have feeds for that), and more about being a social hub where people can go to connect. There is a reason why there are so many social networking sites. Why can’t organizations think of their websites like they do their buildings?
– You have your reception area where the receptionist answers your FAQs
– Office spaces which are only accessible to employees
– Conference rooms where you hold meetings
– Mess hall where people from inside can congregate and speak to each other
– Lobby where people from the outside can talk to each other and to the employees
– Etc.. play room?

If you’re not afraid to open up your building to the public, there should be no fear of opening up your web site to a little one-on-one communication.

So what you end up with is an endless number of little radio stations making their own connections. The old radio station is some collection of the best or widest of that.

I’m still not satisfied that there is a great answer for local radio. But if the Siriux, XM merger (below) goes through, I think that creates more opportunities for local NPR radio. The rest of radio — from the big companies and from satellite — will be national. NPR member stations can be the last outpost of local radio. They can’t afford to get more local on their own but they can do it in partnership with their listeners.

: Zadi was nice enough to note:

– just googled the word “converstation” and realized Jeff had blogged about the word a while back. How funny.

  • Dom

    I agree that the art of storytelling is the binding force for local community radio stations. I recently posted about the college radio stations as one of the last bastions for true community radio. There are limitations and obstacles in the delivery of community programming. There needs a partnerships with listeners. Funding drives are a reality, but they have has become a seasonal/vitality indicator of sorts. Every time a funding drive rolls around, you know that a) the station is alive and kicking and b) it must be autumn, at least for my neck of the woods.

  • One vital role for radio that hasn’t been talked a lot about is this: Reaching people during a disaster. When the power goes out and the community is in crisis, all of our fancy networks will come down to a battery-powered transistor radio. It would be good for news organizations from various media to partner with a local radio station or have their own transmitter.

  • Kris Patel

    I agree with you, Jeff and Ms. Diaz, on the topic that local radio should be a place for “users” to connect. Local radio broadcasting is a world that has been put on the back burner with the onset of internet networking. In the same way we used to tune in to our favorite radio station on the way to work in order to hear about the daily goings-on through the eyes of a real person; we are now “tuning in” to our favorite blogs and v-blogs. This world is changing and so I believe it is time for local radio to embrace the change. NPR has a chance to adapt to the same world which blogging has encompassed and I believe they should do it. With the right strategy they could be a revitalized voice to which people listen to and contribute to. People will call into radio stations to “leave their comments” just as we post comments on the blogs. Kudos to you, Jeff and Zadi, for pointing out that radio could be just as successful as blogs if approached correctly!

    [I hope that I grasped the topics within this post correctly. I am slightly sleep deprived lately.]

  • Duffer

    There is a network called the Emergency Broadcast Systems.
    In case of an actual emergency you will be instructed to tune your radio to this station for…
    TV stations in hurricane country have generators to stay on the air.

    Didn’t talk radio save AM radio 15 years ago? Sports talk, political talk? Tech talk? Car talk? Financial talk? Limbaugh, Imus, Stern and the others?
    How is your converstation different that what is already on the air?

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  • People will call into radio stations to “leave their comments” just as we post comments on the blogs.

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