Community Radio: Still Viable Amidst a Multitude of Choices
By Andrew Goutman
Community radio. There is actually no precise definition for it, other than its call numbers occupy the lower portion of the FM radio band (88.1 to 91.9, according to the FCC). It is overwhelmingly non-profit and therefore non-commercial radio–we can quibble about advertising vs. underwriting some other time–and it encompasses college radio and National Public Radio (NPR) affiliates. For our purposes, it does not include internet radio, satellite radio or whatever else is out there in cyberspace.
Wikipedia offers a very useful description: Community radio aims to “provide a mechanism for enabling individuals, groups and communities to tell their own stories, to share experiences and, in a media-rich world, to become creators and contributors of media.” It summarizes: “Community radio stations are operated, owned and influenced by the communities they serve.”
Non-commercial radio secures its funding from primarily three sources: 1) Through grants from the federally-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB); 2) Revenue from its affiliated college, if applicable, usually in exchange for a convenient educational venue for broadcasting students; and 3) Listener contributions large and small.
Tampa Bay Gets Its Community Radio Station
The CPB estimates that there are 1,041 public radio station in the US. Among those, the number of stations that rely primarily on listener support remains elusive…perhaps just as elusive as surviving without being able to go, hat in hand, to Uncle Sam or Old Main. But one such station surviving quite well is WMNF-FM in Tampa, FL. Since its founding in 1979 by a group of hard-working staffers who knocked on doors in the Tampa Bay area raising seed money to put Florida’s first community station on the air (Full disclosure: I was one of those people), WMNF has seen its revenues go up every year through its hands-on community approach. The station’s sustaining members will have contributed more than $300,000 in the past year. WMNF’s annual budget is determined after several lively meetings involving staff and a community board of directors who debate revenue and spending priorities.
“WMNF has operated in the black for most of its 34+ years,” says Rob Lorei, WMNF’s news director and co-founder. “We prided ourselves in keeping spending down, buying mostly used equipment and getting as many items as possible donated. During the period 1978-81, we were each paid about $65 a week.” Lorei is grateful that the station had the foresight to apply for a 70,000 watt license with an antenna mounted more than 500 feet in the air. That gave WMNF the ability to keep with the Tampa Bay area’s explosive growth.
Lorei acknowledges that competition from the internet, satellite and other platforms means that WMNF can no longer be a “one-stop shop for all things alternative.” His biggest regret: “We could have been the first in the market to carry Fresh Air, Morning Edition and the network shows with big audience numbers.” But WMNF found its own way: “We can stay strong,” says Lorei, “by creating greater loyalty in our audience, playing more music that is beloved by our listeners yet missing from [commercial] radio stations, and finding quality programs with a following to put on our airwaves.”
WXPN in Philadelphia
Community radio is doing battle with other listener choices of the musical variety. Just ask Roger LaMay, station manager of WXPN-FM in Philadelphia, a station licensed to the University of Pennsylvania. A three-decade broadcast veteran who was recently elected to the NPR board of directors, LaMay joined the station in 2003 after a stint as general manager and news director at WTXF-TV/FOX 29 in Philadelphia. In his first full year at XPN, LaMay shepherded the station’s move to a brand-new space and, along with it, a unique partnership with a performance venue attached to its headquarters and named after its most successful show: World Café Live. At WXPN, it’s all about the music.
Fresh off of a Winter Fund Drive during which XPN gained 2,000 new or renewing members, LaMay discerns this recent success as confirmation that connecting with your audience is the key to maintaining prominence in a crowded musical space. But LaMay and WXPN aren’t as worried about satellite or internet radio. The competition is musical streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify, which lull passive listeners with predictable choices. LaMay’s solution sounds earnestly similar to WMNF’s Rob Lorei.
“Our competitive advantage,” says LaMay, “is our ability to interact with the local community, engage with local and national artists, and provide programming unique to our local audience in a way that the national services never will.” WXPN’s 26,000 subscribers are a mere 10 percent of the station’s total active listeners, according to LaMay. Sounds like a (business) plan.
WYSO, Yellow Springs, Ohio
By all accounts, the relationship between WXPN and the University of Pennsylvania has been, for the most part, mutually-beneficial and without drama. That surely can’t be said for a certain community radio station in Ohio: WYSO-FM, in Yellow Springs, also the home of Antioch College.
WYSO began broadcasting in February 1958 as a campus radio station with 10 watts of power. By 1973 the station had become an NPR affiliate and offered its listeners All Things Considered, Prairie Home Companion and other dynamic national programs. At the same time, WYSO fulfilled its local mission both to Antioch in offering training in news, public affairs and music programming; and to the greater Dayton community as a bastion for local shows, however eccentric. WYSO had everything going for it: NPR, a supportive and grateful college and a dedicated community.
Storm clouds began forming in 1980 when a struggling Antioch College proposed to cut $17,000 from its annual subsidy to the station. In 2002, WYSO, citing financial pressures, cut 10 locally-produced shows. There were listener protests in Yellow Springs with the theme, “Keep WYSO Local.” RevCool Carter, long-time host of the legendary WYSO show Around the Fringe, suspected an additional motive: “There was a desire,” he asserts, “by some administrators at Antioch and the station manager to make WYSO more ‘mainstream,’ to sound more like a typical NPR station.” Then, in June 2008, Antioch College closed.
RevCool remembers the moment well: “It was a blow to everyone at WYSO…to see such a fine institution as Antioch College go under. But there was little fear of the station going under. WYSO was becoming more and more financially independent…and there was no indication that Antioch had plans to sell [WYSO].”
Antioch College reopened on September 1, 2011. The college would spend over $1 million to build a new state-of-the-art studio and increase the station’s power to 50,000 watts. Meanwhile, there would be no turning back to the old eccentric and experimental WYSO. The 10 local shows would eventually be replaced, according to RevCool, by “nationally syndicated shows. A few came back, including a highly-respected jazz show and a Celtic program.” WYSO was in a survival mode.
“Overall, Antioch has been very kind to WYSO,” says RevCool. “I would say that WYSO is a public radio station with some elements of a community station. We hold an entire fundraiser just to pay NPR dues.”
Today, WYSO remains the Dayton area’s only NPR station, with eight full-time and two part-time staff members, plus more than 20 volunteers. In June 2010, the Ohio Associated Press awarded the station Best Documentary for its “Facing the Mortgage Crisis.” The power increase enables WYSO to reach a nine-county area in Southwest Ohio. And every Friday night, Southwest Ohio comes alive to the joyously funky Punk/World fusion of RevCool’s Around the Fringe.
I know with personal certainty that these folks are more than willing and able to dig even deeper, and deliver the goods for their audiences. Community radio is in good hands. I wouldn’t bet against it.