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Why an expansion of low-power radio stations could mean good things for community news

The future of local radio news may involve more than just the letters N, P, and R.

Last month, President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, a new law allowing the expansion of noncommercial stations around the country though new low-power radio licenses. Running on 100 watts (about the same as an exceptionally bright lightbulb), these stations are intended for nonprofits, schools, and churches to create community programming. While this may inspire visions of contemporary Christian music and school board meetings popping up alongside the best hits of the ’80s, ’90s, and today, it could also mean more locally produced journalism.

Consider the commonalities low-power radio stations have with local news startups: A defined coverage area and audience; a model that requires engagement with the community; a need for financial support from businesses and a mission to serve the public interest.

“Low power radio really fits well into the model of covering local issues,” Ian Smith of the Prometheus Radio Project told me. “It’s a hyperlocal medium.”

Very hyperlocal, considering that a 100-watt signal won’t carry very far, but it could be just enough to cover a small town or a neighborhood in larger cities. Smith, a development and communications associate with Prometheus, said low-power stations directly reflect the communities they are in, whether its keeping zydeco music alive or voicing the concerns of Latino farm workers.

Smith said a number of low-power stations have set out to not just provide cultural programming but respond to gaps in local news coverage and offer alternatives to traditional media. In that sense, community radio stations join the growing network of nonprofit journalism startups as well as locally oriented initiatives from NPR like Project Argo and Impact of Government.

But what separates community radio from its larger public and corporate cousins is the same thing that could make it work as a vehicle for citizen journalism. “One of the things that makes low power radio so unique is its so participatory,” Smith said. “You can participate in the production, not just the consumption.”

Though low-power radio offers a ready conduit for people concerned about issues within a community, it also can impose certain disciplines helpful to journalism. In order to put a program on the air, you need to know how to run a soundboard (or some basic audio recording tools) and have the ability to put together a cohesive program. Dean Graber, who works at the University of Texas’ Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and has researched low-power radio, points out that some stations are already attempting to guide citizen journalists. KPOV in Bend, Ore., for instance, created a journalism handbook for volunteers. As Graber wrote on his blog: “For people worried about the state of U.S. journalism, now is the perfect opportunity to consider and experiment with new forms of non-profit, community-based journalism, on the time-tested medium of radio.”

While some community radio stations may wish to take on the mantle of news provider, it would be wrong to expect their programming to be similar to that of traditional news outlets, Graber told me over email. “Some news and information programs will follow existing formats for delivering news and information over the radio, including Pacifica and Free Speech News. Other programs will thoroughly innovate their news and information programs,” he wrote.

As malleable as the programming is, it’s likely the ubiquitous nature of radio will also help low-power stations grow and find an audience. As Smith points out, radio is largely free (okay, yes, once you buy the radio) and accessible everywhere, at home, at work, or in the car. Although streaming radio complements that and increases the potential to reach broader audiences, the focus, as always, remains local.

“We think it’s important to maintain the localism of this medium in any way that is relevant to their community,” Smith said. “It’s part of the public commons and should be serving the public good,” he said.

Image by William Li used under a Creative Commons license

                                   
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