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April 27, 2021, 10:05 a.m.
Reporting & Production

In the vast Mountain West, collaboration on radio news finds success

“During the pandemic, we made all of our content free to smaller, community radio stations that don’t have a news budget.”

Last summer, I drove cross country. I found that in parts of the Mountain West — Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Montana, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming — you can go for miles and miles and pick up just one or two radio stations. (If you’re one of the many people planning a road trip outside a metropolitan area in the next few months, you’ll likely notice this, too.)

With satellite radio, podcasts, and Spotify, a lack of terrestrial stations might not be something most people worry about, but I wondered why options were so limited. Turns out, as most people who live in this part of the country know, the cause of this radio silence is a matter of a couple of facts that far predate the existence of smartphones. Out west, where the population is sparser, the distances are greater, and the landscape itself is larger, radio stations have always been hard to come by.

Geography is one thing (mountains = interference), but population density is a less obvious cause of empty airwaves. To explain this, it helps to think of radio’s underlying structure as a kind of natural resource. Radio is just one sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum. To borrow a phrase itself co-opted from the telecom world, its bandwidth is limited. Sections of it (frequencies) are parceled out by the FCC for public and private uses, and the metric for determining which areas get more or less is the number of people who live there. Christopher Terry, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says that most FM radio allocations were made in the 1960s and early 70s, when populations in Western states, especially the Southwest, were much lower.

By the time the Telecommunications Act was passed in 1996, wiping out restrictions on how many radio stations a single company could own, radio stations in all parts of the country were primed for consolidation. Today, big radio companies Audacy, iHeartRadio, and Cumulus syndicate the bulk of their programming, which is why it can feel like every classic rock station in the country is playing the same catalog of 100 songs — they probably are. So even when you can pick up a signal, it’s less likely than it used to be that you’re hearing a locally-produced program.

But as the events of the past year have shown, when people need information about what’s happening in their communities, radio is one of the first places they’ll go. Kate Concannon, managing editor of the Mountain West News Bureau, a consortium of NPR stations that serve New Mexico, Nevada, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, cites the region’s “shared issues” as the reason why her team has found success and relevance across such a broad area. She manages six reporters embedded in public radio stations, plus one roving reporter who travels the region, sometimes by bike — more on that later.

“During the pandemic, we made all of our content free to smaller, community radio stations that don’t have a news budget,” says Concannon. “We also shared it with small newspapers, and we’ve continued that.” Small affiliate stations who can’t afford a reporter but want access to the bureau’s content pay fees on a sliding scale. “We’re really trying to get the content out, we’re all about collaboration and sharing.” Public land management, conservation, the environment, the fossil fuel industry, Western culture, mental health (“we have more suicides in this region than any other part of the country”) — these are some of the topics Concannon’s reporters cover. With the bureau now going into its fourth year, and getting nearly “100% carriage,” Concannon says that she and her team are finding their niche, content-wise.

Given the size of the region and those spotty terrestrial signals, getting the Mountain West Bureau’s stories onto different platforms is important. Lately, the team has been producing in-depth reports that stations can run on-air, which can then be shared as podcasts. The first of these is the award-winning Facing West, a four-part series hosted by Nate Hegyi, a reporter (and cyclist) who biked around four states this past summer, interviewing people about the upcoming election. “We’d been talking about him traveling the mountain region before the pandemic,” says Concannon. “He came up with the idea of doing it on a bike.” The goal was to “slow the journalism down,” and make people more willing to engage with a reporter riding in at 10 miles an hour rather than “parachuting in an SUV.”

Sharing reporting resources across platforms has become more common across the country as a whole. There have been a number of collaborations between public broadcasters and other media in recent years: See WAMU’s acquisition of DCist, WNYC’s acquisition of Gothamist, KPCC’s acquisition of LAist, and Colorado Public Radio’s acquisition of Denverite. Townsquare Media, a radio network based in New York State, has been investing in local news sites to pair with its radio brands. (It owns over 300 radio stations across the country, mostly in small- and medium-sized markets.) Jackie Corley, Townsquare’s director of digital, says there’s revenue potential in extending radio brands digitally in markets where there are news vacuums. “We’re one of the very few companies expanding and leaning into local news site creation because there’s nothing like the marketing reach of radio.”

Despite the trend toward syndication nationally, a localized approach really does play to FM radio’s strengths, both for advertisers and listeners. By design, it’s a localized medium — signals can only travel so far. As a technology, radio matches the expectations the internet has set for modern media consumers. It’s free to use and — in most parts of the country — easy to access. You don’t even need an internet connection to consume it. You just turn on the tap and it’s there. In this way, radio is uniquely positioned to fill in local news gaps. And when shared on digital platforms, stories can go beyond individual communities and into larger regional and national conversations.

Rachel del Valle is a writer living in New York. See her previous stories for Nieman Lab here.

Looking southwest from Highway 20 across Henry’s Lake State Park, Fremont County, Idaho, on April 24, 2019. Photo by Charles Peterson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 27, 2021, 10:05 a.m.
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