Broadcast Radio as Community Organizing: Who’s impacted, and where do we go from here?

HD Radio tuned to 90.3 FM. Call letters KFAI. Radio has one speaker, a tuning knob, a volume knob, and two rows of buttons all enclosed in a wooden case.

It was announced in December of 2020 that the Twin Cities would loose two locally owned radio stations. KZGO broadcasted an Urban Top 40 sound, and KQGO filled the airwaves with “modern alternative” music. However, each station struggled to gain ratings in the increasingly competitive market for audio attention. In the traditional radio arena, ratings drive revenue in the form of advertising. As it turns out, Northern Lights Broadcasting couldn’t make this business model work. The loss of local radio is unfortunate, because each station maintained a commitment to community engagement. Both stations ran fundraising drives for the Second Harvest Heartland food bank, offered advertising grants to minority-owned businesses, and promoted clothing drives with local neighborhood organizations. The two stations are expected to transition owners in April 2021.

The world is moving toward subscription, and the recurring revenue model has a direct impact on the broadcast radio industry. Ad-supported content will not be sustainable in the post-coronavirus world. The Northern Lights Broadcasting case study is a direct example of this shift. The company sold both frequencies to the Educational Media Foundation (EMF), which is a religious-based broadcaster that spreads the gospel through the largest Christian music channels in the country, K-Love and Air1. The company earns its revenue almost exclusively through recurring revenue (i.e., donations).

Although we sustain some loss in local radio, the Twin Cities have a diverse array of community-based broadcasters that operate with a subscription model. 19 of the 54 radio stations in Minneapolis are locally owned and operate as public radio stations, meaning they receive the majority of their revenue from public or philanthropic sources. KMOJ and KFAI are two operations that target the urban demographic of the Twin Cities, and each play an instrumental role in distributing information to the community. KMOJ provides a wealth of resources specifically relevant for the local African American community. KFAI offers air time for community organizations to broadcast information to their audiences. Both stations receive funding through AMPERS, which is a collection of community radio stations from all geographic regions of Minnesota. AMPERS also sustains KUOM, the University of Minnesota’s college radio station, “Radio K.” KUOM is one of the oldest radio stations in the country, with its flagship station located on the ancient AM dial at 770 kilohertz. I have a feeling that most of the station’s 3,000 monthly listeners tune into the FM re-broadcasts or online streams, but the history of the station is important to my argument- the station has operated for more than 100 years without reliance on ad-based revenue.

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), and American Public Media (APM), are both headquartered in St. Paul. KNOW, the flagship NPR station for the network, routinely ranks number one in the Nielsen radio ratings for the Minneapolis St. Paul market. KSJN, the flagship classical station, and KCMP, known as “The Current,” broadcast commercial free music to an eclectic audience. MPR’s three stations pull approximately 450,000 monthly listeners, or 15% of the total twin cities broadcast radio market. However, not all community stations operate at such scale. KRSM is a low-powered station branded as “The South Side Media Project.” The station is located in the heart of South Minneapolis, and broadcasts from a mid-rise building on Lake Street. An average night of programming explores world music, Urban Top 40, and community affairs programming. Community conversations include roundtable discussions that range from affordable housing, to community policing strategies, to Native American culture. KRSM’s website provides demographic information about its programming and hosts. 73% of hosts are People of Color or Indigenous, 58% of hosts are women, and 80% of hosts have no prior experience in radio broadcasting. KRSM receives its funding through Pillsbury United Communities

Community radio provides an opportunity for capacity building. Let’s look at a few of the stations mentioned in this piece. KRSM is affiliated with two other low-powered community stations, WFNU and WEQY. WFNU is operated by the Frogtown Neighborhood Association and WEQY is operated by Dayton’s Bluff Community Council. Although each station can only be heard within a few miles of their broadcast location, they share a common dream of distributing diverse voices by utilizing hyper-local organizing strategies. Stations also share infrastructure resources. The three aforementioned low power stations made moves this summer to mobilize the 2020 presidential vote throughout St. Paul. And in a remarkable display of solidarity, KFAI provided temporary studio space to Spanish broadcaster KMNV after their studios were burnt down in the George Floyd Riots.

Broadcast radio holds immense value to local communities. COVID-19 has dramatically shifted our everyday lives. However, radio listenership has remained steady throughout the pandemic. As the world moves to at home media consumption, and away from ad-based content, I envision a radio dial with a wealth of locally programed media. This move to local will reinvest in community with new subscription content. Consumers will donate a few dollars each month to purchase a share in their community. The reward for their purchase will yield wholesome returns.

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