Community radio producers, DJ’s, advocates, organizers, engineers, and students came together for the 2011 Grassroots Radio Conference in Kansas City to share the joys and frustrations with producing independent, community-focused media. The vision of an informal national network of Community Radio stations is represented by the conference quilt that stitches together several radio station T-shirts. This vision, which references a dedication to local communities is as strong as ever, but masks the difficulty of maintaining resources and developing new programs.
Representatives from stations as disparate as KPFA in San Francisco, KKFI in Kansas City, WORT in Madison, KOPN in Columbia, Missouri, KCSB in Santa Barbara, and many others spoke about the difficulty in attracting community organizations and individuals to produce their own programs. Joy Rushing with KOPN noted the lack of student involvement in the operations and programming of that station despite being blocks away from one of the best journalism schools in the US. Several workshops concentrated on increasing youth involvement, as well as increasing the involvement of women and people of color in community radio stations. An open discussion on new programming took place during the “Putting the ‘Community’ in Community Radio” workshop.
One conference workshop focused on how a few college radio stations like WRVU at Vanderbilt University in Nashville or KUSF at the University of San Francisco have been sold to corporate or public radio stations. Sharon Scott, an advocate to reverse the sale of WRVU to Nashville Public Radio, warned that “college radio stations are easy prey” and are “as a whole in jeopardy.” She encouraged conference participants to protect college radio stations [Facebook group] from takeover, recalling the importance of these stations as “a training ground for community radio.”
Ursula Ruedenberg, Pacifica Affiliates Coordinator, expressed the strength of the community radio fabric when she reported that the Pacifica network is “gaining two to three affiliates per month” and “within a year we’ll have more than 200 stations.” She encouraged community radio stations to improve communications by developing a common Internet site and developing a 10-year financial plan to ensure the radio network longevity.
Community radio has a low cost of production compared to maintaining a TV studio, which has allowed stations to stay on the air. A new era in radio is on the horizon in the passage of the Local Community Radio Act, promising to bring online hundreds of low-power FM (LPFM) stations as described by Jim Ellinger with Austin Airwaves in his “The Next 100 Community Radio Stations” workshop at the conference. LPFM advocates like Prometheus Radio Project representatives encouraged groups to start their own radio station, in any location including small towns and dense urban areas.
Bitter medicine was served by JR Valrey, minister of information with POCC in Oakland, during his keynote address, which included a screening of Operation Small Axe. During the discussion after the film, Valrey reinforced that his organization does not use “spectator journalism,” as evident in the film’s focus on the Oscar Grant case in Oakland, where a handcuffed black man was shot and killed by a police officer. Valrey explained that
the case of Oscar Grant was not more important than other murders, but was unique because the action of the police officer was caught on video.
He explained two unconventional elements used in the making of the film. One element was to let community members speak at length for themselves on film and the other element was to focus on voices across racial and class lines.
Valrey, a lifelong resident of Oakland, described how his Block Report Radio show on KPFA “breaks the myth” of a separation between community and journalism, as well as dispels the “unbiased” approach of many news outlets. He challenged community radio producers to not just report on community events and topics, but to provide permanent program slots at community radio stations. These program slots will allow members of struggling communities to tell their stories. Operation Small Axe underscored the importance of getting behind the barricades by listening and working with community organizations towards improving conditions in neighborhoods.
Listening to community voices as described by Valrey is part of the vision of many community radio stations. Community radio, unlike commercial or public radio stations, connects individuals within local communities, as well as creates the fabric across many cities and towns across the globe.
Good luck to the hosts of the 2012 Grassroots Radio Conference!