Jill Hopke

Environmental Communication. Social Movements. Mobile Media.

WORT 2020: Adapting Community Radio to the New Media Ecology

Around New Year I visited WORT-FM 89.9 FM Community Radio with a friend who was back in town for the holidays and is a former local news “In Our Backyard” host. Sitting in the on-air studio I was struck by how the station was using the same basic technologies (e.g. mini-discs and Sound Forge audio editing software) that I had used at the station eight years ago. Shortly thereafter I heard an on-air announcement looking for volunteers to join its long-range planning “WORT 2020” process. As a listener, former staff member and sometimes volunteer, I decided to bring my perspective as a communications scholar to the table.

First on my mind was how my personal media consumption habits have changed drastically since I first got involved with WORT while I was an undergrad at UW-Madison, and that’s an understatement. I am not alone.

WORT needs to position itself for the new news and entertainment environment. For example, according to recent research by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 46% of U.S. adults own smartphone, up 11% in less than a year. The trends holds for all age groups outside of those 65 and older (just 13% of this age cohort are smartphone owners), with 18-35 year olds, college graduates and individuals with household incomes of more than $75,000 the adoption rate is 60% or higher (Smith, 2012).

It is also important to consider the various channels that individuals use to get news and information. According to a different Pew report:

“The survey also sheds light on the emerging role of the internet as people seek local news and information. The internet is defined here as web-only online destinations. For adults generally, the internet is a main source for information about restaurants and other local businesses, and it is tied with newspapers as a top source for material about housing, jobs and schools—all areas that place a special value on consumer input. Yet when one looks at the 79% of Americans who are online, the internet is the first or second most relied-upon source for 15 of the 16 local topics examined. For adults under 40, the web is first for 11 of the top 16 topics—and a close second on four others.” (Rosenstiel et al., 2011, p. 2)

While the past decade has brought nothing short of a new media revolution in media consumption patterns, WORT is behind the curve in adopting to this new media ecology. It is to the credit of the station’s board of directors, staff and volunteers for recognizing this and embarking to plan for “WORT 2020.”

The long-range planning project was broken down into five work groups: programming, technology and facilities, audience development and fundraising, governance and staffing. Assigned to the staffing sub-committee, my work group spent a lot of time discussing the station’s collective management model and ways to implement new strategic directions that overlap with the other thematic areas.

Below are some of my reflections on the potentials and challenges for WORT looking toward 2020.

Re-imagining community media production practices. By recognizing that WORT exists within a changing media ecology, the station has an opportunity to expand its audience by making that station’s programming more readily available. WORT should not try to be a general online news source, but rather invest resources into areas in which it is already strong in broadcast form. For example, when music host interview artists coming to town, that material could be summarized and posted online, or daily “In Our Backyard” news highlights could be posted to the Web the morning following a broadcast.

The trends discussed above indicate that WORT could better fulfill its mission to provide communities in South Central Wisconsin with local news and entertainment not found through other media outlets by diversifying the ways in which it provides those services. WORT staff have already started a basis for this expanded effort. @WORTNews has more than 1,500 followers on Twitter and WORT-FM has more than 4,100 “likes” on Facebook (this is not including individual hosts and programs pages).

Evolving the meaning of community “radio.”  While being a radio broadcaster is at the core of WORT’s existence, to me the community in “community radio” what makes WORT the social institution that it is. Radio is one of many possible transmission channels for the ideas, debates and cultural production the station’s hundreds of volunteers put their hearts and souls into each week.

The station could fulfill its mission, which reads in part, “promotion of communication, education, entertainment, and understanding by providing a forum for both the discussion of public issues, and the expansion of musical and cultural experience,” though a more diversified set of media platforms.

“Participatory” is both an asset and a challenge. Similar to numerous other alternative and community media projects run in a horizontal, participatory fashion, WORT’s day-to-day operations are managed collectively by a full-time staff of seven, along with several part time employees, who facilitate the unpaid work of hundreds of volunteers who produce the vast bulk of the on-air programming.

This high level of investment is a testament to the station’s success at building a community of committed practitioners. But it is also a (potential) hindrance to adaptability and technological change. Making decisions by collective or committee can stifle innovation and translate into no one having responsibility to see that things get done.

The station cannot continue to run on old habits. No one really knows, though some will predict, what will be the next big fad after Pinterest for example. But in terms of utilizing new information communication technologies (ICTs) doing nothing is worse than making mistakes.

The catch-22 of the listener-sponsorship programming model. There is an unfortunate saying passed around community radio stations that programmers keep their shows until they die. The sentiment behind it is that it is exceedingly hard to make programmatic changes, even when shows are not serving their intended audiences or those audiences have evolved. The demographics of Madison and South-Central Wisconsin in 2012 are very different than those of 1976.

At the same time the station depends on its loyal listener-sponsor base to provide more than 60 percent of its annual operating budget. So when done right, long-term established programs anchor the station and ensure its financial viability. The station must thus walk a line between supporting programmer autonomy and establishing evaluation procedures and removing underperforming programs and/or formats as needed.

WORT greatest strength is the community it creates. What makes the station unique is its local situatedness within an increasingly globalized media environment. It is a physical site for people to meet, deliberate on community issues, develop a collective identities and work together for common social change goals.

Without a doubt the station is up against a formidable challenge in terms of carving out a niche in digital media environment and it is getting a late start. However, I am optimistic that with a strong commitment by WORT’s board, staff and volunteers to continue the dialogue on and follow through on the long-range planning proposals, it will be able to take on this challenge.

Join the Conversation
To take part in a discussion about WORT’s future, tune into “A Public Affair” tomorrow, Tuesday, April 10th from noon to 1 p.m. at 89.9 FM or online at www.wort-fm.org. You can also comment on the working group recommendations here.

The station’s board of directors will meet April 18th to finalize plans for “WORT 2020.” In the end, 2020 is not really all that far away.

References
Rosenstiel, T., Mitchell, A., Purcell, K., & Rainie, L. (2011). How people learn about their local community. Pew Research Center. Retrieved March 5, 2012, from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Local-news.aspx

Smith, A. (2012). 46% of American adults are smartphone owners. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved March 5, 2012, from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Smartphone-Update-2012.aspx

4 Comments

  1. Barbara Bolan

    April 9, 2012 at 17:47

    What a beautifully articulated reflection on the value of WORT to the Madison community and the challenges it faces to remain vital in this world of new media technology. I think you’re spot on in saying that the key note to WORT’s long range plan must be to deliver its successful mix of eclectic, diverse, and community-centric programming in more ways…take the content to people where they gather. They are online: visiting, talking, exploring, constructing, creating and…listening. I urge WORT’s Board, Staff collective and volunteers to embrace the long-range digital production initiative that has been advanced in the planning process: Develop a new way to create our programs, which combines the classic production method along with producing new digital information and an education program for a new type of volunteer,a digital data producer, at the station. If you aggressively go to where people are already gathered, you’ll make significant progress in attracting new listeners and rejuvenating the listener sponsor relationship that is vital to the station and to its community.

    • admin

      April 9, 2012 at 20:54

      Thank you Barbara! And that you also for all your hard work coordinating the long-range planning process. I was glad I participated. Jill

  2. Sybil Augustine

    April 11, 2012 at 16:15

    Hello all,
    Much of what was talked about in our meetings and on APA confirmed what we already knew or suspected, but hadn’t done enough research to know where to start. The biggest question of all remains: Who’s going to do all this work?

    We can’t expect volunteers to just step in to do it, as they need training and supervision. We already can’t maintain our digital equipment & procedures up to the standards needed to train & encourage volunteers to work in new ways, e.g. our CD players fail; computers used to play digital music & promos [replacing minidiscs] fail, or the software isn’t properly updated, or they’re not set up in ways that allow users to do things the same way each week, because others change the settings. An automation system in case of emergencies is still waiting to be installed; there aren’t enough computers around for the use and training of music volunteers [only 1 upstairs in the music library; others accessible to volunteers are in studios or at the front desk, the one in the lobby’s been dead for months.] The online playlist template that was 2 years in the making by our IT dept. would or could not incorporate volunteer’s suggestions to serve their needs sufficiently, so we now pay $50 month for Spinitron, which is a great system but is still not being fully utilized — e.g. I’ve been trying to get our chat function enabled for several months but it’s bogged down in some kind of legal paperwork that I can’t help with. Online chat with programmers during their show is one of the immediate, interactive elements that’s part of these new technologies and enhances the appeal of our on-air personalities and accessibility to the station as a whole — but we can’t make this simple thing happen in an efficient way. Our current system for online calendars is the same — I’ve had a vision for several years that would make them more complete and easy to use, plus take a huge burden off me & the volunteers by letting people enter their own events, but our IT dept. cannot design something that’s user-friendly and easy to read, much less accessible to public users.

    My point is that we’ve known about many of these things for a while, but we don’t have the personnel, the money, the time, the studio space, etc. needed to implement them. So again, the big question is: HOW do we move forward from this point?

    Thanks a lot for your thoughts and research on this topic.

    Sybil A.
    WORT Music Director

    • admin

      April 11, 2012 at 20:54

      Hi Sybil,

      Thank you for your comments on my post. As part of the staffing work group I advocated strongly that the station needs to hire additional staff to manage and produce the bulk of the digital content. Working in this area myself, I know that it takes a lot of back-end work to collect content and format it for the web and/or social media and I don’t feel that these are tasks which can be taken on by current staff or expected solely (or primarily) of volunteers. At least not at the start. I also expressed in our meetings that I feel the station needs to start small, in an area where it is already strong through its broadcast signal, be that a mix of a few music/talk programs or something to that effect.

      The other issues you raise point to the importance of accountability and training for staff and volunteers (and the board), as well as additional investment in technological infrastructure. These are also issues that my working group discussed and I hope they remain front and center as the board moves forward with long-range planning.

      Thanks for all you do at the station and I hope that my insights as part of the WORT 2020 process will help move the station forward in grappling with digital media.

      Jill

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