Should Stations Produce Podcasts?

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There’s a lot of talk these days about public radio stations producing podcasts. In fact, a recent article in Current by Lauren Ober was a clarion call demanding stations get in the podcasting game with local content. Unfortunately, a seemingly archaic radio term was missing from the article and I’d like to bring it back here – “localism.”

Talk to any old timer in radio and they’ll wax poetically about “localism.” For decades, it was a driving force behind so many programming decisions. In fact, it was, in many ways, a radio station’s raison d’etre.

In short, “localism” is the simple tenet that broadcasters should serve a local community. It makes sense, if for no other reason, than a radio signal only goes so far. You can’t serve people outside the signal footprint.

Additionally, localism is embedded in the licensing process. When a radio broadcaster seeks a license from the FCC, they’re required to indicate how they will serve their community – and not just with entertainment programming or a few public service announcements, but with substantive content that addresses local concerns.

Starting in the 1920s, the advent of radio broadcasting, broadcasters took “localism” seriously. Radio programming often featured diverse, local voices speaking about the issues of the day, playing music, and celebrating place alongside entertainment programs.

But, slowly, localism atrophied. The drive for larger audiences and the simplicity of homogenized, non-local programming took precedence. That shift was exacerbated in the 1980s and 90s with the loosening of ownership rules by the FCC culminating in the Communications Act of 1996. Fewer and fewer corporations were permitted to own more and more stations resulting in a lot of cookie cutter programming.

While consolidation never took hold in public radio, the homogenization of programming did. It was led by a drive to “serve more Americans” and increase ratings. I watched it unfold first hand while living in Nevada.

In the 1980s, the local public station in Las Vegas let go of their on-air volunteers and gutted all of the cultural programming opting instead for news and classical music (including music provided overnight by from a satellite service). Hundreds of other public stations made the same programming changes at the time. Some even went further choosing a single format – just news, for instance, with most of it provided by non-local networks. In quick order, one station started to sound like the next, like the next, like the next…. Localism was history.

Recently, however, because of the advent of so much audio content from the Internet (NPR and other networks) competing with stations for listeners including, public radio stations are realizing the future may lie in “localism” – providing content the web and national content providers can’t.

One way stations are bringing back “localism” is through podcasts. Stations are experimenting with long-form, in-depth podcasts about their communities. Take, for instance, WNYC’s There Goes the Neighborhood, St. Louis Public Radio’s We Live Here and The Intersection from KALW. All are excellent examples of the power of “localism.”

Stations, of course, are hesitant to start podcasting. There are a lot of questions to answer first: Who will produce it? How much will it cost? Will it compete with our broadcast service?

Wyoming Public Radio has good answers to all of these questions and more. Their podcast HumaNature is fine example of how a station can take a first-step into podcast-only content infused with a local (and national) sensibility. And, it’s another example of the return of “localism.” Caroline Ballard is the host of HumaNature and she explains WPR’s effort on this episode of HowSound. And, she has a few surprising thoughts on how producing a podcast has improved her work on air.

*Thanks to Flickr and Alistar Hall for the image at the top of this post.

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