A vision for community radio (in Boise)

Ghetto Blaster by Stephen Barnett / Flickr

I’ve been working with my local community radio station to come up with a way of getting more “news” on the air here in Boise. A small group of local folks have been talking for a few months about ways of recruiting citizen journalists to produce the news report on Radio Boise. The recent call for ideas from the Association of Independents in Radio helped crystallize my thoughts on this, especially with AIR’s notion that public radio ought to “go outside” its comfort zone in pushing the boundaries of public media in the 21st Century.

Community radio is one medium that has always thrived on “going outside” and bottom up production. As community radio pioneer Lew Hill wrote in 1966: “A constant exchange between the staff and the audience enriches the schedule with fresh judgment and new ideas, materials, and issues. Thus members of the staff work out their own ideas and, if you like, categorical imperatives, with some of the undistracted certitude one feels in deciding what he will have for dinner, subject to the menu.”

Hill was describing the then-new interplay between radio producer and the citizen audience that kept the station lights on through listener sponsorship, as opposed to advertising. But in this media age, mere audience sponsorship is not enough—we now have the technological ability to radically dissolve the traditional barrier between broadcaster and audience through real-time audience feedback and citizen journalism. In a sense, a community radio station in 2011 must “go outside” in order to gather up the people and give them microphones.

The practical idea here is to recruit, train and deploy a small army of citizen reporters in Southwest Idaho through a series of public journalism events we might call the KRBX Radio News Experience. The Experience draws on several new modes of thought circulating in cutting edge journalism circles today including NYU Professor Jay Rosen’s “people formerly known as the audience” and CUNY Professor Jeff Jarvis’ notion of the “conference” as news event. As Megan Garber at the Nieman Journalism Lab put it recently: “Our assumptions about information itself are shifting, reshaping ‘the news’ from a commodity to a community, from a product to a process.”

One might think of it as Ignite Boise meets American Red Cross CPR training meets Poynter (2.0? 3.0?).

KRBX in Boise has been on the air for only six months and has already filled a gaping hole in the Southwest Idaho broadcast spectrum, attracting almost 900 individual supporters in its first on-air pledge drive this month and beating its own fund raising goal. Tired of the staid musical offerings and corporate driven news on commercial radio and cognizant of the yawning cultural gap between the East Coast driven news agenda of the local NPR affiliate and Boise’s Mountain West culture, the community has flocked to KRBX for its diverse musical offerings and voices. But Boise needs its own locally controlled and community driven news broadcast as well, as prioritized by these planks of Radio Boise’s mission:

  • Democratize the local media landscape by giving a voice to unrepresented or underrepresented members of our community
  • Provide an educational media clearinghouse for issues-oriented information
  • Strengthen “cultural health” and community identity”

Into the Boise-area news void we would convene the Experience, journeying with prospective citizen reporters through the process of pitching stories, gathering background, developing sources, conducting interviews, working as a news team, writing scripts and collecting and editing sound. The Experience would train up the next generation of radio reporters in Idaho, jumpstart KRBX’s essential foray into community news and serve as a model for crowd-sourced, event-based, collaborative news production.

We would take the Experience out into the community, holding fortnightly and then weekly events at high schools, Latino community centers, refugee resettlement agencies, college campuses, farmers’ markets, a pavilion at the county fair, the LGBT center and other neighborhood and community venues. The events would be fast paced and fun and will quickly involve people in the production process based on their interests and skills. Participants in each event could produce 2-3 polished stories that would then form the backbone of a weekly local news report for the station.

We could recruit among local bloggers, community groups with little to no access to the media and through the significant social networks already engaging with the station. The training/production experiment will also reach out to other community radio stations in Idaho, including a bilingual station that will soon be broadcasting in the Magic Valley and two new stations run by Native American tribes (KWIS and KIYE).

The Boise area is well positioned for this venture. It is the political and economic center of the state, has a growing creative class that is very engaged in building up the arts, considers itself a technology hub and as a refugee resettlement center, has a quickly emerging international diversity. All of these demographics could engage with the Radio News Experience platform.

The Radio Boise working group that has been meeting for a few months to brainstorm these possibilities has made it abundantly clear that people are (a) not satisfied with their current sources of local news and information and (b) want to be more intimately involved in decisions surrounding local media provision. Radio Boise would be an ideal laboratory to test both a higher caliber news product and a more democratically sourced news producer.

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