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Community Radio & Podcasting: Benefits and Best Practices

PUBLISHED: 
February 11, 2021

Podcasting and radio offer community media centers opportunities for expanding their reach across more consumer platforms and engaging more producers and residents. In the first of this two-part series, we explored the origins and future direction of the audio initiatives at three such organizations. In this post, experts from two of those stations will share advice and best practices for getting started in radio or podcasting, and the benefits of these platforms for the stations, producers, and their audiences.

Producer sits in audio production studio in front of microphones, laptop and mixer
Photo courtesy of Boston Free Radio (SMA)

Taking Your First Steps

For community media centers beginning their first audio initiative, Boston Free Radio manager Heather McCormack recommends podcasting as the ideal starting point. “The barrier to entry of podcasting is smaller than radio,” she explained. “There are some great, plug-and-play podcast studio kits that are really high quality and not very expensive. You don’t have to invest a ton of money. In fact, you may already have microphones you can use from your TV studio, so you can easily get those set up and add some headphones to get people going.”

The equipment is only one piece of the puzzle, of course. “The big thing is making sure you have someone on your staff who’s passionate about podcasting and can teach classes around it,” said McCormack. “You’ll need to run awareness and education campaigns around it, especially for older members who aren’t already familiar with the concepts and technology.”

Emphasizing Education

Vanessa Maria Graber, community radio advocate and co-founder of PhillyCAM’s WPPM-LP (106.5 FM), concurs about the importance of educating members when adding radio or podcasting – not just about how to use the tools, but even starting with the differences between podcast and radio formats.

“A lot of community members such as schools and non-profits think they want to podcast, but don’t really know what that means,” she explained. “They don’t know the difference between a radio show and podcast – for example, that radio shows must fit defined timeslots and have other requirements such as audible program IDs. All radio shows can become podcasts, but not all podcasts can be radio shows.

“Many prospective producers also haven’t thought through what format their show would be, such as a talk show, variety program, or music,” she continued. “When people want to podcast, I ask them what information they want to present to the people, and if they can think of an organized way to do so that’s consistent from week to week. For some of them, it may be easier to start with radio, as it forces them to plan within a well-defined format and they’ll have essentially a script to follow.”

Building a Following

Learning how to create a great podcast isn’t enough on its own to make producers successful; even once the show format and technology are well understood, they also need to know how to build an audience for it. The podcasting classes offered by centers like PhillyCAM and Somerville Community Access (which runs Boston Free Radio) include teaching producers how to promote their podcasts via social media and bolster them with keywords and hashtags.

“Podcasting itself is super-easy, but the missing ingredient is marketing and promotion,” said Graber. “If people just produce a show and podcast it, nothing happens – they don’t get many downloads or listeners. They aren’t engaging their listeners by doing marketing and events, and they aren’t leaving the studio and going out in the community. Podcasters must do that work just like a radio producer would do to build their audience – it doesn’t just magically happen.”

An important part of that effort is for producers to be accessible in their community, and to create an identity for their shows. “You’re the person, you’re the content creator, you’re the value,” Graber continued. “Be visible and make yourself accessible in different ways so that people can find and connect with what you’re doing. You also need to develop a unique identity. Radio shows have an open, theme song, close, and so on; do the same for your podcasts.”

Measurement = Motivation

Attractively, podcasting offers community media organizations and producers rich metrics and insights that let them see the results of their audience engagement efforts. “With podcasting, you have access to a ton of analytics that you don’t get with traditional cable access television or even internet radio,” said McCormack. “You get data about who’s listening to your show, how often, and where, so you can really target, build your audience, and see it grow in a way that’s tangible. Podcasters can know people are accessing their content, while internet radio or broadcasting may feel like screaming into the void. That’s a kind of sustained motivation that keeps people producing and keeps them as members.”

Even though other forms of measurement are available for FM radio, digital platforms may still be the only practical data source for community media organizations. “Streaming, podcasting, and social media are very important when you’re trying to measure analytics and listenership, because most non-profits can’t afford to buy the Neilsen ratings for FM radio,” explained Graber. “However, stations can provide producers with measurement of social media follows, downloads, and streams.”

Complementing Television and Bolstering Membership

For media centers with established television operations, podcasting and radio offer unique value propositions that can complement their visual counterparts while attracting new members. Graber notes that radio and podcasting offer more immediacy and timeliness than is often possible with public access television.

“In recent years there has been lots to talk about politically, and important community conversations,” she explained. “A radio station allows the community to respond to these things and have these conversations in real time. It’s more difficult on the TV side, where most programming is pre-recorded and may be weeks old when it airs. Podcasting is like radio in this regard, as if something happens after you’ve already done your show for the week, you can still do a podcast about it.”

Graber also highlights that the relative ease of radio can draw more producers and participants – outside of COVID-related closures – into stations. “The biggest thing the radio station brought to PhillyCAM during my time there was more guests in the studios,” she said. “Radio is easier to produce than TV; it can be just one producer in the studio running everything. With more than 60 programs, and most of them being done live in the studio each week, hosts brought in a lot of guests. Thousands of people walked through their doors.”

McCormack agrees with the resource efficiency of audio production compared to TV, and points out that it can play a key role in increasing or retaining membership. “Live TV needs a lot of resources, time, equipment, and a pretty solid team,” she said. “You can do podcasting or radio with less, so it can be a huge source of new members. We also have producers who had done traditional cable access TV shows for a long time, but now can’t get enough crew to do live TV – especially during COVID – or have seen their audience engagement decline. Many of them are moving to podcasting, which is where the audience growth and membership is. By offering those resources, we can retain members that might otherwise lapse.”

Community media centers continue to have an important role to play as new or existing producers switch or add platforms. “Anyone can make a radio show, podcast or YouTube show, but even with the democratization of media production, what we provide is specialization, education, and high-quality equipment,” McCormack concluded. “That’s what sets us apart.”

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