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The Challenges of Community Radio as a Voice of Regular People

Little Rock    KABF is a 29-year old noncommercial radio station in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The station is 88.3 on the FM side of the dial with 100,000 watts of full power broadcasting throughout central Arkansas and depending on the topography much of the state to the east and south, running downhill towards the delta.

The station’s motto is the “Voice of the People,” because it was founded with the mission of being a voice of the Arkansas majority of low-and-moderate income families.  Amazingly, through ups and downs, good times and bad, KABF has succeeded remarkably at realizing a significant part of that vision.  Listener-ship as measured by Arbitron is still 20,000 listeners per week.  53% are African-American.  50% are families making less than $25,000 a year, which is determinedly lower income.  A significant part of the program in the evenings and overnight is Latino-based, but the station veterans believe a lot of that is unmeasured, on the grid, but off the charts.  This isn’t NPR, but “block programming” common in the noncommercial broadcasting world.  A listener tunes into gospel in the morning drive time, public affairs up the middle, and more Latino in the evening drive time with a bunch of country, blues, zydeco, and world music in the mix.

The other great thing about listener supported stations is that there is in fact a sustainability model as many know to their pride and at their peril:  the regular pledge drives.  For two week stints of time listeners pledge contributions to support their favorite shows and the volunteer DJs that make the sounds sing from on the air.  There is underwriting and some benefits, but the meat of the matter is the listener support, the membership dues that drives these kinds of stations.

And, this is the challenge and opportunity of KABF.  Having succeeded in building exactly the kind of station KABF and its board wanted to build, the problem is that the lower income base of the station is hard to convert into hard dollars, leaving many times when the station has more mouth than money.

This is a warning and a plea for help.  Last night I agreed to once again make Little Rock a regular part of our travels in order to roll up our sleeves and help solve this puzzle of creating a robust, powerful, and sustainable station.  I want to use the late night canned broadcasts to see if we can become the “voice of the people” around the world where ACORN International organizes.  I want to see if we can move the station’s website up to speed and put it on mobile phones that are more accessible to many of our folks than other tools.  I want to see if some of the people who need to be talking more often and about serious business with our very special constituency are willing to partner with us in providing the support.

Mostly, we’re open for business and anxious for advice, suggestions, and help, so don’t be bashful.

Oh, and obviously many of you will be hearing more about this.