A Cultural Safety Net

Community radio is stepping into the gap

by Mike Meyer

Cultural shifts are no longer measured in generations, decades or even years. From one month to the next, we see screen time increase, community gatherings becoming more diffuse and ebbing, and media organizations scrambling for life rafts. New, often more user-friendly — and less community-friendly — alternatives sometimes emerge. Community radio is perhaps the most hopeful new wave of media that both bucks these trends and adheres to them.

In Eugene, I am celebrating 40 years in public radio and two years in community radio. In surrounding small cities, dedicated, passionate staff and volunteers are creating and programming a variety of local, diverse and expressive radio. Veneta, Cottage Grove, Corvallis, Florence and Roseburg all have community stations, and although they don’t extend very far as a signal, most are online and accessible. 

Some stations have become essential for public service information as public radio becomes increasingly removed from communities they allege to serve. Our local NPR station has brief local news but has dropped in-studio performances and new music releases, and has less and less music and local programming overall. Many of the few remaining music shows are syndicated. Diversity is also neglected by local public radio. Our one 24/7 public music station is mostly nostalgia in its specialty programming, catering to a mostly white, male audience; it has never had an African American or Asian American programmer or staff in 75 years.

Community radio emphasizes diversity in its mission statement and strives to meet that imperative. Our Eugene low-powered FM station, KEPW, has abundant Latino, African American, Native American and LGBTQIA+ music as well as public affairs programming. Community radio humbly provides many genres that public radio has mostly disowned: bluegrass, hip hop, new age, environmental, kirtan and international genres are welcomed on community radio. 

As public radio and NPR tend to repeat dominant culture genres and narratives, accessible and compassionate expression runs wild on community radio. Fundraising on community radio is sporadic and does not rely heavily on corporations, grants or wealthy donors. Community radio also welcomes original, creative programming and youth voices. Oregon’s community radio has invented youth broadcasting and music programs, environmental music, bluegrass, nutrition, experimental jazz and therapeutic shows.

However, community radio often struggles to achieve best practices in radio. With few boundaries or oversight, community radio sometimes flounders with technical problems; lack of quality; informative, brief back announcing; and incoherence in program placement. Program directors (often volunteers) frequently lack training, resources or interest in radio strategies. Radio in general depends on a positive public association with its station, even though the average listener tunes in fewer than 10 minutes at a time on any station. One poorly delivered moment on radio can lose a listener for life.

At the same time, community radio is where you will find the most inspiring and expressive programming. With free speech also come personality, adventure and authenticity, which are unique to its medium. My opposite personal experience with many public radio stations often exposed an environment of fear and control due to finances and invasive oversight. One swear word on daytime radio can result in an FCC fine that can threaten a station’s future (and it only takes one complaint to investigate). Community radio is far less likely to have listener scrutiny for the occasional swear word, with fewer listeners and more audience affinity for free speech. Even so, community broadcasters are cautious with cussing, and community radio doesn’t have much money to take away!

With all its challenges and opportunities, the future of community radio is bright. As commercial radio, social media and public radio become increasingly rigid, with dehumanizing algorithms, our neighbors and culture are accessible on the dial through community radio. Lower power FM is destined for increased wattage as Congress proposes boosts. Technology is allowing increasingly professional-sounding software to deliver local programming. And the hearts, traditions, and new voices in music and public affairs are thriving with ever-growing small community stations.

Mike Meyer is a social worker, concert producer and radio DJ for KEPW Eugene.