Mainstream vs Specialized Content on Community Radio

Community radio is known for having an eclectic mix of content, but is there a way to reach out to one sector without alienating the rest?

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Any media outlet needs consumers to stay afloat. If no one is listening, there’s no reason for a station to continue. In that case, radio stations need to produce content that appeals to a large audience in order to atract advertisers and justify it’s existence. Community radio stations differ from commercial stations because they have an interest representing unheard voices and appealing to underserved communities, despite the smaller audience size.

This can result in a calender with a mishmash of very niche shows that may not be apealling to the average listener. Unlike commercial stations, community stations may have the support of extra funding for supproting underserved communities through special shows, and a general understanding that community radio ‘is a bit quirky’. However, low listener numbers due to inconsistent or overly niche content can still result in funding issues and has been the COD for many community stations.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Mainstream Content

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Most community radio stations attempt to appeal (at leaste in theory) to the entirety of a small geographic community. This is done by a combination of the use of ‘specialized’ show, designed to appeal to certain tastes, and what I would call more ‘mainstream’ content. Mainstream content is content that is designed to appeal to as many members of the listeneing community as possible. These include playlists of popular music (usually a mix of older rock songs and newer pop songs). Links consist of discussions of concern to the general community such local news, events guides, and community resources.

Finding a consistent sound across talk and music is a tried and true tecnique for radio stations to get larger audiences. Though community stations may be attempting to reach a less targeted section of potential listeners by mixing a number of locally popular genres music, mainstream content can still establish a specific sound. The mix will appeal to a the group of listeners who like that music and will know they can expect it if they tune in to that station. The larger the listening audience the easier it is for community stations to hold successful fundraisers, justify their continuation to the sponsors, and attract advertisers.

Mainstream content is also seen as the best way to hold ‘daytime’ audiences. During traditional weekday breakfast (7am-10am), lunchtime (12pm-2pm), and drive-time (4pm-6pm) slots most audiences will be listening from their cars or in their workplaces (this research doesn’t account for our lockdown habits). Cars are seen as turn off points for listeners, who are more likely to switch stations when driving. As it’s a very busy time of day many stations opt for more mainstream music and features during rush hour to avoid listeners hearing something they don’t like and switching to a more ‘predictable’ commerical station. While at the office or first thing in the morning conventional wisdom is that listeners are looking for easy, enjoyable content that won’t distract them or jar them awake.

While having more mainstream content can attract more listeners, especially during busy times of day, there can be drawbacks to community stations relying too heavily on ‘expected’ or popular content. First of all, it’s what most commercial stations do. If community stations start to sound exactly like commercial local stations (but perhaps a bit less refined) then it’s hard to sell audiences on why to choose them.

Community radio exists (among other reasons) to provide content created by and for communities that are underrepresented by other media, perhaps because the population is not big enough to be considered mainstream or popular.

Finally community radio stations are not only trying to serve the needs of the audience, but also of their volunteers. A lot of people get involved in community radio to share their passions or to bring up issues that they don’t feel like are being addressed. A show targeting the disabled community may not be more traditionally ‘popular’ but it’s more likley to encourage enclusion of diabled volunteers than another classic rock show.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Specialized Content

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As I mentioned early listeners generally learn to expect the unexpected from community radio stations. Regular community radio listeners often put the variety, uniqueness, and quirkiness of the station as a reason for their interest. In a high-choice media world, having a variety of unusual specialized shows allows listeners to find things they never knew they’d enjoy. Beyond your expected music variations I have found in my time shows dedicated to: veganism, the supernatural, celtic music and much more!

Community radio commits to representing the entire community, especially those underserved by traditional media. One way of doing this is to have shows that specifically represent communities that volunteers, staff, research, etc. feel should have a voice in the local area.

A more practical benefit of specialized shows is that they are more likely to draw funding, awards and media attention. Shows that serve certain communities can be effective ways of justifying the stations importance to Ofcom and sponsors. If you have a show that’s truely unique sometimes local media may cover it allowing for further spread of station’s brand (see this article about Future Radio’s vegan show).

The drawback of too much specialize content is that it can be confusing for listeners, especially if the change is abrupt. If someone’s listening to a rock show they really love and then it switches to a dance music show, there’s a good chance the listener will lose interest. Especially during causual listening times of day, knowing what to expect from a station can be a important factor in whether it’s chosen.

The Mixed Approach

Because of the dangers of having either too much mainstream or specialized content, most community stations scedule a mix of both. Many stations have more mainstream features during the traditional mornings and work days and then have specialized content in the evenings (see the schedule for Air or Future Radio).

I should also mention that some community stations are designed to entierly specialize in one community, whether it’s musical like Celtic Music Radio, or ethnic like Asian Star. Focus on one genre or population is more similar to the commerical approach as it aims to get as much of that population as posible by providing them with an expected sound that they will likely enjoy. However these community stations often include some more community focused and out there content to hold on to the uniqueness of community radio.

The mix is never the same for two stations, and of course the station sound is unique to what is believed to fit that distinct geographical community.

American abroad. Book nerd. Avid podcast and radio listener. Former Broadcast Assistant at Future Radio. Twitter: @ErinESnell1 Facebook @esnellblog