Community Radio and the Arts: How Stations Sustain Creative Communities

Thanks to the passage of the Local Community Radio Act, nonprofits will soon have the chance to apply for non-commercial radio licenses in cities and towns across the country! 1000+ new channels will become available, marking the largest expansion of community radio stations in U.S. history. The time to apply is coming up fast - with an application window opening in the next 6-12 months.

Arts organizations are some of the best positioned groups to take advantage of the upcoming opportunity to start new community radio stations. 

The Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center is seen as a model for how radio can be used to amplify the arts and the value of radio for arts organizations.

I was asked by the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC) to present on their August 2, 2012 conference call with arts organizations across the US. Below is the text of my talk. 

Check out the photo tour of the Urbana IMC that accompanies this talk.

About the UCIMC

The Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center is 12 year old community media and arts organization in Illinois. We foster the creation of art and media emphasizing underrepresented voices and perspectives. In 2005, we purchased the downtown Urbana post office building and coverted its 30,000 square feet into a media and arts center. Our facilities include a low power radio station, media production and training studio, performance venue, art gallery, library, meeting space, and a dozen art studio spaces. On the roof, we provide internet access through a wireless mesh network we have developed over the past decade.  

We are multi-media with a website, newspaper, radio station, and our members produce video for Urbana Public TV. In addition, we operate a Books to Prisoners program which has shipped over 70,000 free books to Illinois inmates, MakerSpace which helps community members fix their computers and runs educational programming, and the OddMusic collective. We are colocated with a number of partners including UPCenter, the local gay/lesbian/trans center and a school – called the School for Designing a Society taught by artists and activists. Often people ask: how do you do it? We are volunteer run – with less than 2 full time staff members, 4 AmeriCorps members, an active board, and over 1200 volunteers. Most of our income comes from donations, space usage agreements, and program grants.

Using Radio to Amplify the Arts

WRFU 104.5 FM is a progressive radio station collective committed to social justice. We provide an open diverse forum with focus on public affairs and the arts. We had 1352 shows last year. 24 weekly shows, 17 syndicated shows like War News Radio, Earthbeat and Radio Bilingue. Between scheduled programs we launched a Local Music Project. We collected thousands of songs and pieces from hundreds of local musicians and poets which play daily.  This has built a strong relationship with the musical community, which was instrumental in raising funds for our new radio tower through benefit concerts.

We also showcase live creativity on the air. During the show, Micro-Urban Radio on at 9pm – the first 15 minutes has been dedicated to story and song time to help kids go to bed (the mom in my thanks you) followed by discussion of local issues.

Radio advertising is prohibitely expensive for non profits and artists. Commercial stations have weak if not non-existant public interest requirements. WRFU runs event announcements and public service announcements for free, helping to build community and connect its members.

Value of radio for arts organizations

Radio is an accessible, public, affordable way for an arts organization to have a presence through the community. WRFU reaches a listening area of about 100,000 including those at work, taking care of kids, home bound of in nursing homes, or driving around town. In larger, urban areas, a low power station can reach a quarter to half million listeners. 90% of Americans listen to radio weekly and the average home has 5 FM receivers.

Radio publicizes and extends your arts programming. The UCIMC has used a weekly segment called "This Week at the IMC" to announce upcoming events and opportunities - the segment airs on WRFU as well as on Urbana Public TV. We have a performance venue with about 200 events per year – our stage is wired allow us to simulcast over WRFU with the push of a button.

Radio helps artists build an audience and grow their projects.  For example, the show Odd Music Radio Shower is focused on microtonal and other odd music, run by composer-members of the center who run an instrument and musical score check out library. Through the radio show and library work, they have been asked to give workshops in the local schools and an annual national gathering of microtonal enthusiasts.

Radio engages diverse audiences.  There is 12 hours of Spanish language programming per week on WRFU. 11th Indian is the only radio show produced by and for Native Americans in the area. Radio Triple R bills itself as a street scrapin' Chicano music and issues program. Daughters of Eve – was a show by Muslim women.  No where else will you hear these voices and perspectives in town.

Radio develops leadership and new voices.  This is an often overlooked but essential benefit.  For example, I used to coordinate a show on WEFT called RadioGirl!, where local girls ages 8-18 produced radio theater, provided commentary on issues like sex education and school security, and played their favorite music.  There are many stories I could tell, but one of the young women who was 13 at the time and had chosen to stop attending middle school, just got accepted to a gradute program in journalism which starts this month.

I strongly encourage arts organizations to consider connecting to this one time opportunity to extend your reach and programming with community radio.  As a first step, sign up with Prometheus Radio Project, which provides start to finish support in applying for a low FM license.

- Danielle Chynoweth, UCIMC cofounder and board member and part of the Prometheus Radio project team.









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