Organizing Your Station - Outreach

Creating a community-based low-power radio station takes more than engineering expertise, it takes grassroots and political organizing. Prometheus Alumni Amanda Huron gives some helpful tips on organizing your station, and getting community support for your effort.

Locate Helpful People
and Organizations in Your Neighborhood

Your town or neighborhood is bound to be full of people who will be excited as heck about being involved with a new community radio station. You need people with many kinds of skills and strengths. Here are a few types of resource people you should start to seek out:

Radio broadcast engineers. Figure out if you know anyone who works at any local radio stations who could direct you to some sympathetic engineers. These folks are often bored with their jobs and want a new, fun challenge. You will want them to explain basic technical stuff to you. Plus, they may be able to hook you up with used equipment from their studios, which will serve your station perfectly well. Now is an excellent time to get them to donate their old analog equipment to you as many big stations are switching to digital production. Here in D.C., we found a couple of radio engineers from an old college station that was shut down in the seventies who are psyched to be helping us out in our effort to start a station.

Tinkerers: Another great resource is your local tinkerer. That is that person that you have met a few times but do not see much of - they spend most of their time in their basement fooling around with junky old turntables, CD players and computers. If you can convince this person that they will suddenly be inexplicably popular and have lots of new friends as a result of the heroic role that they will play in getting your local radio station on the air - you have tapped an incredible resource. You will have given some poor nerd (Pete triDish is a good example) a social life and your neighborhood a radio station!

Radio/TV producers: These people have the technical skills to make some good programming, and again, many of them may be bored at their stations and wanting to be part of a cool new community project. Get them to start training other people in putting radio stories together, so by the time you get on the air, you will have a public affairs crew ready to do some quality reporting. Do not forget about your local college station, if you have one -- students sometimes have more time to work on these kinds of projects, and maybe you can even get a communications student to intern with your station.

Nice lawyers: It will be helpful to have a couple lawyers on hand to answer legal questions and help you draw up basic documents. If you can find lawyers who work with the arts or community non-profit organizations, so much the better -- but any old friendly attorney should do.

Musicians, poets, DJs and other performers: These people will have a vested interest in helping you start a community radio station, since they will probably be performing on it. It is pretty easy to get the support of these artsy types. Throw a big party, set up some turntables and have people spin records all night long, or have a few local bands play, and pass out flyers explaining the idea for the station and giving people contact info. Have petitions out for people to sign, supporting the idea of a local station. This is a fun way to spread the word and will enable to you reach a lot of people at once.

People who follow through on stuff, who you can trust: This is absolutely the most important kind of person to have. It does not matter so much what their skills are as that they will do what they say they will do. Our local radio group has been very lucky to have blindly stumbled upon a number of these people. Once you get a core crew of trustworthy people who understand what the station is about, you are well on your way.

Some specific outreach ideas. Go door to door giving people information about the station and asking them to sign a petition in support of it; set up a table with info at events like block parties, festivals and concerts; and hold regular meetings in public spaces like the local library, community center or supportive churches. Another thing you can do is get people to host information sessions about the station in their homes and invite everyone on their block (or in their apartment building) to come hear about it and give their ideas. Also, fundraising events (see below) are excellent outreach opportunities.

A Warning. One thing to always watch out for is the crazies. A project like a low power radio station is guaranteed to attract them: people who talk too much in meetings, who want to take over, who think the government is out to kill them, who will misrepresent you in public and turn other people off. I personally have been lucky enough to have dealt with only two such crazy people in a year of organizing. It is a pain, and it takes energy away from the real job of organizing the station, but be prepared, because you will have to figure out how to deal with them.

Outreach to Organizations.

Okay, so it is important to reach out to people in general. But you also want to reach out to specific organizations that can help move your cause along. You will want the support of schools, community-based organizations, businesses, local government agencies, and churches. The more diverse array of groups you have supporting you, the better. A simple way to get support from local organizations is to first figure out all the organizations you and your group have personal contacts with. Then write up a sample letter of support that organizations can personalize and write on their letterhead and send to you. Part of the letter should be their ideas for programming on the new station. Thus, the letter serves two purposes: documenting their support for you, and getting input as to what the community wants on the station.

You should set up meetings with people at such organizations as:

Elementary and high schools, colleges, churches, neighborhood associations, the city council, youth centers, community centers, music stores, nightclubs, any other local businesses (we prefer to work only with locally-owned businesses; in other words, we're not going to the local McDonald's franchise for a support letter); arts organizations; and any other organization you can think of in your broadcast area. Plus, you can contact organizations that are located outside your broadcast area but want to reach people who live in your broadcast area. For instance, there is a record store that is outside our broadcast area but would want to reach all the hip kids who live in our area. Similarly, there is a university that is not located near us but wants to do recruitment among the many Latinos who live in our neighborhood.

Think about whether you want to have local businesses underwrite shows on your station, and if you decide to go that route, ask businesses to include their willingness to support you financially in their letter of support to you.

Go to a lot of meetings

Doing outreach to local organizations means going to their meetings. You can not expect them to take the time to come to your meetings, so be prepared to spend many, many nights at their meetings. Get a core group of people who can talk coherently about the station to divide up the meetings so one person does not end up doing it all. Always take literature about your station, including contact info, and the sample letters of support. You could also write up a simple survey asking people what they want to hear on the station and distribute it at the meetings as well.

Make a cool tape

Another thing we are doing is putting together a sample tape of programming to play at meetings, so people can hear what their community station could sound like. We are including stuff on our tape like: kids interviewing each other about violence in the neighborhood; snippets of local music that does not get played on our other radio stations; excerpts from interviews with neighborhood activists and leaders; people speaking in different languages about why they want a community station and why it would be good for our neighborhood. Your tape would have different stuff on it, but just make sure it reflects the diversity of your area, sounds pretty good and makes people juiced up about the station. You will need access to some recording and editing equipment to put this together. Maybe your radio/TV producer friends can help you out on that particular project.

Avoid hostile takeovers

Some local non-profit organizations will want to take over your station. They will see what an amazing idea it is, and want to turn it to their own nefarious grant-getting ends. For the love of god, do not let this happen. You do not need that much money to start a low power radio station, so you do not need to worry about grants right away, if ever (more on that in the fundraising section). Stay independent. Do not let any one group take over. You will need to have a couple of groups providing you with important help, but make sure those are groups you absolutely trust. For instance, we in D.C. work closely with a local radical church that, among other things, provides us with free studio space, and a local Latino agency that serves as our fiscal sponsor, where two of our four board members work. You will need a couple organizations like that. Just make sure they are not filled with control freaks who want to use your station to make them look good.