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Survey: Rural public radio needs ‘sustained support’ to serve local communities

Marvin Jansen van der Sligte

Findings from a survey of more than 100 public radio stations serving rural communities, conducted by the Alliance of Rural Public Media, shows how financially- and staff-challenged most of these stations are when it comes to serving their communities with necessary local news coverage, according to Inside Radio.

“The rise of news deserts increasingly has resulted in rural public radio stations being the only remaining daily local news service with journalists living in their communities,” the Alliance's report says.

Among the challenges facing these stations are “fewer opportunities for raising donor support, extensive infrastructure costs related to reaching rural and remote audiences, and a broadband gap that hinders rural audiences from accessing digital content.

“In order to sustain this reliable, indispensable service for rural and remote American audiences, rural public radio stations need sustained support.”

Infrastructure-related expenses were found to be a major challenge for rural stations, with 33% reporting spending 20-30% – and 9% spending more than half – of annual budgets on transmitters and antennas needed to reach remote audiences. That's in line with Corporation for Public Broadcasting data cited by the Alliance that broadcasting and engineering costs represent 15% of the average rural radio station’s annual expenses vs. 12% for the rest of the industry.

At the same time, of the 91% of rural public stations providing local news, eight in 10 employ a staff of nine or fewer journalists, with stations reporting ongoing recruitment challenges.

“Reduced staffing in print and commercial broadcast journalism represents an opportunity for public media to provide valuable service, [but] recruitment of qualified staff needed to enhance services is difficult without significant resources,” a survey respondent from Eugene, OR's KLCC says. “Many journalists are leaving the profession for more lucrative and stable careers.”

The report points out that rural stations with non-federal financial support of more than $1 million, and a weekly audience of more than 100,000, are more likely to be able to employ 10 or more journalists. This, however, represents just 17% of rural public stations while most of the remaining 83%, serving fewer than 100,000 listeners, offer 10 or fewer hours of local content. On average, these stations have a paid staff of 11 people, with additional support from volunteers from the community.

The importance of rural public stations as a local news source is magnified in communities where there are only one or two other daily news services, which is the case for 20% of these reporting stations, while respondents from stations in Texas, Minnesota, North Dakota and Alaska reported no other sources in their communities aside from public radio. In such areas, the Alliance's reports said, “the local voice may not be captured.”

While nearly all participating stations stream their programs online and use social media to promote their programming and services – with 99% using Facebook and 93% on YouTube – and 71% making audio content available on podcasts, many are challenged by remote areas lacking broadband or reliable cell phone service. “The shift toward digital media, accelerated by the pandemic, has also added costs to rural stations for producing content across a diverse range of platforms, while maintaining essential broadcasts for their communities,” the report says.

Based on its findings, the Alliance recommends maintenance of robust federal funding for public broadcasting, continued FEMA support for station infrastructure, and enhanced support for public radio collaborations and partnerships.

“These measures will foster continued connections among rural communities and broaden connections with every corner of the United States,” its report says. “Support for these essential stations will ensure that public radio continues to fulfill its mission of providing universal access to indispensable news, emergency alerts, and cultural programming for all Americans.”