Engaging voices or talking to air? A study of alternative and community radio audience in the digital era
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In November 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the implementation of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, which marks the largest expansion of community radio stations in U.S. history. The act responds to the decade-long community radio movement in which many civilian groups advocated that community radio—an “old-fashioned” yet affordable public medium—still plays a significant role in fostering the expression of diverse voices and citizen participation in this digital era. Despite the successful advocacy effort in the policy-making arena, the real impact of community radio remains a question. Who listens to and participates in community radio? Does the connection between community radio and community exist? This dissertation investigates audience interaction and participation in the U.S. community radio sector, seeking to empirically and theoretically advance audience research in community radio and alternative media in general. Methodologically, this dissertation is based on case studies from two community radio stations KOOP and KPFT in Texas through multiple methods including 5-year ethnographic fieldwork, in-depth interviews with 70 individuals including staff, programmers and listeners, a web-based listener survey with 131 respondents, and a textual analysis of producer-audience communication platforms such as blogs and social networking sites. The results demonstrate the limitations of audience interaction and participation caused by resource constraints and community radio programmers’ tendency to speak with themselves. Therefore, I recommend that community radio broadcasters should consider developing systemic approaches to evaluate and facilitate audience participation, which requires an understanding that the value of community engagement lies beyond audience size or the amount of listener donations. This dissertation concludes that community radio remains relevant in this digital era. This affordable and accessible form of alternative media to some extent bridges a digital divide. The medium also facilitates the development of a genuine relationship between radio programmers and listeners, thus the formation of virtual and real communities. These are the very elements that make meaningful dialogues possible in any communication environment.