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The Importance of
Community Radio

For several decades community radio has struggled to survive as an "alternative" to commercial radio and the network-affiliated public radio system that it pre-dates.

Community broadcasters say they offer a different brand of public radio – one largely driven by locally originated programming – that is greatly appreciated by its listeners.

Though their numbers are admittedly small, these listeners are said to view as vital their community station’s service – and support it as an important resource. Indeed, community radio’s lore is inculcated with stories about stations’ roles as sole carriers of critical community information, particularly in isolated areas.

Who are community radio’s listeners? What do they say about community radio? How important is it to them?

Community Radio's Audience

Community radio listeners are slightly younger, slightly less educated, and slightly less affluent than other public radio listeners.

With an average $56,000 annual household income and 54% college graduates, community radio listeners look more like other public radio listeners than they do like most Americans.

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There is one difference, however, and that is the racial composition of the audience. In markets where Arbitron measures race, community radio's listeners are three times more likely to be black or Hispanic than are network-affiliated listeners.

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For the most part, however, these minority listeners differ from others only in race; as a whole their education levels and incomes are comparable.

These differences are caused by the programming choices made at community stations – no NPR news, little classical music; many more hours of jazz, blues, R&B and alternative rock.

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Loyalty and Reliance

Network-affiliated stations elicit more loyalty and reliance from their listeners than community stations draw from their listeners.

In fact, one-third of community radio’s listeners are part of "the rest of public radio’s audience" and spend most of their public radio listening time tuned to network-affiliated stations. If "loyalty" is a measure of importance, then for these listeners, community radio doesn’t measure up:

Their average loyalty to community radio is 18%; to network-affiliated public radio it’s 36%.

For the other two-thirds of its audience, loyalty to community radio is 22%.

The vast majority of this larger group of listeners relies little on community radio. To these listeners, community radio is an alternative – to commercial radio.

They spend three-and-one-half times as many hours listening to commercial radio each week as they do to community radio.

Personal Importance

Would listeners miss their community radio stations if they were to go away?

The answer is yes – but no more than network-affiliated public radio listeners would miss theirs.

Community radio and network-affiliated public radio listeners rate the "personal importance" of their respective services virtually the same.


Giving is a proxy for how much a public radio listener values public radio’s service. By this measure, community radio listeners value their stations less than other public radio listeners value theirs.

By a ratio of 5:4, listeners are more likely to contribute to network-affiliated stations than to community stations.

Though both groups of listeners believe that their support is critical and government support is minimal, those who listen to community radio rely less on its service. As reliance is an essential step to giving, they are less apt to financially support their community stations. Their slightly lower incomes are not the reason they are less likely to give.

Intentions and Impact

Fifty years after its founding, community radio remains a small component of radio listening in America. By AUDIENCE 98’s definition of community radio, it provides six percent of public radio’s national AQH – or about 82,000 out of nearly 1,400,000 listeners tuned in at any moment to public radio across the country.

About a third of community radio listening is concentrated at the five Pacifica stations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Washington, DC that – for many in our industry – define "community radio".

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This chart represents, in geometric proportions, listening to all radio, network-affiliated public radio, community radio, and Pacifica.

Twenty-four years ago, in his book about the early days of Pacifica station WBAI, Steve Post wrote:

"It was the intention of Pacifica’s founders to develop a radio station that spoke to the minority. They believed that in a society which supposedly guaranteed the right of its citizens to freedom of speech, no matter what their views, there should be free and open access to the electronic media as well."

Though execution varies widely from station to station, in a broad sense this is still the mission articulated by most community broadcasters.

Despite those early intentions, community radio, by and large, now serves an overwhelmingly white, educated, middle-class, Baby Boomer audience.

By the measurements of loyalty, reliance, personal importance and giving, it serves many in its audience less well than network-affiliated public radio. The majority of its listeners choose commercial radio much more often than community radio.

So while community broadcasters’ sense of mission seems to be as strong as ever, that mission and its outcome appear to be at odds. By supplying a mirror built from listener facts, AUDIENCE 98 offers community radio an opportunity for reflection.

– Leslie Peters
– Jay Youngclaus
– David Giovannoni
UDIENCE 98 Core Team

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For More Information

What is Community Radio?  With members like KQED and WGBH, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters' roster doesn’t address the generally implied meaning. This sidebar shows the objective definition used in this analysis.

Not all community stations are the same, especially when it comes to serving minority audiences. These differences are seen in The Majority of the Minorities.  Similarly, the stations that invented community radio embody The Pacifica Difference.

While making A Case for Community Radio, AUDIENCE 98 Associate David Freedman, Station Manager of WWOZ in New Orleans, describes the ties that bind one station to its surroundings.

NFCB President and AUDIENCE 98 Associate Carol Pierson reflects on the findings in Re-Examining Public Radio's Values.


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Navigate the Report

arrow.gif (139 bytes)     The Importance of Community Radio
navblue.jpg (647 bytes) transpxl.gif (67 bytes)     What is Community Radio?
navblue.jpg (647 bytes) transpxl.gif (67 bytes) transpxl.gif (67 bytes) The Majority of the Minorities
navblue.jpg (647 bytes) transpxl.gif (67 bytes) transpxl.gif (67 bytes) The Pacifica Difference
navblue.jpg (647 bytes) transpxl.gif (67 bytes) transpxl.gif (67 bytes) A Case for Community Radio
  Re-Examining Public Radio's Values

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Examine the Statistical Analyses Behind the Report, Part 1
(47 pages; 181,424 bytes)

Statistical Analyses, Part 2
(95 pages; 375,002 bytes)


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Audience Research Analysis
Copyright ARA and CPB.  All rights reserved.
Revised: September 01, 2000 12:38 PM.