Community service keeps broadcasters relevant


Jim DuBoisThere was a time not so long ago when broadcasters enjoyed an exclusive franchise.  Cable television was less a competitor and more a collaborator. The early cable TV systems merely relayed the signals of stations to areas with weak reception.  Original programming for cable was non-existent with the exception of the “weather channel” where a camera scanned wind, temperature and barometric pressure readings to an instrumental music accompaniment.

Fast forward to 2014; it’s an era of seemingly limitless audio and video choices. Today, TV stations not only compete with each other for local news coverage but also with the likes of You Tube, Facebook and Twitter.  A citizen with a smart phone can break news as readily as a major network. On the audio front, it’s a battle for the ear buds, and local radio stations vie for listeners within a universe of streaming media, Spotify, Pandora and mp3 players with massive playlists.

This is the new reality for broadcasters and their state and national associations. The old rules no longer apply, and the industry and its advocates are continually reinventing themselves.  For a growing number of Americans, radio and TV is no longer the sole domain of terrestrial broadcasters. Today, almost anyone with inexpensive equipment can “broadcast” to a worldwide audience, and a Vimeo channel may hold the same brand equity to some viewers as a major network.

Where does this leave traditional broadcasters and the organizations that advocate on their behalf? At the Minnesota Broadcasters Association (MBA), we recognized several years ago that our role must evolve to embrace these new realities. Community service and local programming are terrestrial broadcasting’s greatest strengths.  By focusing on the needs of the local community, broadcasters remain relevant in an increasingly competitive environment.

The MBA is helping its members to better serve their communities in a variety of ways. More than a decade ago, the MBA launched Access Minnesota, a weekly 30-minute public affairs radio show that now airs on more than 40 stations statewide.  Access Minnesota is a partnership between the MBA and the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts.  Faculty experts from the University provide analysis of critical issues impacting Minnesotans. We also invite lawmakers and other community leaders to appear on the program.

In 2007, the MBA launched a monthly television version of Access Minnesota that currently airs on stations owned by Sinclair and Hubbard in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market as well as on other stations in Greater Minnesota. The TV program is shot on location and edited at the MBA’s production facility, and the weekly radio show is recorded in our office-based studio or on location.  Access Minnesota traveled to Kuwait and Iraq in 2007 and again in 2011 to follow Minnesota National Guard soldiers who were deployed in the region.

Over the years, the MBA has also demonstrated the unique ability of broadcasters to bring the community together to help others in need. When devastating floods hit parts of Minnesota and North Dakota, the MBA coordinated the “Beyond the Flood” telethon that was carried live by TV stations across the state, including every station in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market in a unique “roadblock” programming event. A follow up video called “Beyond the Flood: The People, Their Stories” sold out at area Target stores within weeks. Collectively, the telethon and video raised over a million dollars for flood relief.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Minnesota’s broadcasters and the MBA rallied to provide assistance to the storm’s victims. More than 30 Twin Cities radio stations broadcast a live radiothon from a bridge spanning the Mississippi River on the University of Minnesota’s campus, and another 120 stations statewide carried live reports that were provided by the MBA. Television stations covered the event on their morning newscasts.  The seven hour “River of Relief” radiothon raised more than $750,000.

Broadcasters provide critical information and education to their audiences, and the historic digital television transition demanded a concerted outreach effort. . The MBA partnered with Best Buy to produce an instructional program called “DTV Simplified” that aired on more than 500 TV stations nationwide.  Many viewers required “hands on” help, and the MBA, in collaboration with Best Buy, 4-H and TV broadcasters, set up a demonstration area at the Minnesota State Fair where passers-by learned how to install a converter box and resolve reception issues. Minnesota’s Governor and several of our members of Congress visited the booth during the fair and witnessed firsthand the efforts of broadcasters to ensure that the digital transition was as uneventful as possible.

Finally, Minnesota broadcasters and the MBA are currently working with state authorities and other partners to implement the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) and improve the Minnesota’s EAS system. Prior to the nationwide EAS test in November of 2011, the MBA joined forces with ECHO Minnesota, a local non-profit that provides emergency and health-related information to communities with limited English language proficiency. Together, ECHO and the MBA produced a series of PSAs in English and a variety of other languages to alert the public to the test.  Broadcasters throughout the state aired the PSAs in the days leading up to the test, boosting awareness and reaching out to recent immigrant communities.

These are but a few examples of how state broadcasters’ associations and the stations they represent can work together on community service projects.  Broadcasters know better than any other audio or video provider how to connect with local audiences through innovative programming and public service initiatives.  Every day, broadcasters serve their communities, whether raising funds for disaster relief, building awareness of critical issues or providing lifesaving information during an emergency. This is our best defense against obsolescence and sends a powerful message to our elected officials and regulators that broadcasting plays a unique and vital role in every community.

–Jim du Bois, President/CEO, Minnesota Broadcasters Association

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