To find the role of Community Engagement in public radio, we must consider the broader context of American society. Our nation is undergoing a transformative shift, with societal aspects evolving in ways that impact not just public radio but the entire fabric of our communities. In an era marked by increasing loneliness, decreasing communal spaces, and rapidly changing dynamics of entertainment consumption, we must ask if public radio has a role in fostering connection in our communities?

Defining Community Engagement

Community engagement, in the context of public radio, is more than just interaction; it is a deep and symbiotic relationship between the station and the community it serves. It encompasses a station’s active participation within the community, reflecting its position as a trusted voice, storyteller, and advocate. At its core, community engagement means understanding the needs, interests, and aspirations of the community and amplifying them through the airwaves and beyond. It is these aspects of community engagement that are especially crucial for our society.

Why We Need Community Engagement

American society is becoming increasingly fragmented and isolated. Modern life, with its digital connections, paradoxically, is believed to foster a sense of loneliness. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and NPR, about half of U.S. adults reported feeling measurable levels of loneliness. The very platforms meant to connect us often leave us feeling more disconnected.

Simultaneously, communal spaces, once hubs of interaction and community building, are decreasing. Community centers, local libraries, and neighborhood gatherings, which once served as the bedrock of social connection, are gradually disappearing due to financial constraints, shifting priorities, and even political beliefs. These closures leave voids in the social fabric of our communities.

Lastly, radio listening is changing, and the some listeners who have faithfully tuned into radio programs are gradually evolving. Younger generations, raised in the digital age with diverse media options, have different expectations for their information and entertainment as well as how it is consumed. If not addressed properly, public radio will find its core audience dwindling with no influx of new consumers.

Public Radio’s Local Role

While public radio has been successful in delivering its mission to educate, enlighten, and inform through the airwaves, it’s essential to recognize that community engagement must extend beyond the radio waves. The hope is that public radio’s work in community engagement is not primarily confined to its on-air programming of diverse story telling; or the moments of online engagement that come from content like NPR Music’s Tiny Desk; but instead, we hope it plays a role in translating its practices and ideals into tangible real-life experiences for communities across the nation. By acknowledging the profound societal changes and actively embracing community engagement to foster inclusivity and fortify local ties, public radio can transition from being a beacon of connectivity primarily through broadcasts to becoming a catalyst for real-world community building, which I believe, will be beneficial for radio as well as our communities.

The future of public radio, regardless of format, is intrinsically tied to its role in addressing the deeper societal issues of isolation and loneliness. By actively engaging with communities, public radio can help bridge the divide and be a force for reconnecting individuals and fostering a sense of togetherness. Paragon and our public radio clients take the role of community engagement seriously and are constantly improving local impact with new tactics, trial and error, and evolving best practices. Practical tools to better do community engagement are extremely vital not only for public radio but also for society.