February 15, 2012 By Charlie Ban
Richland County, S.C. has Facebook, Twitter and email covered, but its latest communications tool might have the greatest reach.
Starting in 2010, the county’s public information department looked into a form of communications often overlooked in the modern day — AM radio. With a premium drive-time hour opening up on WGCV Friday afternoons at 5, the department, already staffed with a bit of radio talent, had an opportunity to reach a new segment of the population, for free.
“They (WGCV) didn’t have a local news show, but we had plenty to talk about on the air so we could help each other out,” said Tamara King, a Richland County spokewoman and personality on the show, dubbed Richland Radio. “It’s a way to bridge the digital divide.”
Having to pay market value for the airtime would cost approximately $10,400, and since the Public Information Office staff does all of the work, the show incurs no additional cost. WGCV staff trained county employees to do the show’s engineering work.
The department produces the hour-long show each week, giving the radio station 60 minutes of content and a reason for every Richland County resident to tune into its frequency. The station also reaches Lexington, Fairfield and Kershaw counties, all around the state’s capital of Columbia.
With 54 percent of the public getting news from the radio, according to a the Pew Internet and Digital Life Project, the talking box gets a little more attention from consumers than local newspapers (50 percent), and only 2 percent rely exclusively on the Internet for their daily news.
“It’s one of the most egalitarian mediums around,” County Public Information Officer Stephany Snowden said of radio. Snowden has a background in radio journalism and serves as the host. “People who don’t have a lot of money might not have Internet access, but they probably have a radio. It’s a way to reach almost everyone, regardless of their age or disability.”
It’s cheaper, faster and more comprehensive than creating an informational mailing for every citizen, and it also provides some entertainment for commuters who are in their cars anyway.
“There haven’t been any revolutionary advances in keeping people’s minds off their commute,” Snowden said. “Some people have satellite radio, but they’re not going to get any programming on there that deals with them locally, like we can.”
The county uses its Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote guests and topics, which, in addition to Richland County-specific discussions about the budget, transit funding and new county officials, have included wider-ranging examinations of fire safety, child abuse prevention and a well-received look at the September 11 terrorist attacks. King said one particularly poignant show featured a guest who had been convicted of vehicular manslaughter and drunk driving.
“We’ve had a lot of fun with the show,” King said. “Once, while discussing the jail, we got a call from someone who had been a ‘guest’ there, and offered his perspective. The topics are serious, but we try to keep the tone light and positive.”
Though the county public information office produces the show, it doesn’t have the feel of government propaganda.
“We try to make the show educational, more so than promotional,” Snowden said. “The whole point is to bring citizens and government together in a basic, touchable way, to have a conversation, rather than the county saying, ‘this is what’s happening.’”
Not that the county doesn’t use the show as a way to get out in front of an issue and make its perspective known.
“It’s nice that we don’t have to wait for another media outlet to pick up a story when we can just bring it up during the next week’s show,” King said.
To Tony Jamison, WGCV’s network operations director, the county’s collaboration with the station has been a blessing to the community.
“We win because we get local, relevant programming, the county gets an ear from the community, but in the long run, our listeners get the help they need,” he said. “A lot of information they offer is generic enough to be beneficial to our listeners no matter if they live in Richland or not. Over the course of a year, they bring in so many people from different departments, they really don’t leave any stone unturned when it comes to topics.”
The county doesn’t have any listenership numbers, but measures its impact by the number of people who show interest in involvement with the show — you know they care if they want to get on it.
“I feel that if we weren’t on, we’d get calls from people who’d miss the show,” King said.
Snowden was unfamiliar with other counties producing a radio show, but encourages them to try.
“It’s not always easy, but the options it gives you for communicating across a wide swath of residents is worth it,” she said.
She suggested first asking radio stations what options exist for counties to get their material on the air, but also looking for opportunities to help the station out, as Richland has done by giving WGCV the local programming it lacked.
In terms of training the on-air talent, Snowden said, the most important skill is being able to think on your feet.
“It’s a lot less stressful to talk on the radio when you start thinking of it as having a conversation with listeners and not giving them a speech,” she said.
Planning ahead to be sure there’s content ready for a regular broadcast is another vital step in a county-run radio enterprise. Also, keeping it all in perspective.
“Don’t go into it to become a radio star, but remember it’s a natural extension of public outreach,” Snowden said. “Don’t underestimate the power of old-school media.”
This story is reprinted with permission from the National Association of Counties' Feb. 13 newsletter.