Audience Dialogue

Participative Marketing for Local Radio, Chapter 4
Marketing through program strategy: sections 4-5

4.4 Building a community of listeners

The concept of marketing through social networks is that you get your listeners to do most of your marketing for you. The most successful stations build their audiences through word of mouth. This is often a slow process (continuing for years) but listeners gained through social networks are more likely to remain as listeners - if only because their friends listen too, and they like to discuss the station.

In rich countries, radio listening is often a solitary activity: when people are alone, they use radio as a substitute for human company. In these situations, radio listening is usually a secondary activity: something that people do while working, driving, or cooking. In that situation, radio is a one-way medium: the listener is not really participating, only listening.

In developing countries, people use radio differently. Radios are expensive, so they often listen in groups. In this situation, the radio broadcast can provoke interaction among the group - whether the people are a family, neighbours, colleagues, or friends.

Instead of radio being a one-way medium, interactive programming can transform it into a two-way medium, with communication in both directions. Though a two-way medium produces much better communication than a one-way medium, it's possible for radio to go beyond two-way communication.

Let's call it multi-way communication. In this situation, radio encourages members of the community to link with each other, to get to understand people they did not already know. This can serve to reduce conflict between social groups, and at the same time meet the needs of listeners. This can be done by using structures such as listeners' clubs and special-interest groups.

As an example, in 2001 the International Labour Organization sponsored a series of programs on local radio in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam: "Start and Improve Your Business." These programs involved groups of listeners meeting once a week, listening to the program together and discussing it afterwards. After the program series finished, some of the group members stayed in touch with each other, supporting one another in their new businesses. The series of radio programs had encouraged listeners to communicate with each other, not only with the station. There's scope for repeating this experience in all sorts of ways.

Listeners' clubs

Another community building activity is to set up a listeners' club. This was mentioned in the chapter on audience research - but audience research is only one function of a listeners' club. It's not only the radio station that benefits from a listeners' club. The listeners themselves can benefit. They become better informed, they make new friends and new business opportunities, and the community benefits through increased social cohesion.

A listeners' club can be set up either by the radio station or by listeners themselves. In many ways it's best if listeners set up the club - perhaps with practical assistance from the radio station, such as allowing the club to meet at the radio office. For a government radio station, a "Friends of" organization (another type of listeners' club) can be a valuable pressure group to help overcome funding cuts and political censorship.

An example - not from radio, but from newspapers. In rural Australia, newspaper circulations have been declining in recent years. One exception is Shepparton, in Victoria, where the circulation of the local newspaper (simply entitled The News) has grown steadily, despite a static population in its circulation area. One of the main reasons for this growth has been The News Reader Club, which has 5,000 members - compared with a circulation of about 10,000 and a local population of about 40,000. The club organizes outings, discounts, and competitions, and has a weekly column in the newspaper.

In poor countries, where few households can afford radios, listeners' clubs are different: they are groups of people who meet in order to listen to radio. After listening, they can discuss the programs. The purpose of the clubs is educational, not fund-raising.

An example of this type of listeners club was used in Zambia, from 1998 to 2001. Radio DTR produced programs for women, who listened in groups, commented on the programs, recorded their comments, and send the tapes back to DTR for inclusion in later broadcasts.

The main problem with listeners' clubs is the listeners they attract tend to be older ones, and rather conservative. Often, a listeners' club will strongly resist any changes - such as the broadcast time of a popular program. Generally, it's advisable to take notice of the views of experienced listeners - but unless the need for change is explained to them very clearly, they can hinder program changes that in the longer term are necessary.

4.5  Becoming the community's voice

If a community radio station is to be fully successful, it needs to move beyond radio, to create events from which programs can be made. These include festivals, forums, educational programs, and any other type of event that depends mainly on sound.


Many medium-sized communities have a lot of local musicians who are highly competent, but who have had no opportunity to record their music professionally. A radio station with good recording equipment and skilled recordists can organize a music festival: a series of public concerts, which are recorded and later broadcast. A festival like this helps the station in several ways: it creates program content, income (from ticket sales), community respect, and public awareness. A festival can also include plays, short stories, and interviews with performers.


If you are going to broadcast a radio play, why not invite the public? A live audience not only improves program ambience, but can also provide funding.

Another type of drama is participatory theatre, or community theatre. This is sometimes used in Africa. Unlike a normal play, community theatre usually has no formal script, and no distinction between actors and audience. It's often done outdoors, too - which makes it difficult to record successfully. Participatory theatre takes a lot of organizing, but can produce fascinating programs, and all participants seem to greatly enjoy it. It's certainly an effective way to build an audience.


A few years ago, I was involved in a very successful forum at Ipswich, in Queensland, Australia. A local radio station organized a forum on the future of Ipswich, inviting some prominent local and external speakers. In preparation for the forum, I organized a survey of the local population, seeking their ideas for the town's future. At the one-day forum, people discussed the survey findings, as well as other local issues. This exercise not only helped Ipswich people sort out their preferred future, but it also provided material for several local radio programs. A forum like this is time-consuming to organize, so its success will depend on finding enough volunteers who are interested in seeing it through.

It's tempting to turn a forum into a large conference, in the hope that you'll make a lot of money. Though this is possible, it's also risky. You might spend a lot of money on hiring facilities, only to find that few people turn up. Financial losses can be large! I suggest starting on a small scale, and documenting your experience in order to learn from it.

Educational programs

By working together with organizations that promote education, a radio station can provide programs that educate listeners on topics of broad interest. An example is the Vietnamese "Start and Improve Your Business" programs mentioned earlier. For maximum effectiveness, the programs should be accompanied by activities that bring the students together for a shared purpose.

Sponsoring community events

Many communities have local events, often with a long tradition, that they value highly: they can include sports matches, agricultural shows, musical and theatrical performances, educational projects, and welfare initiatives; such events are often held once a year. A station that helps with a widely publicized event of this type will gain a lot of goodwill from the local population. The main help a radio station can offer is with publicity: having announcements about the event in the weeks before it happens, and arranging live broadcasts from the event, if that is appropriate.


A radio station can support an activity that it values by creating an award program. This can involve on-air nominations, speeches by contestants, and a final broadcast of the award ceremony. For example, ABC Radio in Australia set up a "Rural Woman of the Year" campaign in the early 1990s. This honoured rural women who'd previously been unsung, and would have boosted the radio network's support in rural areas.

Political information

At one radio station I was advising, the city council was discussing whether to build a new town hall, and there was a lot of disagreement about how and whether this should be done. The station organized an impartial survey, and some special programs to discuss the issue. As long as a station is not politically biased, gathering the background information required to make better political decisions is a valuable service that few other organizations would be able to perform.

There are all sorts of other methods that a radio station can use to strengthen its local community, and raise the standard of discourse. Community needs come and go, so it's a good idea to constantly review your programs, questioning whether some new type of program has become relevant. Though it's the community that stands to gain most from this type of program, the radio station that organizes this type of program will steadily build up a reservoir of goodwill.


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