Rebecca Webb of Portland Radio Project: “Revitalize local media”

Revitalize local media. A huge conundrum, but one that may be on the verge of solutions now that we’ve witnesses the role of social media in spreading rampant misinformation. One idea that makes sense is to tax or fine mega-platforms and dedicate funds to local nonprofit journalism or other media outlets that produce local content. […]

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Revitalize local media. A huge conundrum, but one that may be on the verge of solutions now that we’ve witnesses the role of social media in spreading rampant misinformation. One idea that makes sense is to tax or fine mega-platforms and dedicate funds to local nonprofit journalism or other media outlets that produce local content. As Justin Hendrix wrote, “ There is something karmic about the idea of using a fine on Facebook- which has incubated…disinformation, polluting the global information ecosystem and giving rise to a variety of anti-democratic forces — to help fix local journalism, one of the most important ingredients in a healthy democracy.”

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Webb, Founder, Team Leader, Portland Radio Project.

Rebecca Webb is an award-winning broadcast journalist, news department head and radio personality who has parlayed 30 years of media experience into the launch of a community and music-focused media platform. Rebecca is a founder and team leader of Portland Radio Project, a new model for radio: closely linked to the community, giving voice to local musicians, nonprofits and small businesses, which has garnered two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Earning my way through college in the 1970s, I worked for Pacific Northwest Bell, “the phone company” as it was known (since it was then a monopoly). One of my jobs as an operator was to deliver the coastal weather forecast on a special channel to ships at sea. I loved that! Being responsible for ripping important news from a wire service and sharing it with ship captains to help them chart their course was fabulous and exciting to me — and I was hooked on delivering news from that moment.

Over my 30+ career as a broadcast journalist, I noticed a consistent pattern: Companies gradually owned more and more stations, where fewer and fewer people worked. The effect was to cut off communications with local artists and organizations as media owners acquired more and more stations. Programming was increasingly created from thousands of miles away, rather than in a corner office at the station. Eventually, there were so few people at any one station, most of us were working for multiple stations and had too many jobs. I finally decided to study the phenomenon in 2008, after I lost my job in the Great Recession — like so many radio employees, from DJs to engineers.

What I found was that the departure of media owners from their local communities was the start of a drift away from programming that reflected local concerns. Summary: Full thesis:

After grad school, about a dozen of us community-minded radio professionals, decided to start a non-commercial station highlighting local artists and nonprofits, to fill the gap left by media conglomerates that were no longer reflecting local voices. The result was Portland Radio Project, which grew from a tiny music-streaming station to a vibrant LPFM (low power broadcast station) on the dial in the heart of Portland (99.1 FM), utilized by hundreds of local artists and nonprofits.

It’s clear that the impact of deregulation that began in the 1980s (and the consequent ownership concentration) fractured channels of communications for local communities and diminished civil discourse, an effect that social media silos were/are inadequate to replace. And, we may be seeing the extreme outcome of that today: our inability to reason together.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

In April 2020, when the pandemic was upon us, I attended a webinar in which the speaker (consultant Mark Germano, Creating Solutions) was billed as an expert in “navigating uncertainty.” As the Executive Director of Portland Radio Project, I was extremely stressed about how we were going to survive COVID-19, which had caused the shutdown of music-related events (upon which a significant portion of our revenue depended). Embroiled in my anxiety over our financial stability, I was surprised to hear Mark suggest that those of us leading organizations shouldn’t focus on or worry about the bottom line at the moment, but rather turn our attention to serving our community and reaching out to supporters. How could I NOT be consumed with worry? And, given that our entire mission revolved around serving our community, what more could we possibly do?

Concluding that Mark’s approach was worth a try, I went all-in: What more could we do? How could we be more effective in our service to the community? Right away, our creative team came up with new programming initiatives: broadcast “The Open List,” a notice of what business were open for takeout; develop a new podcast, “Culture Hub PDX,” focused on compelling social topics (especially systemic racism and launch “Video Sessions” to replace our formerly in-studio performances. The results were not only gratifying, but we began to receive donations from individuals and charitable funds we had never heard of. And, significantly, our own volunteers and community partners stepped up to make additional gifts to the station. Not a single monthly donor abandoned us, and new listeners pledged their support.

We’re not out of the woods yet — who is? Still, I will always consider the advice to focus on service first to be a light-bulb inspiration that has helped us through the worst of times.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My background is as a journalist, a creative right-brain type — zero business acumen. So, I had a steep learning curve in taking on the management of a radio station. For some reason, I thought that because I had a zillion connections with people I had invited onto the air over the course of my career those people would instantly pull out their checkbooks to support our project.

Ha! Although many people were supportive, and some wrote checks, I was stunned at how many did not.

The lesson is: Don’t take anything for granted. Be prepared to show your organization’s impact, and why it matters to the community. Have data.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We offer PRP as a shared community resource — a radio station and streaming media platform for local voices. We’re highlighting Portland-area and Northwest musicians, facilitating discussion of social issues and providing a podcast studio for community organizations.

Recent examples: Senator Jeff Merkley (D, OR) joined us for a virtual town hall to explain federal aid for independent “gig” workers (often musicians). Two new shows give a voice to underserved audiences, Bridge City #BAM (Black American Music) and Ladies to the Mic (female Hip Hop artists). And, our newest podcast Many Roads to Here, in partnership with The Immigrant Story nonprofit, details the personal journeys of refugees and immigrants to America in their own words.

Recognizing the historic imbalance of power in American media, with regard to race, gender, national origin, age and disability, we strive for a more just and equitable media landscape in Portland and beyond.

Recent example: We’ve just begun a new project: Evolving Drop-In Sessions. In partnership with local BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists, we are proactively increasing the diversity of our live studio performances (for now remote). Two Oregon foundations are supporting this work: The Autzen Foundation and Multnomah County Cultural Coalition.

When schools get back in session, we will resume our mentorship of high school and college students in order to pass along our community media values and skills to ascendant generations.

Along with broadcasting in the Portland core (275,000 households) at 99.1 FM, we stream online worldwide providing a mobile app and podcast services (production, editing, etc.). Musicians are invited in-studio (or, during the pandemic, remotely) for live mini-concerts (à la NPR Tiny Desk).

During live shows, listeners can reach out to announcers in real time with their comment or questions via the Talk Board activity feed. And, to build their audience, featured artists may provide tickets, music download codes, etc., to listeners via text-to-win.

Community Voices,” an Edward R. Murrow Award winner, features the public service work of local nonprofits, providing the organizations with a finished podcast they may use to attract clients, donations or volunteers.

We keep fans and friends up to date by publishing a weekly newsletter and staying in touch on social media: Instagram (3200+), Twitter (3150+), and Facebook (9820+).

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Gil Assayas (aka GLASYS), a keyboard player, singer and composer, struggled to enter the Portland music scene when he arrived a few years ago from Jerusalem. “You give everyone a chance. You guys immediately made me feel welcome when I first moved to the U.S. and didn’t know anyone, while other local stations completely ignored me. You actually listened to my music, invited me for interviews and gave me the confidence I needed to move forward. The Portland music scene can be notoriously ‘cliquey’ but you treat artists amazingly! You play music that you like and believe in, regardless of how popular it is. You have an amazing lineup of DJs and hosts who have great personalities and diverse musical tastes.” Gil has gone on to perform with national and international acts, including T-Pain and Todd Rundgren, and was subsequently featured on Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Revitalize local media. A huge conundrum, but one that may be on the verge of solutions now that we’ve witnesses the role of social media in spreading rampant misinformation. One idea that makes sense is to tax or fine mega-platforms and dedicate funds to local nonprofit journalism or other media outlets that produce local content. As Justin Hendrix wrote, “ There is something karmic about the idea of using a fine on Facebook- which has incubated…disinformation, polluting the global information ecosystem and giving rise to a variety of anti-democratic forces — to help fix local journalism, one of the most important ingredients in a healthy democracy.”
  2. Regulate social media platforms. I understand the slippery-slope worry about suppressing speech, but the First Amendment only prohibits the government from oppressing speech. Nothing prevents privately owned megaphones like Facebook and Twitter from censoring inflammatory speakers (as they did recently with the former president). Self-regulation by media behemoths is unlikely to be enough, however. As Dipayan Ghosh put it in the Harvard Business Review, “We can expect a robust examination of how the regulation could be adapted to better protect the public from harmful content” under the Biden-Harris administration.
  3. Join us! When our little band of radio revolutionaries founded PRP we chose to focus on music rather than news since our region already had a solid NPR-affiliate, Oregon Public Broadcasting. Commercial music stations, however, had drifted far from community coverage — hence our music-centric project. If you love music, we have two savory formats for you: Fresh Vibe and Night Tribe. Fresh Vibe (10 am — 6 pm): a free-flowing post-genre amalgam of lush contemporary sounds; Night Tribe (6 pm — 10 am plus weekends): new and alt-rock, indie, pop, R&B and special shows dedicated to Country, Reggae, Hip Hop, and #BAM (Black American Music) Featuring over 600 local artists, we’re on the dial at 99.1 FM around Portland and streaming 24/7. If you’d like to support us, click on the big red heart.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Herding radio cats, in my case. Persuading enough good people that our mission matters and helping create an environment, coaching and tools to do the work.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. I wish someone had told me how difficult it would be to find funding. Although, as I’ve shared, PRP had many supporters among family, friends and connections, contributions were far below what was needed. A 501c3, our model was to attract listener donors, air “thank you messages” for small business supporters and, eventually, to seek grant funding. If I had it do to over, I would have invested — and sooner — in a sales team, a proven grant writer and a business manager, all specialty skills I lacked. Passion is no substitute for business management skills.
  2. I wish someone had told me to clarify the terms of engagement with volunteers. Volunteers come in all varieties, with different skill levels, interests and goals. While we try to accommodate everyone according to their abilities and availability, I’ve learned that volunteers may feel they can engage on their own terms — that they don’t “owe” anything. That can translate into people not showing up or shirking a responsibility. We now have a detailed explanation and agreement on our website to gain volunteer commitment and clarify terms before engagement to avoid any misunderstandings.
  3. I wish someone had told me to start small. Instead of an entire radio station, why not start with a podcast? (With today’s podcast listenership soaring, we might never have expanded from a podcast at all!) Instead, we tried to be all things to all people (broadcast, streaming, public service, etc.). The load almost killed some of us. Others found their boundaries and abandoned ship. Narrow your focus — much better to build on something small.
  4. I wish someone had told me to advertise. We thought having our own media platform decreased our need to advertise — and we indeed were featured in “earned” articles in local publications (plus a shout out in the New York Times, All Access and the French Rolling Stone). With the fractured nature of media today, however, it was not enough to establish PRP in the minds of potential audiences. We’ve since begun advertising on Facebook, and are stepping up our marketing and advertising.
  5. I wish someone had told me how to be a shape-shifter. Even artificial intelligence and robotics may not be changing as fast as our media landscape. Although we set out to establish a streaming station, based on available listening trends, new platforms constantly pop up. We don’t jump just because they beckon, but rather stay strong where our audience hangs out most (Instagram). Still, from Twitch to TikTok, as members of the media, we stay up on trends in communications — a challenge.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

No matter how much good we do in the world, it won’t matter if we don’t have a planet. Along with covering COVID-19 and systemic racism, I am dedicated to supporting climate change initiatives using the PRP platform. I recently read how former Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario was jumping into new ventures with meat alternative and electric vehicle businesses. You have to use whatever influence you have to do the most good you can in the time you have.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The best place to find a helping hand is at the end of your own arm.” (Swedish proverb) While we all need encouragement, love and support from those near us, it’s ultimately up to us individually to make things happen. My son, especially as a teenager, found this quality in me annoying (wink emoji), but I always look for solutions and nudge them forward.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Stacey Abrams, political leader, voting rights advocate — because when she knows she’s right and can make a difference, she doesn’t take no for an answer.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram , Twitter , Facebook

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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