Community radio around the globe is at a critical juncture. On the one hand, as Sean Finnan detailed earlier this year, internet radio thrived during COVID-19. Just as the rest of the music industry seemed to go on hiatus, online stations "created vital new terra incognita for collaboration and community."
Behind the good vibes, however, internet stations are also having something of a crisis, battling with the increasing costs associated with operating and running a DIY venture amidst a burgeoning global economic crisis. Will Pritchard documented the financial challenges of running online radio stations in a recent article for The Guardian. If the legendary Gilles Peterson is having to shut up shop at his beloved Worldwide FM, then things are looking bleak for the future of internet radio at large.
Part of the issue is the format itself: radio is usually seen as a legacy media that benefits a few top players, while relying on regulars to churn out endless reams of content. This almost instantly came up in my discussion with co-founder of Miami Community Radio, Nicholas G. Padilla. "So much is hidden from the average resident," he explains to me over Zoom. "It's difficult to know how the inner workings of these organizations are built out. There's so much that has been hidden from the bottom up."
Padilla launched Miami Community Radio last April with co-founders Mauricio Arambula and Philip Capuzzi. Born and raised in Miami-Dade County, he has been reinvigorated by the city's current club renaissance, describing it as a full-scale transformation of the South Florida landscape. Gone are the days of illegal warehouse parties run by "shady venue owners doing shady things," he says, as the city now enjoys a healthy and bustling nightlife ecosystem.
But there was still a gap on the community side of things. While there are now plenty of clubs and a nightlife economy that attracts punters from across the globe, there wasn't an obvious platform for up-and-coming local talent. Padilla, who sees himself as a community builder at heart, saw the radio station as a way to help build a brand for the talent he was surrounded by.
Miami Community Radio was first broadcast out of Padilla's house before landing a studio space, thanks to a partnership with the ticketing company Shotgun. The need for a community radio station is something his creative partner Charlie Levy saw instantly. "Just having the community radio, that almost anyone can have a platform, that's invaluable."
While NTS and Rinse have become household names, the global network of smaller, more community-focused radio stations has been instrumental in helping champion a new and diverse generation of talent from around the world. It's refreshing to be able to lock into community radio from Istanbul to Glasgow to Lima to Shanghai and be introduced to a crop of local music enthusiasts and DJs.
As vital as these platforms are, the cultural value they add can be hard to sustain if it doesn't generate financial value. So how can you build a sustainable model to keep producing this value without going into debt? Various stations have tried out different solutions, running the gamut from branded partnerships to membership systems. They all seem to share something of a piecemeal approach, offering a band-aid solution to what is a more structural and systematic problem.
Padilla had this dilemma in mind from the outset. A brief stint working as a creative director at a web3 startup gave him a taste of what the blockchain offers, and he was quick to realize that adopting the structures of a DAO could work well with a community radio station. "We planned for five or six months before launching in April. We asked ourselves, should we be a non-profit?" he says. "That would have been so easy for us, but we wanted to go as a DAO because of the vision we had. There is so much there: the voting mechanism, everything being visible on-chain."
For Padilla, the transition was intuitive given what radio is trying to achieve. The hint is in the name itself: community. If the focus of a radio station is on the people around it, then, as Padilla explains, what a DAO offers is formalizing those relationships. Refraction cofounder Malcolm Levy echoes Padilla's optimism about this structure: "[The community is] in control. There are no politics, no agenda, nothing hidden. That's the biggest part of this."
Members have a stake of ownership in the infrastructure of the station, and are given tokens based on their participation. They vote together on future directions for the station and help steer any decisions. Community, in short, becomes more than a buzzword as it morphs into collectivity.
While this may come across as utopian, Padilla and Levy are both aware of the limits of their project. DAOs have their own problems. As Padilla points out, there are recurring issues across DAOs, particularly when it comes to education. How can you ensure that the people you are working with understand the ideas underpinning a DAO? How do you maintain engagement among members? This is especially true if you're attempting to curate a community radio station where many of the residents are not versed in the ever-changing and expanding vocabulary of web3.
For Miami Community Radio, the answer lies in what Padilla calls "locality versus the global." In a moment when we're continually attempting to rescale outwards, focusing on larger and more expansive horizons, we can think here of the one-size-fits-all model that buttresses the music industry, Padilla wants to zero back in on the local. "How do we engage people to actually participate in the system that we are creating? How do we get people in town halls?" he asks. "That engagement is really important and there is a lot more engagement at the locality level versus the global. We aren't going out, we are going in. You can't do this at a global level. You can only do this locally."
Although Padilla points to different ways in which transforming a community radio station into a DAO could be adopted by other radio stations at a global level, the more humble geographical focus feels refreshing in an age of supersaturation. The emphasis of Miami Community Radio as a DAO will remain on Miami, helping foment both an IRL and virtual community around the station that has a tangible investment in its success and infrastructure, and hopefully offering a model for other organizations around the world to follow suit.
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