Nancy Casey is the kind of person that citizen journalism was created to reach. She's a self-described hippie, habitual volunteer and mother of two kids who are now out of the house. But most importantly, she has a chip on her shoulder exactly the size of every person in the town of Moscow who has a complaint, but not a solution.
"People in a community get the news they deserve," she says from her home outside of town. "Politically, and in the world today, people are whining all the time. And I tell people to get off their butts and volunteer." About a year and a half ago, Casey's public service wanderlust led her to Moscow's community radio station, KRFP, also known as "Radio Free Moscow." Even though she had no experience in journalism, paid or otherwise, Casey says she was "immediately" put to work reporting in the field, assembling news stories, hosting her own show and even sitting on the station's board of directors.
"We do training, but some of our training is as-you-go," says Leigh Robartes, the station's news director. "We really try to pitch this as something that we can put you to work right away on." Robartes, a former manager of the local college station KUOI who has also worked as a professional radio news reporter, producer and host, has no qualms about using volunteers to craft the news. In fact, it's been a crucial part of the mission of Radio Free Moscow since he and a group of "friends and like-minded people" got the idea for the station in 2000.
"The goal was to basically have a community station, sort of modeled on the college free-form radio model, but not necessarily when it comes to programming," Robartes says. "We wanted it geared more toward the community than just toward students. We also thought there was a need for alternative sources of news, and especially local news on the radio." However, when the station launched, Robartes was still just like everyone else--a volunteer who was relying on other work to support his passion. When KRFP received a grant from the University of Maryland journalism lab, Robartes was able to start living off a meager stipend and make KRFP his full-time gig.
Today, Robartes and a small army of volunteers--he has trouble putting an exact number on it, since so many contribute little tasks like an occasional script, recording or headline--create enough content to fill both a nightly half-hour newscast on the station and a morning drive-time show mixing music and news. By focusing on hot-button issues like local political races, a controversial Christian college in Moscow with ties to the neo-confederate movement and the local battle over whether to allow a Wal-Mart supercenter in downtown Moscow, he has found a willing stable of eager journalists.
"It's an amazing time in Moscow to be starting a radio station that's heavy on news," he says.
So how does it work? Simply put, if you're interested in an issue, maybe a planning and zoning meeting or a city council race, you go to the station, check out a recorder and a microphone, and head into the field. Robartes and the station's volunteers will help you figure out the rest. "We'll find someobody who really isn't willing to even make a commitment to one story a week, and we'll say, 'Hey, maybe once a month, why don't you record and event--maybe something you're interested in and that you know should get on the air. Or just do an interview.' Then, they come into the studio, and we say, 'Well, we really need to prepare for the morning news. Can you write a few sentences and find some sound clips that would work?'"
Robartes admits that the end product can sometimes sound "a little grass-roots" and that the station's news stories don't have the hyper-edited feel of, say, National Public Radio. "We might use a 30-second to two-minute sound byte whereas a professional radio station might use a 15-second soundbyte and more script to condense the story," he says. "But maybe that's a really useful length for a listener who is interested in more in-depth news."
Without a way to track number of listeners, Robartes can't be sure how many people are relying on Radio Free Moscow for their local news. But he can be sure he is getting through to his volunteers--after all, he has to. According to Casey, "I'm completely unwilling to do something that I don't feel like doing, especially on account of what I get paid for this." Luckily, what she and other volunteers like about the station can be summed up in Casey's simple creed that "opening the space for information to the community and from the community is, by definition, a good thing."