Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

Break Form: Making stories with and for the people

Introduction and Actions: Localore: Finding America

Editor’s Note: This report captures the impact and lessons from Localore: Finding America — an independent public media initiative comprising 15 teams embedded for nine months at forward-moving public radio and television stations across the U.S. to invent new storytelling models with citizens. The report was produced by the project directors at AIR, a nonprofit network of independent multimedia journalists. The American Press Institute is co-publishing the report to amplify its reach.

Over the past 2 years, teams of independent producers and storytellers embedded at public media stations in 15 communities across the country. Their mission was to share intimate stories, to explore what connects disparate places, and to watch a social media portrait of the public unfold in real time.

In short, they set about Finding America.

The work for this latest AIR storytelling initiative and two that preceded it is built on the premise that independent producers, like those comprising AIR’s network, are ideally suited to lead a public media industry in the midst of change. We “married” the nimble and diverse indie producer network to the established network of public radio, television, and digital operations across the country to create a series of local productions in cities large and small — from Bellevue, Washington, to Williston, North Dakota, to Paonia, Colorado; from Los Angeles to Chicago and Washington, D.C.

What began in 2010 as a series of experiments to help “public radio” make the shift to a diversified “public media” has evolved into a movement with hundreds of producers, station staff, community organizations, and collaborators. Those who participate in these inclusive, community-based Localore projects are expanding public media to engage, inform, and serve more of their neighbors. Each of these national initiatives builds on the previous work, deriving and designing around the best practices and refined objectives that we share in this report.

We learned important lessons along the way, about expanding the boundaries of journalism and taking advantage the many tools available to us today. Ultimately, this report attempts to capture those insights so others can join us in challenging the limitations of whose stories are told and in what ways.

What began in 2010 as a series of experiments to help public radio make the shift to a diversified ‘public media’ has evolved into a movement.

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The first glimmers of Beyond Belief, our Finding America production in Kansas City, emerged from darkness. A 2014 shooting at the Jewish Community Campus left three dead. AIR’s Finding America lead producer Steve Mencher, one among 150 people working on this national initiative, had moved from Maryland to help public television partner KCPT make new kinds of stories, to deepen the station’s ties to the faith community, and to help people in Kansas City connect across margins of faith and belief.

Steve and his team fanned out across the city to mosques, churches, synagogues, temples, and communities of nonbelievers to capture stories and produce live events, establishing a rich collaboration with people of differing faiths.

Steve, who describes himself as a “sporadically practicing Jewish-Buddhist,” immersed himself in new worlds, observing and absorbing the lives and practices of hundreds of people. In the process, he established a fledgling center of gravity for public media, a new conversation around commonalities like praying, perseverance, ritual, asking for help, and reliance on something greater than oneself.

A bold journalist who pursues new kinds of relationships with his or her subjects will deliver something different, and may be changed by the experience.

Reflecting on the effects of the work on his journalistic practice, Steve says, “If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be attending Bible study every Tuesday morning, I’d have found it hard to believe. And if you’d told me I’d sometimes be leading Bible study, I’d have said you were totally out of your mind.” He continues, “As a journalist, I believe in the importance of fairness, objectivity, and balance. I’ve learned, too, there is also love. Love and the core tenets of journalism can go together.”

By opening himself to a deep human connection, Steve brought a new dimension to his work. His experience demonstrates that a bold journalist who pursues new kinds of relationships with his or her subjects will deliver something different, and may be changed by the experience.

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Mencher’s approach — slow journalism that finds a community and explores it — stands in contrast to the breakneck speed of the internet, the Twitterfication of politics, and the politicization of news. We’re coming to appreciate the price we pay for speed. We miss a good chunk of what’s happening on the deeper levels of daily living. The price of deadline-driven journalism is that nuance is sacrificed to speed. Storytelling at the pace of Twitter tends to relegate whole communities of people into simple, sound-bite friendly narratives that suit the pace.

Speed, then, is one important factor that defines what’s different about our Localore: Finding America production. By experimenting with this and other aspects of traditional story-making practice, we begin to break open traditional form, and surface new ways to move deeply into communities — to make stories “with and for the people.” We are demonstrating how it is possible — necessary — that today’s new journalism be both fast and slow.

We are demonstrating how it is possible — necessary — that today’s new journalism be both fast and slow.

Another challenge confronting local communities today is the continuing consolidation of the newspaper industry. Nearly two decades in, it has given rise to what researcher Penelope Muse Abernathy calls “news deserts.”

In her recent study from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she identifies specific rural communities with aging populations where declines in manufacturing, mining, and farming have led to the highest rates of poverty in the country. These are the communities where there are virtually no outlets for local stories and, as her case studies illustrate, where the internet has emerged as the sole source for people seeking meaningful news of the day. This is a powerful context for understanding our contemporary social and political environment. It also points to opportunity — arguably, an imperative — for those working at local public radio and television stations to fill a critical void.

As part of the Finding America initiative, AIR collaborated with Greater Public, ITVS, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and the Public Radio News Directors Association to commission a study from Edison Research to vet our theories about the relative strength of public media in the Localore communities, and to identify new opportunities for producers and stations across the country. One key finding is an opportunity for each local public media outlet to “emphasize the credibility of its news and journalism.” Television is a key platform for both public and corporate media consumers in the Finding America markets.1

Storymaking that is both fast and slow, and a critical deficit of reliable, local journalism: These are the starting points for the work laid out in this report, and our aspiration to “make stories with and for the people.”

The work rises out of public media, but what we share is timely and relevant to commercial and print journalists, or anyone with interest in elevating and expanding the ways we craft the day-to-day story of America. AIR’s investigator, Mallary Tenore, presents some of the techniques AIR’s team of producers created (or borrowed!) as they produced stories from the “far corners” of local communities for broadcast, live platforms, and social/digital streams. We present 10 obstacles that hinder success, and ways to work around them.

Localore: Finding America is the third in a series of national collaborations produced by AIR. We began in 2010 with the launch of Makers Quest 2.0 (MQ2) followed by Localore (2012–14).The collective work is both a multimedia production — generating thousands of stories in formats that include audio, video, interactives, illustrations, performances, installations, and more — and a field of sustained research and development taking place across public media in an iterative way, with a combined reach of more than 76 million gross impressions.

The work rises out of public media, but what we share is timely and relevant to commercial and print journalists, or anyone with interest in elevating and expanding the ways we craft the day-to-day story of America

From its inception, the work was built on the premise that independent producers, like those comprising AIR’s network, are ideally suited to lead a public media industry in the midst of change. We have effectively tapped into the nimble and diverse indie producer network and “married” it to the established network of public radio, television, and digital operations across the country to create a series of local productions in cities large and small — from Bellevue, Washington, to Williston, North Dakota, to Paonia, Colorado; from Los Angeles to Chicago and Washington, D.C.

What began as a series of experiments to help “public radio” make the shift to a diversified “public media” has evolved into a movement involving hundreds of producers, station staff, community organizations, and collaborators. Those who participate in these inclusive, community-based projects are expanding public media to engage, inform, and serve their neighbors. Each of these national initiatives builds on the previous work, deriving and designing around the best practices and refined objectives that we share in this report.

The lightning bolt is Localore’s emblem. We draw the lightning and welcome it: Moments of instant, catalytic change are possible. We have also learned that real change demands that we capture those flashes of energy or insight and direct them into what we hope will be a state of sustained invention.

The projects also create optimal conditions for many of our lead producers to do their best work, and we encourage and support our lead producers in taking what they’ve created in one community and spreading it to others.

A Homefront story night at the Black River Drive-In Theater in upstate New York featured stories of the military community.
Credit: Meredith Turk (Homefront: Fort Drum)

The trajectory of our talent “diaspora” is the strongest evidence of how individuals, empowered by their Localore experience, drive change. We look to Localorian Jennifer Brandel’s Hearkena growing “people-powered” journalism platform — Julia Kumari Drapkin’s iSeeChange climate project, and the new music platform VuHaus, inspired in part by Delaney Hall’s Austin Music Map in partnership with KUT.

We’ve seen Localore station producers step into leadership — Andi McDaniel who, in a few years, moved from working as a digital producer at Twin Cities Public Television to chief content officer at WAMU, NPR’s news talk station in D.C.; Sally Kane, who managed Localore incubator KVNF in Paonia, Colorado, and is now leading a rebirth of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB); Noland Walker, a brilliant freelance film writer, who moved to senior content director at ITVS after serving as AIR’s network manager for Localore. Lead producers and stations from this latest round of Localore continue to cultivate the “green shoots” of the project they created.

Since we began in 2010, the drive to reinvent local public media has taken hold. Stations across the country — including many former Localore incubators — are investing in building stronger local ties. KUT and WGBH are among those with new community outposts; WNYC’s “Mott Haven Speaks,” led by Localorian Sophia Paliza-Carre, is part of a new beat documenting changing New York neighborhoods; and WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, continues to build out its longstanding “Community Voices” program to bring new local storytellers to the airwaves. Our work parallels that of inspired peers, such as jesikah maria ross, senior engagement strategist at Capital Public Radio, who created a new center in collaboration with UC Davis called The Art of Regional Change — or The Center for Investigative Journalism’s StoryWorks project, which is experimenting with moving hard news to the local theater stage.

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The 15 current productions launched on Nov. 1, 2015, and incubated in their communities for up to 12 months. Each represents a three-way partnership between AIR, an independent producer hired by AIR to lead the project, and a station incubator.

These are not “one-off” experiments. All parties agree to work together to establish new innovation capacity that the station will sustain beyond the incubation period. When we complete our period of experimentation, the stations are left with an R&D infrastructure. Our recent survey of the field indicates nearly 60 percent of station managers are committed to continuing the work at the station, and fewer than 5 percent say work will not continue.

While this latest round of lead producers was embedded, they worked with our station collaborators and the teams they assembled to invent new models for making stories that put people they met at the front of the narrative. They were intent on turning a fresh eye and ear on the day-to-day lives of the people. We cultivated those living in our communities as collaborators, rather than subjects of a story.

Our lead producers were unconventionally more female (73 percent) and more racially diverse (43 percent) than a typical news team, which was an important factor in our approach. When recruiting lead producers, we explicitly sought storymakers who felt and articulated an intense connection with nontraditional audiences and stories — and what emerged in every market were teams that should make diversity-challenged news organizations take notice.

An important first part of the Finding America assignment was to ask our talent to suspend what they do best, leave behind their microphones and cameras, and enter as observers.

An important first part of the Finding America assignment was to ask our talent to suspend what they do best, leave behind their microphones and cameras, and enter as observers. What is the rhythm and flow? Who are the magnetic personalities? “Reflection” as a starting point for reinvention is part of our experiment, and not simple to achieve: to enter a new place with humility, forming what turned out for some to be lasting bonds of love and friendship. This was especially difficult for some of our lead producers, who heard the clock ticking from day one and were eager to start producing, and yet was embraced strongly by more than 65 percent of our station collaborators who welcomed a respite from the everyday grind of daily news assignments.

The Localore approach includes working across the “full spectrum” — that is, blending broadcast, digital, and “street” platforms in creating new models. In this latest production, we learned the primacy, not of social media platforms, but of social platforms: church services, hot dog wagons, roller skating rinks, drive-in movie theaters, food pantries — the places where people share their stories of joy and grief, celebration and creation, doing the things that make up daily living. It’s no surprise then, that from March through October of 2016, we produced 30 live events across our local communities. These are the places we are building a new public media, but not places where public media is well known — or even recognized.

We learned the primacy, not of social media platforms, but of social platforms: church services, hot dog wagons, roller skating rinks, drive-in movie theaters, food pantries — the places where people share their stories of joy and grief, celebration and creation, doing the things that make up daily living.

In June 2016 as part of the Edison study, pollsters were dispatched to Finding America live events to test our assumptions about the media habits of those living in the “far corners” of local communities, and also to draw a clearer demographic profile. The findings reinforce the importance of live events to raise awareness of public media service, and also to expand stations’ awareness of “crucial voices we may be missing.” As you’ll read in more detail later in this report, Finding America produced 30 live events. Producers experimented with and expanded on creating live platforms — bike rides, neon flashing mailboxes, abandoned drive-in movie theaters.

Edison highlights another important strategic finding about a new cohort of community collaborators. This “plugged-in, switched-on” constituency is influential. Working in close coordination with AIR’s independent lead producers, they represent important connective tissue between public media stations and those living in the wider community public media is trying to engage.

Neighborhood organizers, churches, and small-business owners are important strategic partners in building a more inclusive public media system.

Throughout the report are graphs that visualize how the local productions developed and experimented, month by month. Also detailed is public engagement with AIR’s own social/digital platforms, including our online meta-documentary, which connected themes and findings across all of the productions. Although “local” is very much in our DNA and design, we understand that neighborhood stories reveal national concerns. We extended our reach via national broadcast and digital pathways in partnership with NPR’s All Things Considered and WGBH’s WORLD Channel. In total, Finding America has generated more than 48 million gross impressions.2

Our production units have been based in communities whose realities aren’t well represented in newsrooms. Localore provides dedicated producers and respectful collaborators, and communities respond by sharing stories beyond the limited narrative of despair, poverty, struggle, or injustice served up by the 24/7 news cycle. Immediate presence is key to the design of the experiment. Our teams work and live next to teenagers living day to day with gun violence in Milwaukee, gun capital of the U.S.; families of those incarcerated in New Orleans; bus commuters outside of Seattle who can no longer afford to live in the city where they work; Yupik elders who walk the dissolving shorelines of Alaska; veterans living in the shadow of Fort Drum, home to the most deployed battalion in the country.

We don’t want to sugarcoat difficult realities facing these communities. We do want to tackle the limitations of a news cycle that rewards stories of despair and division, often leaving viewers and listeners feeling helpless and hopeless, in a world that is out of control.

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of public broadcasting. We have rich challenges and fantastic opportunities to extend our journalism to better reflect the rich diversity of America. In this context, LBJ’s 1967 call for a public broadcasting system that brings “enlightenment to all the people of the United States” is more than an inspired vision. It is a rallying cry for journalists, stations, and storymakers — coming at a moment of great national divisiveness — to tap the elemental power of media to shed light on and reflect a broader human experience.

We hope to encourage those of you working at media outlets — editors, managers, news directors, reporters — to trust your boldest instincts. Challenge what constitutes daily news, and do what it takes to support your brightest talent to do their best work.

The team “claps” at the conclusion of our Public Media Lab in December 2015, when lead producers and station collaborators gathered at the MIT Open Docs Lab for a two day intensive.
Credit: Betsy O’Donovan (Public Media Lab)

Your expertise in service to communities that are hungry for their stories to be told is key to the flourishing new media we seek. With this work, we encourage independent producers, documentarians, podcasters, and journalists to not only use your keen minds, but also keep your hearts open in ways that challenge the image of a hard-bitten journalist who’s seen everything. The world needs your compassion as much as your skills. You are the vanguard, but you are not alone. We are ready and eager to help you.

Through public media and led by our most creative makers and intrepid stations, we can, together, cross over bold lines of division to bring forward a new, rich human dimension. We are called on to help people explain lives of extraordinary endurance, worlds of joy and faith, and the richly diverse population of America today.

And, importantly, it is our moment to enlighten those already familiar with our work — the educated, affluent, predominantly white Americans who are already consuming public media — to worlds just up the road. Their investment has helped build the national treasure public media has become. We must lead them in a new direction, pulling from one side to the other, helping to bring disparate and divided parts of the community together. Illuminating, connecting, healing: This is the power of media.

  1. Edison Research, Localore: Finding America Study, Summer/Fall 2016
  2. Gross impressions represent the number of instances of engagement with content, including, for example, headcount at an event, likes on a Facebook or Twitter retweets, listening to a radio story, or watching a television promo.

The power of creative storytelling to unite communities

In times of disparity and political division, storytelling can be beautifully unifying.

My work on this report began in July 2016 with a weekend trip to Richmond, Virginia, where I attended a live storytelling event that AIR’s lead producer Kelley Libby led with the help of a community collaborator. There was a line outside the door to get into the Hippodrome Theater where the event took place. Inside, I saw people from different races and ages conversing, laughing.

The energy and enthusiasm in the room were palpable.

Later, I learned that this is part of what makes the lead producers’ stories and events so unconventional: they have brought together disparate and sometimes divided parts of the community to share and hear stories about an issue of common concern.

Community-driven stories hold power — to reveal hidden truths, activate public discourse, and create positive social change. They feed the soul, providing emotional and intellectual sustenance. They help us understand, and in some cases celebrate, differences. Now more than ever, we need stories that give us a window into people and cultures that are different from our own so that we can better understand and appreciate the rich tapestry of America.

Deb Echo Hawk is from the Pawnee Nation. She runs a nutrition program for elders and uses Pawnee seeds in a garden she grows.
Credit: Allison Herrera (Invisible Nations)

Many of these stories have remained untold in mainstream media, particularly in the far corners of American communities that traditional public media typically doesn’t reach. These corners are a mosaic of cultures, races, ethnicities, and political ideologies. They’re the places where public media outlets need to establish more inroads if they want to build their audience and remain relevant. Many are hard at work on this, including those that participated in AIR’s Finding America initiative, which produced valuable lessons and takeaways for the industry at large.

I’ve been researching this initiative and have co-authored this report with Finding America Executive Producer Sue Schardt and with input from the lead producers, station managers & AIR staff. My intent was to learn more about what happens when public media producers try to tell stories not just about people, but with and for people.

In my day job, I work as the executive director of Images & Voices of Hope (ivoh), a media nonprofit that aims to elevate media’s role as a force for good. Previously, I worked as the editor of Poynter.org, one of the world’s leading media news websites. I covered stories about buyouts, layoffs, and cutbacks, but the stories I preferred were about best practices. There is plenty of criticism of media; I like to drill into what’s working and draw out lessons for the industry at large. My interest in looking at what works, as opposed to only focusing on what’s broken, prompted me to help AIR conduct research on the Finding America projects.

I write this as someone who has long had a journalistic frame of reference. I work with media practitioners of all kinds in my day job, but nonetheless have a tendency to speak in journalistic language — using words such as “cover” and “report.” Over the course of my research, I was reminded of the value in embracing a broader definition of “media” and “stories.”

Viewing media through a wider lens enabled me to see the Finding America projects for what they are — a mix of reporting, anthropology, ethnography, engagement, and art. Many of the lead producers’ success comes from their courage — their willingness to embed in communities where they were outsiders and not always welcomed. They took bold approaches to storytelling, broke (and remade) rules, pushed boundaries, and challenged their own perceptions while maintaining the highest journalistic standards of seeking truth and minimizing harm.

The resulting stories sound different from what you traditionally hear and see in public media. They’re raw and real.

They also embraced different approaches to measuring a story’s worth. They didn’t assess it based on the story’s timeliness or how many clicks it generated, but rather on the story’s importance and relevance to the people living in the community.

The lead producers found stories about love, triumph, and resilience, and they often let community members narrate them. In an act of humility, they invited community members into the storytelling process instead of wielding control over which stories were told and how they were told. The resulting stories sound different from what you traditionally hear and see in public media. They’re raw and real.

This authenticity stemmed from the producers’ approach. Rather than parachuting into a community for a brief period and then leaving, they traded in parachutes for lawn chairs, metaphorically speaking. Many of them embraced an approach that AIR referred to as “reposing” — in other words, spending concentrated time getting to know their communities without the expectation of having to produce stories right away.

The idea of “reposing” initially struck me as far-fetched. I didn’t think it was realistic for journalists to simply observe a community before reporting on it. There’s not enough time for this, I thought. It’s just not practical. They need to report, not reflect. I realized, though, that this is one of the beauties of the Finding America incubation period; it helped stations bring in outside producers who had the freedom to explore what’s possible when you experiment with different storytelling approaches — without immediate concerns about time or money.

Reposing is an antidote to rushed reporting, but it isn’t easy to embrace. It requires time and patience to enter a community and simply observe — to listen to the sounds and silence, to walk the streets with open hearts and a nonjudgmental gaze, to engage with people who may see you as an outsider. It’s easier to pull out your notebook, microphone, or camera and use it as a protective shield. But when you enter a community as a person first and a journalist second, you begin to see it not through the lens of your camera or the quotes in your notebook but through the eyes and ears of the people who live there.

When you enter a community as a person first and a journalist second, you begin to see it not through the lens of your camera or the quotes in your notebook but through the eyes and ears of the people who live there.

I’d venture to say that a lot of journalists probably wish they could take this approach but simply don’t have the time; they’re juggling daily deadlines and doing the jobs of three people. They might also lack resources or a feeling of “permission.” That shouldn’t be an excuse, but it’s a reality in many newsrooms.

Newsrooms can address this challenge by bringing in outside talent — independent producers and community storytellers — who have more freedom to experiment with different ways of pursuing community-driven stories. Unlike many newsroom staff members who are focused on producing daily content, independent producers aren’t constrained by daily deadlines and often have more creative freedom to tell stories with and for communities. AIR has long advocated for this idea, and it was central to the Finding America initiative.

Bringing in outside talent isn’t always seamless. Some station collaborators said it was difficult to collaborate with independent producers who weren’t aware of the station’s culture, workflow, and budget constraints. There was sometimes confusion around roles and expectations, and uncertainty about how to work with the lead producers’ community collaborators—many of whom didn’t have any previous journalism experience — in a way that wouldn’t be perceived as generating biased coverage. Additionally, some of the lead producers wished they had more support from, and interaction with, their stations.

Despite the challenges, the Finding America experiment has paved a clearer path for future collaborations between public media outlets and independent producers, and shown a promising model for how public media can turn to outside talent to fill gaps in coverage.

Anthony Williams (pictured) has worked at Shake and Bake Family Fun Center, the only skating rink with Baltimore City’s limits, for 30 years. Now manager of the facility, he works to ensure that the surrounding, embattled West Baltimore community has a safe place for families to exercise and bond.
Credit: Joanie Tobin (Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City)

In 2017, those of us in media have an opportunity to envision and create media that unites and inspires people, rather than tearing them further apart. Recent debates over what constitutes truth vs falsehood in the news have perpetuated a feeling of ideological and political divisiveness in America. This is the time for producers, news organizations, newsroom leaders, and media practitioners of all kinds to embrace radical, new approaches to telling stories that reflect the full range of the American experience.

We don’t intend to sugarcoat any of the projects in this report. Rather, we want to be transparent about the challenges and shine a light on what worked.

Editors, reporters, producers, public media executives: this report is for you. We want to show you how to embrace new storytelling methods that can better serve communities — and help you navigate challenges along the way — with the ultimate hope of changing media for the better. Change doesn’t happen in one full sweep; it happens one risk, one story, one person at a time.

It’s in this spirit that we present these findings and best practices. In addition to highlighting lessons and takeaways, the goal of the report is to give you ideas about how to push past obstacles and break from traditional journalistic norms. My hope is that it will ultimately prompt you to reflect on how you can contribute to — and influence — the movement toward community-driven, people-powered public media.

The Finding America Projects at a glance

Visit Finding America’s metasite — findingamerica.airmedia.org — for additional context and ongoing updates from the projects below. 

  • Anacostia Unmapped → Katie Davis, Brendan Sweeney, WAMU | Anacostia, a historically black neighborhood that is literally omitted from some maps of D.C., is where WAMU and Davis invite residents to lead storytelling efforts and explore the question “What if a radio station sounded like the people it covers?” Three community producers, working with Davis, go out into the community to interview locals on the subject of land: Who has it, who wants it, and what happens when it starts to change hands?

  • Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City → Stacia Brown, Marsha Jews, Ali Post, WEAA | It used to be called Charm City. Now, the Baltimore: Rise of Charm City team, based at WEAA, seeks the hidden, forgotten allure of Baltimore — and its modern charms, too — with storytelling in homes, assisted living facilities, libraries, churches, and community centers.

  • Beyond Belief → Steve Mencher, Carla McCabe, Janet Saidi, KCPT | With digital and broadcast storytelling and events designed with partners in the interfaith community, Beyond Belief, based at Kansas City’s KCPT, explores the interplay of religious life — and lives in which religion is absent — with youth culture, race, civic engagement, and economic disparity.

  • Dímelo: Stories of the Southwest → Sophia Paliza-Carre, Mariana Dale, AZPM | Part public art, part storytelling project, Dímelo: Stories of the Southwest at AZPM explores identity, community, and the cultural geography of Tucson. The community shares micro-stories via Dímelo’s “story mailboxes,” and the producers put them at the center of local reporting.

  • Every ZIP Philadelphia → Alex Lewis, Jeanette Woods, WHYY | Every ZIP at WHYY is a community-based project creating a portrait of Philadelphia through the stories that people tell about their lives. Every ZIP has told stories from ZIP codes that WHYY hasn’t heavily covered and has given Philadelphia residents a chance to see and hear each other in new ways throughout the City of Brotherly Love.

  • Frontier of Change → Isaac Kestenbaum, Josie Holtzman, Joaqlin Estus, KNBA | In Alaska, climate change not only threatens the natural world, it also threatens cultural history held by rural and Native communities. Frontier of Change at KNBA builds immersive audio tours of a land and community caught in sudden, radical transformation.

  • Homefront: Fort Drum → Meredith Turk, David Sommerstein, NCPR. | One percent of America’s population bears a large burden: military service. Who is in the military? How do their families cope and connect? At Fort Drum in upstate New York, the stronghold of the 10th Mountain Division, thousands are actively serving. In the communities that surround Fort Drum, thousands more are military retirees. Homefront: Fort Drum and NCPR tell the stories of their lives, portrait by portrait, by taking listeners behind the scenes of a closed community.

  • Invisible Nations → Allison Herrera, Rachel Hubbard, KOSU | Oklahoma is home to 39 federally recognized Indian tribes — some of whom came to the state on the Trail of Tears. Invisible Nations is a multimedia project investigating and exploring the lives of Native people. In a partnership between KOSU, Firethief Productions, and tribal media outlets, Invisible Nations tells stories that go beyond, as one subject put it, “powwows, gambling, and diabetes.”

  • The Junction → Mary Quintas, Rachel Osier Lindley, Audrey Atkins, WBHM | Ensley is a group of neighborhoods on the west side of Birmingham, Alabama. To many people outside of these neighborhoods, “Ensley” is synonymous with “crime and poverty.” The Junction and WBHM seek to reveal a fuller portrait of Ensley by exploring what life is really like in the community, according to the community itself.

  • Precious Lives: Before the Gunshots → Eric Von, Brad Lichtenstein, Michelle Maternowski, WUWM | Milwaukee’s inner city is engulfed in an epidemic of gun violence. Through stories and live events created by and with people touched by this violence, Precious Lives: Before the Gunshots and WUWM examine the roots of the bloodshed in an effort to improve life for everyone in the city.

  • TruckBeat → Jess Mador, Matt Powell, WUOT | TruckBeat is a health storytelling project about East Tennessee. Lead producer Jess Mador and WUOT take a food truck-turned-mobile-studio on the road to report on community health topics in depth: addiction, obesity, mental health, access to health care — and why your neighborhood may affect your health, even more than genetics.

  • UnMonumental → Kelley Libby, Kelsea Pieters, Connie Stevens, WVTF | Richmond is a city of monuments, but many people who live there say the monuments don’t tell the whole story of the city — and many historic sites go entirely unmarked. UnMonumental and WVTF bring you this series about how Richmond remembers its past through the voices of the people who live in the city now.

  • Unprisoned: Stories from the System → Eve Abrams, Jason Saul, WWNO | From New Orleans — the world’s incarceration capital — Unprisoned and WWNO meet those serving time inside and outside the criminal justice system. Unprisoned shares stories to incite conversation about the ways mass incarceration affects families, communities, and notions of justice.

  • What’s the Flux?: Commuter Dispatches → Mona Yeh, Sonya Green, KBCS | A daily ritual — the commute — shapes our exploration of mobility, access, and economic movement from the margins of a city to its center. With broadcast, social media, ’zines, and more, What’s the Flux: Commuter Dispatches and KBCS bring curiosity to hidden, nonstop migration from the vantage point of Bellevue, Washington.

10 steps to making community-driven stories

Telling stories with and for people, instead of merely treating people as “sources,” is no easy task. The Finding America lead producers faced myriad obstacles while taking on the job of inventing new models for storytelling, but didn’t let these obstacles deter them.

Some of the obstacles below involve finding ways to challenge traditional journalistic practices and mindsets. Others relate to assumptions about what public media should sound like, and whom it should serve. Still others are institutional — making and sustaining change is hard.

These obstacles were identified through our research into the Finding America projects and, specifically, our inquiry into how producers found creative workarounds. The obstacles, and tactics to defeat them, are meant to help you move from breaking news to breaking form — to step away from the conventions of daily reporting and learn to embrace new and innovative forms of storytelling that will engage communities and strengthen the way you approach your work.

Working with the newsroom

1. Make room for work beyond the deadline-driven 24-hour news cycle

The media has long operated on the belief that sensational stories about crime, poverty, and despair attract the most attention. There’s some truth to this (and significant research to back it up) — our brains are hardwired to respond to threats in our environment. But over time, we become desensitized to these types of stories, and they can have detrimental effects.

Research shows that repeated exposure to traumatic news can cause acute stress symptoms, trigger flashbacks, and lead people to overestimate the nature of crime or relative risk of danger in their neighborhoods. Research also suggests that people crave a different type of story.

Edison Lab’s benchmark study of the 15 Finding America communities found the majority of people surveyed crave more “positive local news” — not fluff, but stories of substance. Finding America producers captured stories of joy, perseverance, resilience, faith, and determination, and showed that it’s possible to surface these narratives without ignoring a person’s or a community’s struggles — to show both the light and the dark.

Their stories suggest that the alternative to hard news can be just as sharp and sometimes even more direct and meaningful. They also show the value of exploring the “far corners” of communities that are often defined by single narratives of violence and injustice. AIR’s Schardt describes a “far corner” as a place that’s “not a routine stop along the way. The only way we can get there is by following someone who knows the back roads and byways.”

Here are two good ways to balance out the deadline-driven news cycle:

  • Let the community direct your storytelling. It’s easy to make assumptions about what you think your audience wants. But assumptions can be misguided and easily exclude whole groups of people. Through live events and community engagement efforts, Finding America producers were able to get a better sense of the stories and topics that were most important to people. One example comes from WUOT, where producer Jess Mador and her station collaborator Matt Powell expanded the station’s crowdsourcing project Tenn Words. They asked people to answer the question “What keeps you up at night?” in 10 words or less — online and at Finding America Together they read through an estimated 750 responses that had been gathered up to that point and found that health was a primary concern. “People expressed fears about heart disease, obesity, memory loss, lack of health care services, and the widespread opioid epidemic in Southern Appalachia” — slow-simmering topics that might not ping on a radar tuned to more urgent events. “We identified health disparities as an important, underreported area for TruckBeat to explore.”
  • Seek help from new talent, inside and outside. Many of the lead producers said they operate independently because it gives them the freedom to tell stories that move beyond the “if it bleeds, it leads” adage. Managers would do well to work with more independent producers who can pursue stories that aren’t necessarily tied to the daily rhythms of their news staff. This raises a larger issue about the importance of creating a newsroom culture that doesn’t just look for outside talent but that also encourages this type of storytelling from within. Without support from upper management, these stories remain at risk of being untold.

2. Adapt to the different styles and sounds you will get from community collaborators

Telling stories with and for the people requires close collaboration with community members — and an understanding that they may not be as available or as willing to help as you expected.

Their stories may reflect biases and strong opinions, and they naturally sound more amateurish by public radio’s standards — a reality that excited some stations and gave others pause.

Finding a workaround is worth it because the authentic sounds of community storytellers create important connections that can lead to story ideas, access, and trust that a more rigid approach may not deliver.

Telling stories with and for the people requires close collaboration with community members — and an understanding that they may not be as available or as willing to help as you expected.

In the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Anacostia, for instance, producer Katie Davis worked with three key community members who conducted all the interviews for her project. “Mostly I am aware of the gulf of communication between whites and blacks in this city, and I wanted to find a way around that,” said Davis, a veteran producer.

Asking community members to decide whom to interview and how to tell the stories led to more authentic narratives.

“I feel like there was more honesty. There was a lot said just in the way people talked to each other, just in the tone that they used,” said Davis, who edited the community members’ stories, orchestrated live town hall broadcasts, organized events, and more. “I wanted us to be able to understand that community better, and that is a really good way to do it.”

Similarly, in Durham, N.C., lead producer John Biewen taught community members the technical aspects of audio production and the craft of storytelling — the idea being that by “inviting people in to hear and tell stories, and to get their hands dirty in the making of storytelling, maybe it makes ripples — of understanding, acceptance, connection.”

Some of the teams reported more difficulties than others in establishing sufficient trust with community collaborators throughout the incubation period. During a round of conversations that AIR convened with each team seven months in, one lead producer described unique challenges, saying that establishing relationships with community members who don’t trust outsiders was difficult.

“Finding people who can vouch for you,” the producer said, “is essential.” Compared to the 14 other projects, the progress on this project was slower and the rate of output not as high. This led to some frustration, and caused AIR to examine how it might have managed the work differently to achieve a more satisfying outcome.

This instance underscores the importance of establishing trusting relationships — and making strong connections with influential people in the community. Without these relationships, a project will, at best, take more time and in some cases may fail to meet objectives. It’s also a reflection of the human factors in the making of Finding America, with an incredibly diverse range of communities and differing levels of experience among the producers. It demands that AIR — and any organization overseeing a complex, highly coordinated production — be attuned to the relative strengths and weaknesses of its people. It also signals the need to address problems as they arise to ensure that producers get the dose of creative solutions, moral support, and extra resources they may need to do their best work.

To build acceptance of new styles and sounds from people in the community:

  • See yourself less as a reporter, and more as a director and editor. Six of Finding America’s teams produced a set of features for All Things Considered in the lead-up to the 2017 presidential inauguration. These non-narrated stories were told entirely by community hosts. AIR’s lead producers worked behind the scenes, acting as directors and editors of the stories. “I love how direct non-narrated pieces feel to a listener,” said Every ZIP lead producer Alex Lewis. “When they’re done well, people come away feeling as if they’ve been introduced to someone in a deeper way.” This approach isn’t about foregoing your role as a trained storyteller. It’s about finding opportunities to share creative processes with others in the community and loosening control so all of the power doesn’t lie with the journalist.
  • Identify strong community figures and empower them to make the story themselves. Take time to reflect, get to know people in the community, and zero in on those with good stories who tell them well. When you’re ready to start producing, explain that you’d like them to share their story — in their own words. Be direct about what it will take to make the story as strong as possible, and your commitment to working with them. “There were plenty of times throughout the project where, in hindsight, I’d be kicking myself for not asking someone to better describe or contextualize something,” said Mona Yeh, lead producer of What’s the Flux? “I tried as best I could to tell people up front what style I was going for, and would push for descriptors and narrated explanations of what was going on. (Example: Describe to me what corner we’re at, which bus we’re waiting for, and what this corner looks like.)”

3. Seek out those who are “tuned in, switched on”

One of the key ways Finding America producers have moved past simply telling narratives of despair and violence is by developing ties with community collaborators. These collaborators include organizers, churches, nonprofits, and people who have a stake in an issue and a decided point of view. They have taken producers deep into neighborhoods, advocated for the work, and made personal introductions.

Edison’s study of Finding America describes an important cohort of individuals who are, in many cases, highly educated, ethnically diverse, and deeply engaged in the greater good. These “activators,” as we’re calling them, are willing and often necessary partners. Partnering with community activators can make journalists uncomfortable; it goes against what they’ve been taught about objectivity and neutrality.

Sometimes activists speak loud because the rest of us aren’t listening.

And yet, there’s been a growing appreciation for the potential that lies in working with community activators. Libby, lead producer of UnMonumental, forged a deep alliance with Richmond historian Free Egunfemi, who attended community meetings with her and served as a collaborator on events and stories. “I think sometimes activists speak loud because the rest of us aren’t listening. There are stories in Richmond that have been buried, literally, and [Egunfemi] is a person who unapologetically calls attention to these ‘missing pieces’ in the historical narrative. And she doesn’t just speak for herself; she speaks for a community,” Libby said.

“Sometimes she says things that not everyone, even in her community, agrees with. But she gets the conversation started. That’s one of the things I love about journalism, that it is a platform upon which people can freely speak their minds and by doing so invite a response. Journalism catalyzes dialogue. And when people start talking, that’s when real change starts to happen.”

To successfully collaborate with community activators:

  • View community activators as allies who can identify problems and prompt you to seek solutions. These allies work deep inside communities and are often privy to problems that the community faces. Investigate the problems they surface, but don’t get stuck there. “I don’t think we in the public sphere should shy away from the tough stuff, because sometimes going to the root of a community’s pain is where you’ll find solutions for healing that pain,” Libby said. Challenge yourself to look into potential solutions. Seek out positive deviants — people, stories, or organizations that are more successful or effective than average. Consider: Who is taking on the problem? How have other communities tackled it? It’s possible that the people who are most actively involved are closest to the solution.
  • Anticipate challenges. Working with those most active in the community requires you to set clear boundaries and anticipate challenges. Ask yourself guiding questions ahead of time: If your collaborator is asking for editorial control, how will you answer? How will you respond if listeners/viewers/readers feel that, by presenting new and authentic voices from the community, you are biased? Being transparent — with your editor, with your collaborators, and with your audience — is key. Collaborating with people who are vocal about their viewpoints and political ideologies puts the onus on you to make sure the related stories you produce include context and a range of perspectives. The goal is to create stories that are inclusive and informed by collaborators who know a community from the inside out.

Working with public media stations

4. Move your focus beyond your core, older, white audience

Public media has had a long-standing aspiration to sound and look like America, but in practice the business model has often revolved around super-serving its core audience — which is largely white, older, and affluent, and reflective of people who called in during pledge drives in the early days of public media. Over time, public media programming evolved to serve this loyal audience.

Many producers, as well as those working at public radio and television stations and the networks, have been working to correct this. In 2015, NPR published a study of the racial/ethnic diversity of sources on NPR’s weekday newsmagazines. Keith Woods, NPR’s vice president for diversity in news and operations, has written and spoken extensively on the findings of this report. He recently wrote that Asians and blacks make up 9 percent of NPR’s editorial staff, while Hispanics make up about 5 percent.

Diversity is relative, and race and ethnicity are not its only indicators. Other factors, including age, gender, geography, and socioeconomic status, are often part of the equation. The Finding America lead producers are a diverse bunch; they range in age from 24 to 62, nearly 44 percent are people of color, and 73 percent are women.

Collectively, they have reached wide-ranging groups of people, including individuals who had never tuned into public media. They made it a priority to work with a broad group of community when capturing stories, and they worked with their station collaborators to make sure the content wasn’t simply labeled as “diversity” content.

Rachel Hubbard, associate director/general manager at KOSU in Oklahoma, said this approach was a welcome change.

Public media has developed this segregation of cultures; it seems like an encouragement for all the other cultures to tune out. I feel like it doesn’t start a conversation about sharing culture and creating understanding across boundaries.

“Public media has developed this segregation of cultures; it seems like an encouragement for all the other cultures to tune out,” Hubbard said. “I feel like it doesn’t start a conversation about sharing culture and creating understanding across boundaries.”

Invisible Nations producer Allison Herrera, who worked closely with Hubbard, helped the station build deeper ties and connections within Oklahoma’s Native American community. As a result, KOSU aired more stories about Native American tribes and was able to more fully integrate them into the station’s coverage. KOSU heard from multiple listeners and members who said they renewed their support for the station partly because they were so impressed by Invisible Nations.

“Really like the Invisible Nations project,” one listener wrote. “Am relieved to see a mainstream outlet show that Indian Country’s more than just diabetes, powwows, and casinos.” Another listener wrote: “In the past I allowed my membership to lapse out of frustration over the lack of racial and, in particular, gender diversity in local programing. Recently I have been extremely impressed with your Invisible Nations series and am very happy to resume supporting you.”

 Here are ways to expand your reach beyond your core audience:

  • Seek out luminous characters in new corners of the community. If you want to avoid defining “the other” in stereotypical terms, find a group of people from widely different orientations who can share perspectives on a given topic. To deepen his understanding of the nature of the faith community in Kansas City, lead producer Steve Mencher, working in partnership with his incubator KCPT television, created a steering committee of local religious leaders. He hadn’t previously covered religion and wasn’t very religious himself, so he hoped members of the group could offer ideas, insights, and feedback. “I decided early on that representatives of the religious community should be consulted regularly, and I wanted them to have a stake in the outcomes,” Mencher said. “I also wanted to see if I could assemble a small but diverse group to model the kind of outreach and impact I wanted to have.”He met regularly with the committee — which consisted of the minister emeritus of a local church, a Muslim leader who is also active in interfaith dialogue, an Episcopal priest and a rabbi — to stay abreast of religious activities in the city and to seek their feedback on Beyond Belief’s stories. The committee’s feedback, he said, shaped the interviews he sought and the stories he and the station captured and shared. “These were people who I could check in with and also who would challenge me to do better,” Mencher said. “We adapted where we could, and I used their experience and wisdom to guide the project toward our goals.”
  • Learn to question your own biases as a producer. Remember that even if you feel your own identity and beliefs might be underrepresented, it’s important to consider whether the views and experiences of those least like you are also being marginalized. Done well, public media should report on the full range of public opinion, and should include people who sound like all of America rather than some generic “radio voice.” The Finding America producers challenged themselves to push past biases and assumptions. Their stories originated in the community — not in the newsroom — and painted a well-rounded picture of people and neighborhoods that are often depicted through a narrow frame that perpetuates single narratives and stereotypes. In essence, they reflected “public” media in a literal sense of the word.

5. Use live events to bring together different parts of the community

Many public media events are geared toward making work that suits a core audience that is predominantly white, older, and affluent.

New Orleans station collaborator Jason Saul, director of digital services at WWNO, said there are many reasons why it’s good to hold events that attract core listeners — “not the least of which is the joy we bring the people who have been dedicated to public radio for many years.”

But he also acknowledged the need for new approaches: “We’re really good at going to a retirement home and playing A Prairie Home Companion, but that’s not super helpful for bringing in new audiences.”

AIR challenged producers to combine traditional broadcast platforms with digital tools that are used on the street — and by the communities where they were embedded — to create new “full spectrum” storytelling models in order to meet new people on their own terms. The live-events platform offers up a much-needed change of pace for stations and a new opportunity for reaching further into the community. Edison’s research points to an opportunity here, particularly for public television stations.

We’re really good at going to a retirement home and playing A Prairie Home Companion, but that’s not super helpful for bringing in new audiences.

Finding America events were held in unusual places frequented by people in the community: a drive-in theater in Watertown, New York, a roller skating rink in Baltimore, Maryland, and an elementary school in the heart of New Orleans — where UnPrisoned lead producer Eve Abrams held an event in partnership with “Bring Your Own,” a popular roving storytelling project. Perhaps more importantly, Finding America teams brought together people who aren’t usually in the same room — public media’s traditional audience and community members who don’t tune into public media.

Another example comes from Every ZIP, a Localore project based out of WHYY. Last June, Every ZIP lead producer Lewis and station collaborator Jeanette Woods held a storytelling block party with Philadelphia poet laureate Yolanda Wisher as the emcee. The event featured community members sharing stories around a central theme: “Stories we would tell our younger selves.” The community storytellers included Jasmine Combs, a recent Temple University graduate who’s active in the Philadelphia poetry scene; Tony Jones, who helps lead the men’s group at the Serenity House community center; and Vashti Dubois, an artist and nonprofit leader who founded the Colored Girls Museum.

Woods said the day of the event, which was held at The Village of Arts and Humanities — an arts organization that facilitates community building — was one of the best days of her life.

“At WHYY, the only reason a reporter might go to The Village would be to do a piece on conflict or the effects of poverty or crime. WHYY staff and audience went to that neighborhood as neighbors,” Woods said. “People were not thinking of that neighborhood through the lens of its stereotype — even for some reporters — as a scary and crime-ridden place. Everyone there was on the same footing, enjoying a very different kind of relationship. And WHYY helped bring that about.

“That kind of integrative interaction, a true creation of community, at least within the scope of the event, has always been my goal in public media.” Woods continues: “People who had never been there — and would never go to that part of the city — got to see it as just another part of the city. People who lived there, who had never heard of WHYY, discovered that the station is a place where their voices were valued, where their experiences could be heard without the filter of ‘reporting,’”

Want to attract new audiences through live events? Here are some ideas:

  • Bring people from disparate and divided neighborhoods together around a shared interest. In Milwaukee, lead producers Brad Lichtenstein and the late Eric Von held live events featuring teenagers who shared stories about living day to day with gun violence. Dave Edwards, longtime director and general manager of partnering station WUWM, said the event attracted a mix of white core public radio listeners — drawn by the station’s heavy broadcast and online promotion — as well as families, friends, neighbors, and educators who knew the young storytellers. “It was a very powerful experience for me. I grew up in Milwaukee and spent all my life in this community. I was a reporter in my early days and covered a lot of gritty stories and interviewed a lot of parents who lost children to gun violence. I thought in some respects I was immune to some of that and thought I really understood what was going on,” Edwards said. “There was so much energy in that room that affected me emotionally and in a much different way than I could have predicted. It was not the kind of event that I was even prepared for.”
  • Use a wider lens when telling stories about people who are considered “marginalized.” Public media has an opportunity to bind the human experience through the stories it tells, the projects it pursues, and the events it holds. It’s no doubt important to paint a well-rounded picture of communities that aren’t typically highlighted in media, or that are too often defined by a single narrative. But challenge yourself to go a step further — by finding ways to bridge the gap between these communities and those who are better off — and be open to advice from community collaborators. 

When first starting his Storymakers project, lead producer John Biewen said he planned to create a storytelling project focused on the experience of people of color in East Durham in response to the national focus on cities where unarmed black men had been shot by police. “My thought was to invite the stories of folks in a low-income, heavily policed, largely black community,” Biewen said, noting that one of his community collaborators challenged him on this idea. “Nia Wilson responded that she appreciated the impulse. But she argued that in this time of increased racial tension, what’s needed is engagement by everybody, people from all parts of the community, ‘including white, middle-class people being asked to consider their privilege.’” Biewen agreed and embraced this approach when recruiting storytellers for his project.

6. Place more value on your local storytelling rather than national programs

Public media’s business model is built largely around nationally distributed programs that drive core audience, especially in public television. Many radio stations are changing direction, but it takes time.

Approximately 37 percent of content broadcast on U.S. public radio stations is local, and 4 percent of the programming on public television is local, according to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s 2017 Station Activity Survey.

Through their work, the Finding America producers explored the need for local public media stations to create high-quality content that the community can’t get elsewhere. WUOT’s Powell puts it this way: “What we have to do as a station is adopt the philosophy that we can present something to listeners that Ira Glass can’t, that Diane Rehm can’t, that Morning Edition and All Things Considered can’t. … In the future we’re going to move away from that model of being the conduit to national programming.”

What we have to do as a station is adopt the philosophy that we can present something to listeners that Ira Glass can’t, that Diane Rehm can’t, that Morning Edition and All Things Considered can’t.

A big part of this has to do with avoiding what Powell refers to as “speed bumps” — the noticeable difference in quality when a station switches from national programming to local programming. “You’re driving along and you hear a speed bump,” Powell says. “The technical quality breaks off; the talent isn’t as good.”

There’s always the risk that new local projects will eat up too many resources without yielding a strong return. But sometimes it’s a risk worth taking. In TruckBeat’s case, it paid off. During a recent pledge drive, station members said TruckBeat was their favorite storytelling initiative.

To take on the local vs. national programming challenge:

  • Experiment with risk. It’s easy to fall back on status quo. Embracing a new local experiment that aligns with your mission and pushes you to pursue new storytelling methods and models can change the sound, look, and feel of your output. If you succeed, the change can have a ripple effect, sparking further innovation. At WAMU, daily talk show host Kojo Nnamdi broadcast live from Anacostia as part of the Finding America project in D.C., sparking some controversy with listeners of the station. But Andi McDaniel, WAMU’s chief content officer/senior director of content and news, said Anacostia Unmapped “had the effect internally of setting a precedent of something that sounded different. The more our staff feels we can be successful with those things, the more comfortable they’ll feel suggesting them and testing new ideas.”
  • Give people stories they can’t get elsewhere. North Country Public Radio’s David Sommerstein — Homefront‘s inside collaborator — said that while the station had covered active military from Fort Drum for quite some time, it hadn’t done a deep dive into the day-to-day lives of the soldier and their families on the base. Lead producer Meredith Turk took a fresh approach by going to great lengths to gain access to a community that is typically guarded and private. Her efforts enabled her to capture stories of triumphs, struggles, and love in an ongoing and consistent way.

“What does ‘finding America’ mean? It assumes that something is lost or hidden,” Turk said. “When it comes to life in a military community, there is a growing gap between the families of those who serve and those who do not. It’s not that we don’t know they are there, but we don’t have the opportunity to sit with the people who live that life every day. That’s my job.” Her project changed the sound of NCPR and enabled it to become a more visible presence in the military community. It also distinguished the station’s content relative to the national coverage of U.S. military, providing listeners with a unique, local angle they couldn’t find elsewhere.

7. Push the boundaries of what “public media” is supposed to look and sound like

This is perhaps the most pervasive and difficult obstacle because it gets at the heart of the perception of what the existing audience wants (and tolerates).

Scholar and journalist Chenjerai Kumanyika addressed this reality in a popular Transom essay. He wrote: “Journalists of various ethnicities, genders, and other identity categories intentionally or unintentionally internalize and ‘code-switch’ to be consistent with culturally dominant ‘white’ styles of speech and narration.” This issue relates to both the journalists who tell the stories and the sources they feature — and it’s reflective of a discussion that’s been going on for more than a decade, particularly in radio.

Finding America producers have shown that new sounds and voices surface when you approach storytelling not only prepared but also excited to break with convention. Many of the Finding America projects producers found that they were personally transformed by the experience of highlighting voices and topics different from what they were used to. Some, including Beyond Belief’s Mencher, gave themselves permission to be humans first and storytellers second.

“I don’t think I ever really had a meaningful conversation with a pastor or a rabbi — and certainly not with leaders of African-American churches or Christian churches — before this project started,” Mencher said. “I even started to attend a Bible study each week. We never did any stories about that, and I never wrote about that, but to be accepted and respected for my own thoughts and views and to be able to learn from them about how they see the world was something that, to me, is irreplaceable. The idea of respecting someone down to the core of their beliefs is not something that should be new to me at this age, but my relationship with all of that changed by hanging out with so many people for whom faith and religion and God is a central part of their being. You can’t help but be changed by that.”

Many of the Finding America projects producers found that they were personally transformed by the experience of highlighting voices and topics different from what they were used to.

At the organizational level, WAMU’s McDaniel spoke at length about how the station was affected by the unique sound and nature of Anacostia Unmapped stories.

“This content sounded much different on our air than a lot of other stuff we do. It didn’t follow the sort of normal news formula; it was more raw, it was longer … it sounded like black Washington and that was why I think it made our audience sit up straight,” McDaniel said.

One listener went as far as to file an FCC complaint after being offended by the passion of a community collaborator in one of Anacostia Unmapped’s stories. Overall, though, Anacostia Unmapped stories were the most highly engaging pieces that WAMU has ever placed on NPR One and performed quite well in terms of eliciting positive reactions from the audience, according to McDaniel and Nick DePrey, WAMU’s digital programming analytics manager.

“We read this as an indicator that the audience wants more of these pieces,” DePrey said. According to an internal AIR survey, WAMU also ranked No. 1 in reach with more than 15 million gross impressions across the broadcast, digital, and live event platforms.

DePrey noted that, on average, listeners had more trouble getting through the entirety of the Anacostia Unmapped stories compared to other WAMU news stories. “This is not surprising given the unique nature and audience of Anacostia Unmapped,” said DePrey, who lives in Anacostia. “An improvement opportunity for future series might be to justify why the audience should care about this little neighborhood.”

To push boundaries of public media’s sound and look:

  • Create clear rationale up and down the chain of command. To successfully defy convention, there must be clear communication from the bottom all the way to the top. Journalists and newsroom managers must be on the same page about why they want to break with traditional norms. This starts with recognizing what your unstated norms, conventions and boundaries might be, and the effects those have on you and your audience. What are the goals and the importance of defying convention? How will you handle bumps that will inevitably arise? What will success look like? Asking these questions and seeking agreed-upon answers before you begin presenting things in new ways will help you create a shared game plan for success.
  • Expect mixed reactions. You’re likely to hear from your audience if you break with convention. When this happens, take it as a sign that you’ve succeeded in creating something different. Take the feedback into account and keep looking for ways to surprise listeners. “We’re asking our audience not to be sleepy,” McDaniel said. “Public radio for a lot of people is this comforting voice in the background. We think in order to continue to matter, we need to be more than that.”

Working with the bottom line

8. Invest resources in live, community-focused events

Social media and online comments sections have created important ways for news organizations, writers, and independent producers to interact with their audiences. But too often, online engagement is seen as a substitute for in-person engagement.

The Finding America projects that were most engaging succeeded on both platforms. They interacted with people online, and also used tools in the physical environment that incorporate art and have an element of fun. They attract people who aren’t necessarily tuned into broadcast airwaves, or active users of social media.

TruckBeat’s Mador and Powell, for instance, found and remodeled a 1980s bread truck and retrofitted it as a sound booth with the station’s call letters blazoned across the side. They used it as a roving billboard, listening booth, and recording studio — and continue to do so.

[The Finding America projects] attract people who aren’t necessarily tuned into broadcast airwaves, or active users of social media.

Mador drove the truck to community health fairs and street festivals in far-flung neighborhoods across East Tennessee and organized several TruckBeat events as part of her in-person engagement efforts.

“There’s something disarming about the truck; it’s a physical, tangible engagement tool … that’s eye-catching and fun, which was part of the idea behind its design,” Mador said. “We were able to build buzz and excitement for TruckBeat, and people seemed to want to be part of what we were doing in a different way than with a conventional journalism project where you’re not able to bring your storytelling into the community in quite the same three-dimensional fashion.”

Similarly, lead producer Sophia Paliza-Carre, paired with Arizona Public Media (AZPM) in Tucson, worked with a local artist to create and design storytelling mailboxes. She set them up in various locations across the city where AZPM hasn’t traditionally had much of a presence — particularly in the southwest, predominantly Hispanic part of the city.

The mailboxes were accompanied by postcards with questions that people could answer and then stick in the mailboxes. Paliza-Carre, who collected 60 to 100 mailbox postcards per month, kept a database of all the responses and used them to inform the people she engaged and the stories they made.

Some ideas for how to creatively establish live public media events:

  • Partner with local artists to create a physical engagement tool. Frontier of Change producers Isaac Kestenbaum and Josie Holtzman joined forces with local artists as part of an interactive scavenger hunt they created in Anchorage. Participants were instructed to text a specific phone number. From there, they heard stories that Kestenbaum, Holtzman, and station collaborator Joaqlin Estus produced and then got a clue about where to go to find the next story. The stories explored changes that have occurred in Anchorage in recent history and were intended to help participants think about the city’s future. Participants were given passport books, and the local artists made limited-edition prints in them at each stop along the way.
  • Think about design as a form of engagement. It’s important to choose colors, placement, and objects that reflect the understanding of the people in a community. Dímelo’s Paliza-Carre found this to be the case. “An unanticipated surprise came when we realized that the mailboxes could be effective as public art, not just receptacles to gather stories,” she said. “We put the first saguaro-shaped mailbox on a common hiking path in town, with a number on it to text with stories. We saw very few stories come in. We also saw that kids loved to climb on it. So, we pivoted on the other mailbox designs, and made them more interactive — one of them is chalkboard (which kids also love) and the other has a remote control that changes the lights glowing inside of it. We started to realize that by just getting people’s attention, we could intrigue them and by simplifying the message/instructions on the box, send them to AZPM’s content or social media.”

9. Identify the seeds of innovation that will yield a rich harvest.

Sustaining innovation after a period of experimentation is one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome with a project like Finding America.

The stations that took part, and the station managers in particular, signed onto the project with a commitment to continue the work AIR’s teams created. Some station collaborators have since said they don’t have the time, money, or resources to keep the projects going.

Lead producers, meanwhile, express frustration over not having fundraising experience and say it’s unrealistic to keep their projects going without funding. In recent months, however, many have found ways to sustain certain aspects of their projects.

Innovative projects can’t exist in isolation; they require multiple cheerleaders — both inside the station and out. In the case of Finding America, managers will be stymied if they’re of the mindset that they need to hire a full-time staffer to continue the work. It fails to recognize the real riches of innovation within a network of promising “green shoots” — pockets of continuity where the energy and excitement from the project remain active.

Innovative projects can’t exist in isolation; they require multiple cheerleaders — both inside the station and out.

A green shoot is often a new relationship with a community collaborator, or one new technique used to promote an event, or a creative form of engagement such as a mailbox or a bread truck. The task of a manager is to identify and prioritize these green shoots and then make a commitment to growing them. Some stations and lead producers have been more successful than others.

Carla McCabe, senior vice president for digital and multimedia content at KCPT, said that Mencher’s Beyond Belief project renewed the station’s commitment to religion reporting and prompted it to become a more integral part of the station’s coverage.

“We did not report enough on faith and we’ve seen in the Kansas City media a big shift away from it,” McCabe said. “The interesting thing is that [Beyond Belief] has really urged our producers to think more about faith. It’s definitely much more on our radar so we can ask questions like ‘what’s the faith angle?’ and ‘how does faith play into that?’ — even if it’s a health story. We’re trying to look through that lens more.” The station also designated someone on staff to continue sustaining the relationships that Mencher had built during the course of the project.

UnMonumental’s Libby has found creative ways to keep her project going. She and community collaborator Egunfemi are consulting with Storefront for Community Design — a Richmond-based organization — on a grant-funded project they’re calling Storefront Studio. The project gives youth and community members in Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood greater access and exposure to public media and public history. The program, Libby said, will offer workshops on podcast production, archival research, community arts projects, and more, and will involve the construction of a story booth.

How you can identify and cultivate green shoots:

  • Closely track kernels of progress, help others recognize them, and advocate for support. Be an evangelist for the most promising developments and kernels of progress from the project you want to sustain, and describe how they can be cultivated in a feasible way. Figure out what it will take to sustain a green shoot and how it can fit into your current responsibilities and workflow. Then, have a candid conversation with your boss. Before the incubation phase of Finding America ended, WUOT’s Powell gave thought to how he could help TruckBeat continue to thrive. He talked with WUOT executive director Regina Dean about his desire to keep the project going and received her support to spend 25 percent of his time sustaining TruckBeat and its Tenn Words sister project. Although Powell recently left the station, WUOT is beginning to pinpoint specific opportunities to take the truck out into the community and learn more about the attitudes, concerns, and beliefs of East Tennesseans.
  • Connect the dots between the work and the mission. Every green shoot has to tie back to the question: If this blossoms, how will it enhance our mission? Being open to experimental projects such as Localore is key, Powell said. There’s always the risk that they’ll eat up too many resources without yielding a strong return. But sometimes it’s a risk worth taking if it fits the culture and mission of the organization. “Worst-case scenario is that they won’t get us one more listener, or they won’t raise one more dollar. But the reason we’re doing them is because they’re part of our mission,” Powell explained. “The community engagement philosophy is becoming a much bigger part of the culture of WUOT, and I don’t want to see that die on the vine.”

10. Shake up the status quo by expanding use of independent producers and freelancers.

AIR has led the charge to strengthen ties between independent producers and public media stations.

In 2006, prior to taking leadership of AIR, Schardt commissioned a benchmark study, Mapping Public Radio’s Independent Landscape. One key finding was that “only 2 percent of the public radio content stream comes from freelance independents, primarily in the form of short news features and commentaries. A number of leaders in the producer community attribute the low volume, in part, to their failure to effectively communicate the value of independent work to the system. These producers hear a clarion call for producers frustrated by misperceptions to do a better job of communicating the value of independently produced work.”

The study also informed Schardt’s design of AIR’s indie-producer-led innovation productions first launched in 2010 (Makers Quest 2.0) and the subsequent Localore productions in 2012–13 and 2015–16.

In the years since the study was published, there is a greater openness to “outside talent” and greater recognition that there are a lot of creative producers inside of day-to-day operations who are steering newsrooms in new directions.

This has a lot to do with awareness that the public media system has a problem that needs solving. From a capacity standpoint, stations are often short-staffed and can benefit from outside producers who aren’t on staff but can deliver stories economically. From an innovation standpoint, outside producers are not necessarily bound to the station’s cultural and operational constraints. They have more freedom to experiment, and can help lead outside-the-box thinking. (They are “independent” for a reason!)

Outside producers are not necessarily bound to the station’s cultural and operational constraints. They have more freedom to experiment, and can help lead outside-the-box thinking.

In some cases, the relationship between Finding America’s inside collaborators and lead producers was hard to navigate. Some station staff, for instance, said they had difficulty figuring out how to strike the right balance in decision-making with their outside producer over an extended period. Some station collaborators said they had to find ways to coach and manage the producers, introduce them to the station, and support them with events all in addition to their full-time jobs. They said at other times they didn’t feel as though they had much control over whom the lead producers chose as partners.

The majority of station collaborators, however, said they greatly benefitted from the producers’ work and that it gave them new ideas about how to approach stories with and for communities. An internal field survey that AIR compiled shows that more than 90 percent of stations and producers considered their relationships successful.

Tips for striking a good inside/outside producer balance:

  • View independent producers as leaders and innovators. They have the capacity to experiment in ways that newsrooms staff — constrained by the day to day — may not be able to. They often seek stories that don’t fall within the confines of a traditional storytelling beat. Because of this, their work can deepen and expand a newsroom’s storytelling efforts. With Localore and scores of new innovation projects flourishing at the stations and networks, the industry is headed in an exciting direction.
  • Be open-minded about messy experimentation. Shifting your perspective on outside talent can open opportunity. WAMU’s McDaniel said the station’s involvement in Finding America was a critical experiment that generated new ways of thinking about local storytelling. “I think it’s a really, really important space for stations to get the chance to do the messy experimentation or participate in the messy experimentation that is going to shed light on what we should be doing next,” McDaniel said. “We are by necessity slaves to our business model, and that means the vast majority of our staff on a daily basis is focusing on what we do now and how we have supported the model of what we do now. It’s important that we collaborate with noninstitutional people who are doing what they think is going to resonate without any sense of obligation to repeat an old mold. It’s completely critical that we continue to test ideas and look outside our current portfolio because in 10 years the portfolio we have now will not exist in the same way.”

Best practices for doing community-driven storytelling

What journalists learn from listening to voices

Each Finding America team immersed themselves deeply in their communities, first as outsiders and, over time, building meaningful relationships. The degree to which they succeeded in their assignment to create new story-making models was directly tied to their ability to establish trusting bonds.

1.) People are yearning for the chance to be heard and understood. Storymakers gave me a chance to tell a story that has been on the edge of my mind for a long time,” said Kimani Hall, who pursued a Storymakers piece about his experience dealing with people who tell him he’s “articulate” and “talks white” as a young African-American man in North Carolina. “The validation I had from the people I interviewed, as well as the people that had heard my story, was exhilarating. Because I was able to release my own story, people were able to see my views — or at least take that first step toward understanding me.” (Kimani went on to become a part-time producer at WUNC after Storymakers ended.)

2.) Untold narratives are hiding in unlikely places. Richmond activist Egunfemi created altars across the city to mark significant historical places that are — sometimes literally — buried. In one of the Finding America stories that aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, Egunfemi took listeners through a local restaurant basement that was once part of the Underground Railroad. “This was the last space in Richmond that many people actually occupied before they whisked themselves to freedom and started a new life in places like Philadelphia. This was something that I was able to uncover through conversations with the people who live and work here, and digging for the untold story,” Egunfemi said. “Richmond is a majority black city … and our narratives have not been celebrated, nor have our accomplishments.”

3.) We need more safe spaces for youth to share their stories. This reality was especially evident after a Precious Lives performance that featured teenagers sharing stories about their experience with gun violence. Thirteen-year-old Zanaria Banks, who shared a painful story about her baby brother being shot, told WUWM: “It really hit me really hard, but getting it out with Precious Lives really helped me. I needed to tell my story, because if I didn’t, I knew that I was going to continue to cry at night in my room.” Timberley Princess Brown, 16, who lost her cousin to gun violence, had a similar experience: “In many places, they probably don’t see gun violence. I touched as many people as I could tonight. Even though the people I lost are gone, sharing my story gave me a sense of relief.”

4.) People are more resilient than media coverage would suggest. Many of the Finding America projects were rich with stories of resilience. One example comes from competitive sprint kayaker Dorian Taylor, a paraplegic who collaborated with the What’s the Flux project. “Sometimes I don’t know how I’m still alive. I think, ‘I’m not strong enough to do this,’ and ‘I’m not strong enough to do that,’” Taylor said. “It is kind of interesting to still have so much anger around what happened but still be at peace with my body and who I am. It’s kind of amazing how anger and sadness can create something so beautiful and something you weren’t expecting.”

5.) Media can be a powerful catalyst for difficult conversations. “I think Unprisoned opens the conversation to a lot of things people aren’t always willing to believe or talk about,” said Asha Lane, a New Orleans teen who collaborated with lead producer Abrams on an Unprisoned story. “I do believe that America turns a blind eye to racial inequality, in believing that racism no longer exists. Unprisoned discusses things, such as race, that prove that those beliefs just aren’t true.”

How to “repose”: Get to know a new community before you report on it

The Finding America producers were encouraged to take time at the start of their assignment to “observe and absorb” for an extended period of time. If the goal was to subvert the traditional approach to capturing the story of a place, it was important they begin, simply, as a human being … curious, respectful, discerning, and humble.

  • Let go of assumptions. When entering a community, especially one where you don’t necessarily look like the people living there or don’t speak the same language, put aside what you think you know about that place or those people and be open to surprises. Making yourself a learner, without putting up walls, will help you build trust in a community. That trust is critical to getting to know a community and capturing authentic stories about it.
  • Be intentional about where you situate yourself. Where are people spending their time? Why are they there? Where are the gathering places? Community centers, libraries, churches, and parks are all places to explore. If you’re choosing an area where you’ve lived or worked before, visit a part of town that you don’t typically frequent.
  • Put aside familiar tools. You’ll be tempted to bring your camera, laptop, phone, and microphone, but don’t. They can create a barrier and can be an impediment to building trust, particularly for those who don’t feel comfortable being interviewed by people they don’t know. Leave your equipment at home and enter the community with your whole, undistracted self.
  • Embrace your inner anthropologist. Embed yourself in the community with open eyes and ears and a healthy dose of curiosity so that you can get to know the ebbs and flows of the place. Dig for what’s hidden in a community and, like an anthropologist, seek people and draw out their stories of the past and present to help you make better sense of the context.
  • Find a good transition point. When reposing, it’s important to determine when to put aside your anthropologist hat and don your storyteller hat. After you spend time in a place, patterns will emerge. This is your clue to move from observing to creating.

How to turn sources into storytellers

Journalists rely on sources to be able to write or produce a story. What happens when you change up the sort of dialogue you’re able to have with your source? What happens when you let go of the things you’re used to controlling and put your “source” in the lead?

  • Address potential challenges early on. Make sure you and your manager are on the same page about your desire to give people who would otherwise be sources the power to tell their own stories. Be transparent about the fact that the stories they produce may be more conversational and less polished than traditional public media stories, but will ultimately be rich and authentic. A lack of support from upper management will make it difficult to pursue and sustain people-powered journalism.
  • Identify people who have deep ties to the community. Or, in the words of Edison Research, figure out who is “turned on and tuned in.” Shadow them and witness them in action. Are they good storytellers and listeners? Will they help pull back the curtain on parts of the community that are misunderstood or misrepresented? Do they want to tell their story and the stories of others in the community? If the answer to these questions is yes, gauge their interest in collaborating.
  • Be humble. If you truly want to involve community members in the storytelling process, be aware of the control you wield as a journalist, and be willing to surrender it. From the stories you pursue, to the sources you select, to the way you tell the story, be open to sharing the process of determining which stories get told, how, and by whom.
  • Be fair. Be generous. If you’re asking community members to help you tell stories, provide them with payment, good equipment, and whatever else they might need to produce stories. Furthermore, invest in their success by giving them constructive feedback early and often. Extending this fairness and generosity may make you feel like you’re paying sources (an ethical challenge), so talk with your manager about how to best approach this and how to clearly establish that these are collaborators, not sources.
  • Give them a stage to celebrate. Create a live event where your community collaborators share their stories in front of a live audience. This audience may be composed of their neighbors, or there may be an opportunity to bring together disparate and divided parts of the community into an integrated whole.

How to produce an effective live event around community stories

As they became more deeply involved, producers became familiar with the places that held greatest meaning to people living in the community and incorporated them in the production. These live events were creative new platforms for public media story-making and distribution. They were also celebrations and, in some cases, a means for bringing disparate groups together for the first time.

  • Bring together divided parts of the community around an urgent and common concern. Finding America events in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Anacostia brought together disparate parts of the community — public media listeners alongside ex-cons, homeless people, people forced out of their homes, inner-city children whose family members and friends have been murdered. Their partnering stations used the airwaves to draw in a core audience of public media listeners, while the producers used their community collaborator networks to draw in people from the community. The result was a series of emotionally charged events that created a new model for diversifying public media’s audience and relevance.
  • Empower youth to share their stories. In New Orleans, lead producer Abrams — who’s also a teacher — found teens to share stories around a central theme: When the Young Feel Old. The idea for the event originated with a story she told about Jahi Salaam, an 18-year-old poet who had been kicked out of several schools and ended up in the juvenile court system. The story featured a rap from Salaam, who said he was much older than his age because of all he had gone through. The Precious Lives: Beyond the Gunshots team in Milwaukee brought together youth around the topic of gun violence. Teens who had lost family members and friends to gun violence were invited to share their stories on stage in front of hundreds of audience members. “There’s this catharsis about sharing your own story, and the thing about doing it in front of a live audience is you’re in communion with the audience, and making that connection has a tangible value for people on both sides because you feel understood and heard,” said filmmaker Lichtenstein, one of the principal producers of the project.
  • Use audio to transport people to a different time and place. Transport listeners to places they don’t have easy access to by taking them on a “soundwalk” — an event that’s similar to a museum tour but takes place outside. Frontier of Change lead producers Isaac Kestenbaum and Josie Holtzman created one that transported people to Shaktoolik — a remote Alaskan village that’s at risk of being swept into the sea due to climate change — through sound-rich audio stories. The soundwalk, which took place outside the Anchorage Museum, lasted 30 minutes — the amount of time it would take to walk the length of Shaktoolik.
  • Create conditions that give new meaning to familiar geography. Invite community members to take a bike ride to places of historical significance hidden in plain sight. Invisible Nations’ Allison Herrera created a bike ride in Tulsa with tour guides who included a historic and cultural preservation specialist, Creek citizens, and the descendent of a prominent Creek family. Herrera picked all the stops and interviewed the tour guides, who shared stories of cultural significance. A forthcoming podcast based on their stories and the overall tour will be released this fall. Herrera collaborated with a local organization, Tulsa Hub, which sponsored the event, designed the tour route, and provided bikes (for a small donation) for those who needed them.
  • Tap into community social spaces to reach new listeners. Invite people to step on stage and share their stories at a place that is familiar, fun-filled, and inviting. Homefront: Fort Drum had success with this at a local drive-in theater, where military families helped shed a new light on the Army’s most deployed base. For many attendees, this was their first exposure to public media. The audience, said NCPR’s Sommerstein, was “full of different faces. It was a different socioeconomic profile; it was not the typical public radio profile. This was definitely a cohort that didn’t know about us or wasn’t regularly listening to us.” In Baltimore, The Rise of Charm City’s Stacia Brown organized a party in a part of town that public media typically doesn’t reach, and gave people a chance to celebrate their community. Her skate party at Shake and Bake Family Fun Center — a West Baltimore institution that’s been around for more than 30 years — attracted people who might not otherwise come together to celebrate, Brown said: “Some listeners have expressed to us that their minds have been changed about visiting places they had previously prejudged, like Shake and Bake. We’re reinforcing community pride.”

Identifying and sustaining a “green shoot” of innovation

Central to the pact between AIR, its lead producers, and station partners was to create something that would endure beyond the incubation phase of the work. Being intentional at the start is essential if you want to avoid a “one-off” experiment. The other key component is to be laser-focused on what’s working along the way, feed those things, stitch them into the larger structure or operation, and follow where they take you.

  • Know what’s working and what’s not. Focus on what is life-giving about a project, and put your energy there. Make a list of the strongest aspects of the project, the resources they took, and the impact and/or reach they had. If you’re working with a newsroom, think about how and whether they align with its goals, strategy, and mission. This is a good thinking exercise that will help you make a stronger case for sustaining it.
  • Identify pockets of continuity. To sustain a project, you don’t have to necessarily continue it in its entirety. As an alternative and perhaps more practical approach, determine which aspects of it were the strongest and most successful and consider how you will continue cultivating them. This may mean sustaining a relationship, or continuing to have a presence at a particular location in the community. Ask yourself questions such as: What will it take? What would success look like? And what’s reasonable, given our capacity as an organization?
  • Expect predictable excuses. It’s easy to say: “We can only keep this project going if we hire someone to work on it.” It’s harder to seek creative alternatives to sustainability. Figure out how the green shoots align with the work you’re already doing so that you can more easily incorporate them into your workload without feeling pressured to add more items to your already busy to-do list.
  • Determine what success looks like. Find an organized way of executing your project. Once you’ve identified the green shoots you want to cultivate — and how you’ll do it — create a growth chart with corresponding goals. What does success look like, and how will you measure it over time? After six months, for instance, what will have changed as a result of the cultivation? Having the answers to these questions will help you make a stronger case for continuing the project.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Create a plan to hold yourself and your newsroom accountable. Have monthly check-ins with your manager or community collaborators to assess what’s working (and what’s not working) and to troubleshoot potential challenges. Invite other colleagues into the dialogue and ask for suggestions, ideas, and feedback. Identifying and sustaining green shoots is an iterative process that takes time, buy-in, and commitment. When done well, the cultivation of these green shoots can create a newsroom culture of innovation — one that paves the way for enduring change.

Quantifying the reach and impact of Localore

Here we assess the reach and impact of two national Localore productions in 2014 and Finding America in 2017 across three platforms of engagement with which each production team experimented — broadcast, digital/social, and live events.

These represent both local and national reach, as well as activity on the Finding America metasite where AIR’s documentaries are presented together with local stories, a collection of short-form video documentaries, a series of audio dispatches, and more than 50 digital streams. While the number of local productions has increased by 50 percent, from 10 in 2014 to 15 in 2017, the overall reach across the field has grown by 71 percent, or by more than 20 million gross impressions.1

Cost per impression breaks out how much was spent for each single impression for each platform.

Total impressions
2014 28,200,000
2017 48,300,000

Data Source: Scott Williams (data analyst); NPR Research, Fall 2015 and 2016; NPR Digital (data combined with monthly reporting data from station incubators); Nielsen Fall 2015, Spring 2016, Summer 2016, Fall 2016

AIR

Broadcast
2014 24,500,000
2017 43,300,000

Data Source: Scott Williams (data analyst); NPR Research, Fall 2015 and 2016; Nielsen Fall 2015, Spring 2016, Summer 2016, Fall 2016

AIR

Digital impressions
2014 1,300,000
2017 5,000,000

Data Source: Scott Williams (data analyst); NPR Digital (data combined with monthly data reporting from station incubators)

AIR

Live impressions
2014 19,420
2017 47,949

Data Source: Scott Williams (data analyst)
Note: Impressions means number of people at the Localore live events

AIR

In terms of reach, local radio broadcast delivers, and with best value. The Finding America teams produced hundreds of local news features, talk shows, promos, and documentaries presented via broadcast airwaves and at a cost of one-third of one cent for the Finding America production. There was just one local television station incubator accounting for a relatively minor impact in the broadcast category.

Total impressions
Broadcast 43,253,025
Digital 5,041,295

Data Source: Scott Williams (data analyst); NPR Research, Fall 2015 and 2016; Nielsen Fall 2015, Spring 2016, Summer 2016, Fall 2016; NPR Digital (data combined with monthly data reporting from station incubators)

AIR

Broadcast impressions
Local radio 31,994,340
National radio 10,912,200
Local television 346,485

Data Source: Scott Williams (data analyst); NPR Research, Fall 2015 and 2016; Nielsen Fall 2015, Spring 2016, Summer 2016, Fall 2016
Note: There was only one television station among the 15 incubators.

AIR

Digital impact grows, cost decreases. Broadcasting remains the dominant platform, though its relative impact has diminished slightly with the increasing variety of digital platforms. In 2014, digital accounted for 5 percent of total gross impressions, costing 38¢ per impression. In 2017, digital impact doubles to 10 percent of the overall impact and the cost drops 25¢.

Cost per impression

2014 2017
Broadcast 1/3 cent 1/2 cent
Digital 25 cents 38 cents
Live $26 $10

Data Source: Scott Williams (data analyst)

AIR

Branded sites are a plus. Nine stations posted project information on websites named after their project, as well as the station home site. Of these, seven were substantially more effective in attracting page views than the rest of the productions.

Local events have a growing but relatively small reach, yet have a quantitatively different impact than that of broadcast or digital distribution. Edison’s Tom Webster says this: “Live community events are important not only to raise awareness and support for public media, but also to hear crucial voices that may be missing. These free events brought out a highly different group of people, and serve to humanize public media at a time when the media (in general) are having some perception problems. The relatively high cost — $26 per impression — likely has many factors, including the need to create a new platform with each event.

  1. Gross impressions represent the number of instances of engagement with content, including, for example, headcount at an event, likes on a Facebook or Twitter post, listening to a radio story, or watching a television promo.

Contributors and acknowledgments

“Break Form: Making stories with and for the people” was written and prepared by lead researcher Mallary Tenore, Localore Executive Producer Sue Schardt, editors Jessica Clark, Betsy O’Donovan, Stevie Beck, data analyst Scott Williams, Tom Webster and Melissa Kiesche at Edison Research, and with Finding America’s lead producers and station collaborators:

Eve Abrams, Audrey Atkins, John Biewen, Avory Brookins, David Brower, Stacia Brown, Kelly Burley, Tayla Burney, Michael Chihak, Mariana Dale, Katie Davis, David Dawson, Regina Dean, Loren Dixon, Dave Edwards, Joaqlin Estus, Jack Gibson, Glenn Gleixner, Sonya Green, Allison Herrera, Greg Hill, Josie Holtzman, Rachel Hubbard, Isaac Kestenbaum, Kliff Kuehl, Alex Lewis, Kelley Libby, Brad Lichtenstein, Paul Maassen, Jess Mador, Michelle Maternowski, William Marrazzo, Carla McCabe, Andi McDaniel, Kyra McGrath, Steve Mencher, Rachel Osier Lindley, Sophia Paliza-Carre, Kelsea Pieters, Ali Post, Mary Quintas, Steve Ramsey, Marsha Reeves Jews, Ellen Rocco, Janet Saidi, Jaclyn Sallee, Jason Saul, Jackie Sauter, Matt Shafer Powell, Marcellus Shepard, David Sommerstein, Connie Stevens, Brendan Sweeney, Eve Troeh, Meredith Turk, Eric Von (1958–2016), Connie Walker, Michele Williams, Bruce Wirth, Jeanette Woods, Mona Yeh, and JJ Yore.

Thanks to AIR’s home team:

Josh Banville, David Dawson, Bec Feldhaus Adams, Adriana Gallardo, Teresa Gorman, Dan Kass, Karen Lally, Ryan McGrath, Alexei Miagkov, Betsy O’Donovan, Bab Oommen, Laurie Selik, Ryan Somerfield, Joanie Tobin, Aidan Un, An Uong, and Lindsey Wagner.

And our many collaborators and supporters:1

Ayah Abdul-Rauf, Ana Adlerstein, Paul Ahlers, Jamie Alsabrook, Hans Anderson, Jenny Asarnow (LL ’12), Joshua Atkinson, Hope Austin, Phil Batta (LL ’14), Shyanne Beatty, Kyle Bell, Jennifer Brandel (LL ’14), Colleen Brennan, Martina Castro (NV ’10), Jeremy Charles, Liz Cheng, Frank Chythlook, Russell Cobb, John Crigler, Bob Cross, Hodari Davis, Jax DeLuca, Matt Diffie, Greg Dixon, James Dommek Jr., Rachel Edelman, Doug Eichten, Free Egunfemi, Neenah Ellis (LL ’14), Jody Evans, Lisa Marie Evans, Jennifer Ferro (LL ’14), Field, Sally Jo Fifer, Rudy Flores, Kymone Freeman, Brandon Gatling, Cheryl Gerber, David Giovannoni, Liliana C. González, Melissa Gray, Anya Grundmann, David Haas, Bill Haenel, Marcus Halley, Scott Hanley, Jesse Hardman, Sterlin Harjo, Laurie Beth Harris, Pat Harrison, Chris Hastings, Colleen Heine, Whitney Henry-Lester, Stuart Hetherington, Bob Hill, Grant Hindsley, Lettie Holman, Feather Houstoun, Mya Hunter, Denise Igo, Kathy Im, Josh Jackson, Marsha Reeves Jews, John Johnson, Mary Ellen Jones, David Joseph, Sally Kane (LL ’14), Alex Kapelman, Laine Kaplan-Levenson, Lori Kaplan, Sam Keenan, Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson and Nikki SIlva) (LL ’14), Paul Kjelland, Joan Kobayashi, Yuko Kodama, Michael Krall, Julia Kumari Drapkin (LL ’14), Asha Lane, Chioke l’Anson, Mark Levin, Michael Levy, Michelle Lopez-Rios, Jeff Luchsinger, Joyce MacDonald, Jessi McEver, Kyra McGrath, Todd Melby (LL ’14), Viki Merrick, Kathy Merritt (LL ’14), Sarah Metz, Chris Michaels, Caitlin Moran, Claire Mullen, Alyce Myatt, Cleveland Neal, Fantastic Negrito, Holly Mititquq Nordlum, Lauren Ober, Mike Oreskes, Lauren Pabst, Maureen Pao, Patty Parks, Vikram Patel, Boqin Peng, Luis Antonio Perez (NV ’11), Schyla Pondexter-Moore, Erika Pulley-Hayes, Allison Quantz, Barbara Raab, Mawish Raza, Katy Reckdahl, Tena Rubio, John Sallee, Lauren Schiller, Mahnaz Shabbir, Bill Siemering, Tevin Smith, Leslie Snow, Jeff Sonderman, Laura Starecheski (NV ’09), Bruce Theriault, Chris Turpin, Kiran Vee, Tracy Wahl, Darren Walker, Noland Walker (LL ’14), Carline Watson, Jacquie Gales Webb, Spencer Weisbroth, Goorish Wibneh, Flawn Williams, Sonja Williams, Kortney Williams, Nancy “Mama Nia” Wilson, Sarah Wolozin, and Liz Wood.

and AIR producers, who are everywhere.

In memory of Eric Von, AIR’s lead producer for Precious Lives: Before the Gunshots with WUWM



  1. LL ’12 or LL ’14 denotes those who were part of previous Localore productions; NV denotes those who are part of AIR’s New Voice program

Download as a PDF

A formatted PDF version of this report is available for download or printing here.

You can also learn more about the Localore: Finding America projects here, and watch the meta-documentary here.

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