Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

10 key 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.”

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

Featured topics

Go deeper on…

Dive deep on everything we produce about these key topics.

Strategy Studies

The best practices for innovation within news organizations

This Strategy Study presents examples and insights about journalism innovation, offering actionable advice and methods to move your journalism and business forward.