Journalists from newsrooms of all sizes can learn a lot more from public and community broadcasting than how to hawk tote bags during the annual pledge drive.
Public broadcasting “has traditionally pressed for close connections with listeners — encouraging them as volunteers, inviting their participation in events and turning to them for membership support,” notes a community interaction guide for public broadcasting news directors. And as newsrooms across the country grapple with how to build deeper connections between their work and their audiences, there are many lessons we can take away from what journalists are doing within community and public radio stations.
For example, Raven Radio — KCAW, a community radio station in rural Sitka, Alaska — broadcasts to an audience of roughly 11,000 people. Like many radio stations serving remote areas, Raven Radio routinely broadcasts community announcements over the air. These typically feature once-off events like local hikes or dance recitals or activities for senior citizens. But recently, local high school junior Elias Erickson asked for the KCAW program director’s help in a more personal matter: inviting his girlfriend to the upcoming prom.
The program director obliged, turning on a bed of romantic music at the end of the community announcements before asking Kami if she would go to the prom with Elias. She said yes, and Erickson later told the local newspaper that the proposal was “perfect.”
The idea of news organizations arranging prom dates may be amusing, but the underlying idea of journalists and publishers developing deeper, more meaningful and collaborative relationships with the communities they serve is not just compelling but critical.
As budgets and newsrooms shrink, and as audiences have the ability to consume news from an increasing number of sources, listening to and forging valuable bonds with communities can help both reporters who want to make sure that their work “matters to [their] audience” and publishers who need to “ensure that [their newsroom’s] work finds the public support it needs to endure,” Monica Guzman said in her American Press Institute report on newsroom engagement strategies.
“Now more than ever, journalists can engage their audiences as contributors, advisors, advocates, collaborators and partners,” Guzman wrote.
Thinking of audiences as collaborators or partners “represents a shift and refinement regarding the way newsrooms interact with community members,” Angelica Das said in the Democracy Fund white paper “Pathways to Engagement: Understanding How Newsrooms Are Working With Communities.” She quotes journalist and entrepreneur Andrew Haeg, who describes this type of engaged journalism “as journalism reframed from a broadcast (one-way) function to a community (two-way) function: news as a conversation with community.”
This mindset — treating journalism as not just information to be broadcast but as information to be shared, built upon and strengthened through relationship-building with community members — has long been true in community and public media, where I’ve spent most of my career. As Das notes: “Public access television stations, community radio stations, alternative and ethnic newspapers, and beat outlets focused on civic issues have long practiced forms of engaged journalism. Crowdfunding is a digital platform-powered version of the pledge drives and membership models that have been around for years … (and there are) many lessons that can be brought forward from these decades-old institutions.”
Community radio stations in particular are bastions of the type of engaged journalism that newsrooms are now exploring, and they have been for decades. In rural areas, community radio stations still function as de facto community centers, relaying upcoming events, local government information and — in the case of some rural Alaska stations — personal messages and yearly Christmas greetings. Some community stations have also started to let members of the public into the station to use their equipment, with the idea that they are also developing new material for broadcast.
At the Salt Lake City community station KRCL, for example, the one full-time employee recently reached out to people in Salt Lake City who seemed active and engaged in community issues. She asked if they wanted to use the station’s professional recording equipment to record their own weekly podcasts. In return, the community members give the station excerpts to broadcast on-air.
Public media, too, sees collaboration with their communities as key to serving their mission in making communities more informed and better places to live. Some examples:
• At station WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, staff and volunteers help local people learn to podcast, record essays and produce radio stories as part of their “Community Voices” program.
• Truckbeat, a mobile-studio that covers community health in East Tennessee, travels to local communities and tells their stories.
• The earliest iteration of Hearken, the “people-powered” journalism platform started by Jennifer Brandel, is WBEZ’s “Curious City,” an initiative that asks residents of Chicago what they are curious about — and then pairs those residents with local reporters to investigate and report the answers.
• In Los Angeles, the station KPCC recently took on voter apathy by finding a voter who didn’t plan to vote in the 2015 mayoral election — and constructing all of their coverage around making him care enough to vote (and convincing hundreds of people in the community to participate in the process of making him care).
• “Framed by WDET” took over store fronts in Hamtramck, a city surrounded by Detroit, Michigan, to display audio and visual exhibits featuring oral vignettes of people who lived in the surrounding areas.
• Michigan Radio’s “State of Opportunity” focuses on how poverty affects kids growing up in Michigan. The show’s former senior producer, Sarah Alvarez, started Infowire, a text-messaging-based project that presented low-income residents news about education, food and health care.
These community-driven approaches not only deepen connections with their residents but also help local stations attract additional support from local philanthropic funders, many of whom want to reinvest in their own communities. In 2011, Mikel Ellcessor, then the general manager of WDET in Detroit, told Charles Meyer, former executive director of the National Center for Media Engagement, that the station “definitely made a connection between our public journalism and community-engagement work and revenue model.”
But even community and public media stations, which have also long relied on individual contributions for financial support, are grappling with “concerns about the fragility of pledge,” public media consultant Mark Fuerst said in his 2014 report on the health of public media fundraising techniques. Though his report noted that membership fundraising continues to be strong within the public radio ecosystem, there is concern that “pledge drives will become less effective over time,” particularly with newer and younger audiences.
He writes: “Both radio and TV membership staff are struggling to reach that elusive ’younger and more diverse audience,’ with little evidence that anyone’s actually learned how to do that. … Revenue growth will almost certainly require developing additional, and perhaps very different, techniques, even as stations work to maintain and improve legacy activities.”
In other words, it is no longer sufficient for public radio stations to hold up their mission as reason enough for younger individuals to contribute their financial support. Like all news organizations, they must continue to experiment, to cultivate deeper relationships and to partner with their audience so that audience understands why the support is necessary.
Live events are one way to potentially bridge that gap. A report from the Local News Lab, released in February 2017, reported that live events both foster engagement and expand revenue opportunities for news organizations. Examples from public media abound.
At Nashville Public Radio, folks gather every other month to hear reporter Emily Siner interview interesting people from their community. In St. Louis, folks gather at the public radio station for “… and the Kitchen Sink,” a series of “discussions, live broadcasts, concerts and meetups.”
Producers working with the independent public media initiative “Localore: Finding America” threw over 30 events during their yearlong tenure. Polling later determined that those events helped “raise awareness of public media service, and also to expand stations’ awareness of ’crucial voices we may be missing.’”
But everyone can do this, not just those working in public radio. The non-profit Texas Tribune netted $1.2 million in revenue from events and sponsorships in 2013. The New York Times anticipates that its live events and conference business could generate up to $20 million. Smaller organizations like MinnPost and the St. Louis Beacon made more than “10 percent of their revenue from events.” (And many more examples from non-profit and for-profit newsrooms abound.)
As Kevin Loker writes in an American Press Institute report on event strategy: “Events are a proven way to diversify revenue that, if done right, are significantly harder to disrupt than other revenue models. They deepen connections with audiences and sponsors. They reinforce multiple values of a publishing brand. And they can grow.”
There are also opportunities to rethink ways to deepen connections with audiences by rethinking the “traditional pledge drive” for individual financial support. Two years ago, as a Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, I looked into ways that traditional public membership could be broadened and strengthened so public radio and television stations would become more essential to the communities they served. The report took as its starting point that building relationships with potential donors would lead to sustained support — not just of money but of time and advocacy on behalf of a station.
Donor retention research generally backs up this idea. People who identify with organizations are more likely to formalize that identification through donations or support. And people are more likely to identify with organizations if they think the work matters, if they’re actively engaged with the work, or if they think the organization values their contributions. In turn, they trust the organization more, feel more invested and loyal to the organization, and are more likely to identify — and therefore contribute — to the organization in some way. In other words, developing these kinds of engaged relationships can strengthen both an organization’s impact and its bottom line.
There are many examples of media organizations outside public media that have started to follow this philosophy and successfully develop engagement strategies that empower their communities and treat them as collaborators. In their reports, Guzman and Das list dozens of examples. But we can also look outside traditional media organizations for creative inspiration.
One of my favorites is the Smithsonian Transcription Center, which asks participants around the world to help the Smithsonian transcribe ephemera from its collections. In turn, participants are often the first to see newly digitized collections and also receive access to exclusive online Q&A’s with Smithsonian curators. The project has saved the Smithsonian tens of thousands of dollars, and participants are more likely to donate to the Smithsonian, volunteer in person or tell others about their deeper relationship with the collection (which, in turn, attracts more volunteers).
Another example I like to point to is from an unexpected source: the Harley-Davidson corporation. Anyone who buy a motorcycle receives a membership to the Harley Owners Group. HOG sends a magazine and offers roadside support, but it also organizes local weekend rides that connect participants to each other — which increases their brand affinity and the likelihood that they’ll continue to support the Harley-Davidson brand.
The idea that news organizations can also facilitate relationships between subscribers or readers is one area of engagement that’s ripe for exploration. New York City public radio station WNYC has held date nights for members. Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me,” sometimes organizes runs in cities he visits.
This is also a smart way to increase affinity and engagement. A March 2001 paper called “Brand Community” in the Oxford University Press and Journal of Consumer Research by researchers Albert Muniz and Thomas O’Guinn spelled out why: Members of affiliated groups experience what the researchers call “we-ness” — meaning “they feel an important connection to the brand, but more importantly, they feel a stronger connection toward one another.”
Brands, they write, are “social entities,” and communities are created as much by consumers of the brands themselves as they are by marketers. In other words, readers of The New York Times want to meet and hang out with other readers of The New York Times. And by hanging out or going to events, they may also develop a deeper affinity for the paper itself in addition to each other.
It’s easy for us to write off engagement as a “buzzword” or the latest amorphous trend that tends to captivate news organizations. But here’s the point: Developing these kinds of deep, meaningful, two-way relationships clearly pays off. By listening to communities and by including them in the storytelling process, newsrooms can ensure that their product “reflects (the community’s) experience and meets their needs,” as Andrew Haeg notes. It’s also likely to build trust with your community, a necessary task at a time when few U.S. adults trust the information they get from their news organizations.
In other words, we should engage with and listen to our audiences because it’s not just a trend; it means better stories, better sources, more loyal audiences and better ideas to help us sustain journalism in the United States. ***
Melody Joy Kramer is a Peabody Award-winning journalist and digital strategist who spent a decade in public media helping stations and NPR reach and better understand audiences. A former Visiting Nieman Fellow, she currently leads audience growth and engagement for the Wikimedia Foundation, writes a weekly column on news innovation for the Poynter Institute and helps news organizations all over the country develop strategies for better reaching and engaging their audiences. Email.On Twitter:@mkramer