Lessons From AIR’s ‘Finding America’: 10 Ideas & Tips for Creating Community-Driven Events

Last week, The American Press Institute released the Association of Independents in Radio Finding America research report.  In this piece, researcher Mallary Tenore shares some of the takeaways from the project. You can also read AIR’s 10 key insights from the report, along with related field reports. In times of disparity and political division, storytelling can be beautifully unifying. My research into the Association of Independents in Radio’s Localore: Finding America initiative began in July 2016 with a weekend trip to Richmond, Virginia — where I attended a live storytelling event that AIR 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
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. 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 with the intent of learning more about what happens when public media producers try to tell stories not just about people, but with and for people. One aspect of this research looks at how to move past stale approaches to events. The way you do this, I’ve found, is by looking outside the newsroom and into the far corners of local communities. This idea is central to the Finding America initiative, which paired independent producers with public radio and TV stations nationwide to develop new storytelling models. The 15 Finding America lead producers were embedded for nine months at forward-thinking public radio and TV stations across the U.S. and were paired with collaborators at each station. The producers told stories with and for community members, and gave them opportunities to share their stories on stage during live events. “The Localore approach includes working across the ‘full spectrum’ — that is, blending broadcast, digital, and ‘street’ platforms in creating new models,” said Sue Schardt, CEO of AIR, a nonprofit network of independent multimedia journalists. “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. … These are the places we are building a new public media, but not places where public media is well known — or even recognized.” The Finding America teams ended up producing 30 events from March through October of 2016. Collectively, they offer up valuable lessons for media practitioners who want to take more creative approaches to events. Here are 10 related takeaways and tips… 1. View events as an opportunity to tap into new audiences.   Many public media events are geared toward making work that suits a core audience. 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.” 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. 2. Ask your audience what’s most important to them.

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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 Knoxville’s WUOT, where TruckBeat 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 events. 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.” This experiment informed Mador’s thinking around TruckBeat events, including one in Roane County — a largely rural area about an hour outside of Knoxville. The event, called “Roane Is Better Together,” took place at the iconic Princess Theater and featured a screening of two TruckBeat video documentaries about the opioid crisis, along with a related panel and opportunities for audience participation. 3. Empower youth to share their stories.

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In New Orleans, Unprisoned’s 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 Brad Lichtenstein, one of the principal producers of the project. 4. Bring together divided parts of the community around a shared issue, interest or 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. Dave Edwards, longtime director and general manager of partnering station WUWM in Milwaukee, said the aforementioned Precious Lives: Beyond the Gunshots 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.” 5. Go into areas where you normally wouldn’t go. Last June, Every ZIP lead producer Lewis and WHYY station collaborator Jeanette Woods held a storytelling block party in a part of town where WHYY doesn’t typically have a strong presence. Philadelphia poet laureate Yolanda Wisher emceed the event, which featured community members sharing stories around a central theme: “Stories we would tell our younger selves.” 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,’” 6. Tap into popular 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. David Sommerstein, reporter and assistant news director at partnering station NCPR, said the audience 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.”

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In Baltimore, The Rise of Charm Citys 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.” 7. 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 NationsAllison 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. Rachel Hubbard, associate director/general manager at KOSU in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said Invisible Nations’ content and events helped the station build deeper ties and connections within Tulsa’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/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 listeners 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.” 8. 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. 9. Partner with local artists to create a physical engagement tool.

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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. Similarly, Dímelo lead producer Sophia Paliza-Carre, who was 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 her thinking around the project and the events she held. She learned that when organizing events and creating engagement tools, it’s important to choose colors, placement, and objects that reflect the understanding of the people in a community.

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“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.” 10. Use audio to transport people to a different time and place.

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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 Kestenbaum and 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. The narrative was structured as a trip through the mile-long village, and included stories from residents who talk about their experience with climate change. There just seemed to be a lack of knowledge about what was out there,” Kestenbaum said. “We wanted to build a bridge between rural and metro Alaska not just by being a reporter who says, ‘this is how they live out there’ but by trying to bring the voices of the people in their own words and their own experiences to urban Alaska through the use of participatory multimedia, in all senses of the word.” Mallary Tenore is a freelance writer and the Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope (ivoh), a media nonprofit. Previously, she was the editor of Poynter.org. You can follow her on Twitter @MallaryTenore.  
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