Mainer Galen Koch has been noticing a glut of new media covering her home state lately. “There are tons of magazines popping up, but none of them are written for people who actually live here,” said Koch, a Portland based video and audio producer. Over the past few years she’s witnessed a wave of trendy travel style publications cover topics like the newest secret swimming hole or the quaint fishing town down east. “I’d kind of like to ask what Mainers don’t want written about as much as what they would like written about,” she stated.
This new glossy Maine narrative, according to Koch, skips over the nuances and stories of the traditional communities living on the coast and replaces it with lobster rolls and sea kayaking pictures. Part of the state is struggling to figure out their identity as it moves into the future and Koch wants to make sure Maine is being documented for and by people who live there year round, not just those who travel there in the summertime.
Koch has decided to create some Maine focused media for the off-season crowd. She’s converting a 1976 Airstream trailer into a living space, sound studio, community meeting center, and exhibition space for a project called The First Coast. The First Coast Airstream will travel to year-round coastal communities in Maine during the off-season, when the state’s population dwindles. Through collaborations and workshops, residents will engage in conversation about their community’s working maritime identity and personal perspective of place. The First Coast is an initiative to collect sounds, stories, images, and ideas that capture coastal memory and seek to reconstruct existing narratives and mythologies of both Maine and Mainers.
Galen is a native Mainer, but one of her major concerns is connecting to other coastal communities that she’s not a part of. She wants to make sure she’s engaging with folks beyond the usual suspects, meeting people where they are with information that’s useful and offering an opportunity to share their insights on a variety of issues facing local communities. She reached out to the Listening Post Collective for advice after finding our website and playbook, and we talked with her about engagement tips to help get her project accepted into local communities and ways of generating and distributing the content she produces.
Engagement Tips: The Airstream trailer is a bit of a double edged sword in that it will certainly garner attention, but without a bit of prior trust building, it could easily be received by locals as a spaceship that somebody dropped into small town Maine. Some of the ideas we brainstormed were ways to make the trailer idea more viable:
- Establish partnerships with local stakeholders and organizations who understand the ethos of the project and see how it benefits them and their community. Those trusted stakeholders will bring their networks into the fold and, ideally, ensure the Airstream is welcomed into the community.
- Spend time in each place locating the community hubs where folks are already gathering (post office, coffee shops, bars, farmers markets, health clinics, grocery stores, etc.). Explore how the trailer can fit into those spaces. It’s important to meet folks where they are and not expect them to come to you.
- It’s great to take the Airstream to places where folks aren’t accustomed to being invited to join projects like this or given the opportunity to share their stories. Figure out what existing community events are happening that the trailer can be a part of.
It’s also important to think in advance once you do set up an engagement opportunity with a community, how you’re going to get people talking.
- We brainstormed about avoiding buzzwords and cliches and keeping questions approachable. This is especially true when talking about development and gentrification. Rather than asking people about their opinions on gentrification, ask, “What are you afraid of happening in your town in the next decade?” or “What do you wish this empty lot/building would become? What would you miss if you had to leave? What keeps you up at night?” Questions should provoke responses grounded in lived experience rather than opinions about nebulous concepts.
- Ultimately it’s important to keep your ask of community members small and focused and to remain honest, curious, and patient. Some strategies and questions will resonate with folks and others won’t. Remain on your toes, always listening to the community and responding to what you’re hearing.
We also talked about what will be produced from this community engagement and how it will be distributed:
- Avoid the tourism magazine model. This project can’t be about extracting interesting stories from these communities, packaging them well, and shipping them off elsewhere. How can Galen ensure that The First Coast is returning these stories back to the communities where they came from and using them to start important conversations?
- One of the keys will be to revisit the community hubs, leaders, and system that Galen will use for her initial outreach and find ways to circulate the content back through. Meeting people where they are doesn’t stop with engagement, it must continue into distribution.
- We talked about producing a WHS radio show or podcast that fishermen could listen to on their boats and working with other local media to distribute stories.
Galen’s got great instincts for engagement work but she, like many, can feel a bit isolated in her work. Hopefully our suggestions will be of service to The First Coast but often it can be nice just to bounce around ideas with like minded people and that’s something we’re always excited to do. If you’ve got a project you’re working on that may not fit the Listening Post model mold but could still use some space to brainstorm or vent, we’re all ears.
The Listening Post Collective provides journalists, newsroom leaders, and non-profits tools and advice to create meaningful conversations with their communities. We believe responsible reporting begins with listening. From there, media outlets and community organizations can create news stories that respond to people’s informational needs, reflect their lives, and enable them to make informed decisions.