Listening is a Revolutionary Act: Part 2
Applying the methods of international media development to the local news crisis in the United States
This is part 2 of a two-part series on building deeply local community media. Read the first post, on why a dramatically different media model is needed to serve local communities. This post examines the case of the Listening Post project in New Orleans — and how to start similar projects, from the ground up.
The media landscape is such a competitive, often over-saturated space, and connecting with an audience means competing with everything from CNN to Candy Crush, Facebook to the New York Times. It’s hard to know how to actually get anyone’s sustained attention anymore.
Through the Listening Post I’ve learned to take the conversation off-line first. Get to know physical communities. Move in their spaces. Listen.
Here’s the recipe for how I set up the Listening Post in New Orleans, and some examples that will help you build your own.
How to Build Your Own Listening Post:
- Listen. Spread out in the community, go to events, visit libraries, sit at barbershops, walk through neighborhoods, and see what kinds of conversations are going on.
- Collect data. Collect datafrom community members on their information sharing habits.
- Identify/Establish Listening Posts. Pick some data driven listening post locations and information outreach methods.
- Topics/Questions. Make a list of topics that are important to the community, develop engaging community outreach questions around them.
- Engage. Pick a topic you want to create a conversation around, and distribute some questions via your listening posts. Make sure you share these questions in both offline and online locations.
- Share outcome. Create a two-way conversation, collect peoples thoughts and responses and then share them online, offline, through the radio, etc.
- Evaluate/Innovate. Take stock of what worked and what didn’t, and try some new approaches. Fail forward!
Listening is a lot like reporting, without the end product. Your goal is to be a fish out of water, and to learn as much as you can through observation, without taking out your microphone, which tends to elicit more rehearsed conversations. I have some friends in international development who refer to this period of research as DBWA, Development By Walking Around. When they arrive somewhere new to work, they spend the first few days walking through the city or town, taking mental notes about how people move, interact, what stores there are, what the roads look like, how people greet each other, and the list goes on.
The day after I arrived in New Orleans I went on a walk with Eve Troeh, the local news director at the NPR station WWNO, through the Central City neighborhood. It’s a tight-knit, historic community in the heart of New Orleans with some of the highest levels of violence and poverty. We stopped into an old barbershop and bought some peanuts, the establishment’s side hustle as a business, chatting with the barbers about the neighborhood. We walked past a row of blighted homes, stepping around potholes filled with stormwater. We chatted with the owner of a dance studio about the classes she teaches and her Mardi Gras dance team. And we talked to customers at a corner store, down the street from a slew of recent shootings. Later that week I went back to the neighborhood and sat in on a church service. The pastor, who had recently died from cancer, was a local advocate for stopping gun-violence, and his death was a big loss to the community. After the service I spoke about this with an interim reverend and congregation members.
Listening is such an important way to start the process of building an audience, because it’s a disarming act: your agenda isn’t to record an interview to publish, your goal is to observe and engage. This sets you up for a repeat visit, this time as somebody the community has already met. That’s the first step.
“Listening is such an important way to start the process of building an audience, because it’s a disarming act, your agenda isn’t to record an interview to publish, your goal is to observe and engage.”
2. Collect data
After doing some walking and listening around New Orleans, step two was gathering some actual data on information sharing habits in the city. I created a basic information needs assessment, a tool used in humanitarian settings to get a sense of what people need to know and how best to reach them with that information. I made a list of neighborhoods that I wanted to connect with, and community spaces within those neighborhoods, and headed out with a card-table, some clipboards and stack of paper surveys. My assistant Kate and I went to midnight basketball games, sat on porches, visited libraries, community markets, churches, neighborhood meetings, and even doughnut shops to listen and gather data.
The last line on each short survey invited people to keep participating in the project by sharing their cell phone number. Most people obliged. What came back at us through our surveys and interactions around town was that people still are prone to get and share information the old-fashioned way in New Orleans, neighbor to neighbor. But it was also clear that at minimum most people are carrying cell phones, and increasingly smartphones.
3. Identify/Establish Listening Posts
Getting out into the neighborhoods we wanted to connect with also helped us familiarize ourselves with where locals congregate. We kept track of where we saw community billboards, where neighborhood events were held, and even more general, where people were most likely to spend more than ten minutes, and have some idle time. We also wanted to spread out into a few different neighborhoods, to see how participation might vary, both in terms of who participated, and what they had to say. We settled on a community library with a track record of neighborhood events, a popular barbershop/beauty salon that had a loyal clientele, and we decided to make our third location events in and around the city that pertained to news topics(health fairs, hurricane evacuation trainings, bus stops, and more).
After identifying where a few organic listening posts were in New Orleans, it was time to establish an ongoing presence in those places. In this case, as the Listening Post was partnering with the local public radio station, WWNO, we wanted to capture and record voices from around the city on a regular basis. We created actual, physical listening posts, cardboard sculptures designed by local artist Jacques Duffourc, that had microphones and recording equipment embedded inside. We wanted to give people the opportunity to record thoughts and anecdotes without having a reporter prompting them, and to have the opportunity to think and respond in a space that was comfortable to them. The idea of embedding recording equipment inside art was also meant to be both attention getting — people would be drawn to see what the statue was all about — but also connected to the playful, creative culture of the city.
Our inaugural recording sculptures were shaped like a lamppost, totem pole, and bonsai tree, we later added a redfish. Large posters with operation instructions were placed next to the recording stations so participants could operate them on their own. A lot of people ask us questions about security, how we protect against our sculptures getting stolen or damaged. Before placing them out in the community we worked with the locations that invited us in, and got librarians and barbers to agree to keep an eye on the posts and to also invite people to participate. In exchange we mentioned these establishments as partners when we later began airing a Listening Post radio show.
Because we wanted to reach people in more modern listening post spaces as well, we began to organize the cell phone numbers people shared with us, around 300, in a new online platform called GroundSource. This digital dashboard helps a user acquire a local phone number, build a list of contacts in the system, and develop surveys to send out in bulk to your participants. As responses to the survey come in you can view them through the platform. People can opt out of participating simply by texting “quit” and they are removed from the platform.
Now that we had established both offline and online listening posts, it was time to return to our list of topics people shared in the information need assessments. To start out we wanted to focus on issues that were immediate and most likely to get people talking, like the unpredictable public transit system, health care options in the city, and safety and security.
We spent a lot of time developing two or three questions for each topic that would get people sharing specific but anecdotal details. We wanted to avoid the kind of rambling commentaries common in online article comment sections, and we felt the best way to do that was to keep it personal. Not “what do you think?” so much as, “what did you experience?”
- What was the last big health issue you or your family had?
- How and where did you get help?
- How much did it cost, and how did you pay for it?
Our questions went up on a big poster at our recording sculpture sites. We also began using GroundSource to deliver those same questions, although in a slightly different structure. In order to set up the questions, we created a news headline pertaining to the news topic, followed by a hyperlink to additional information. After people got that initial shot of news, our questions appeared. This strategy was to make sure even if people didn’t want to participate on that particular topic, they still got the news headline, and they still learned something.
We found that all of our foundation work on creating an audience was potentially powerful, but only if we really put the time into researching and testing our questions. They had to be broad, so as not to exclude anyone, but not so broad that people weren’t forced to give specific examples.
Here’s an example of a text message survey about the state budget.
Now that we had established our listening posts, and some topics, we began to put them out into the community to see what came back at us. At first it was a trickle; people were definitely drawn to our recording sculptures, and curious to learn more about what they were.
People also began to receive our texts. A few of the initial responses read “who is this?” Thankfully the GroundSource platform enables the user to respond to individual sources within the system. So we could explain a little bit more via text what we were doing and why with some participants.
But even though the initial response to the project was not overwhelming in volume of participation — we might have gotten 5 to 10 voices and 10 texts in a given two week period — the people who did respond made very anecdotal, personal contributions. Enough for us to post online and begin crafting a radio program around.
After a little more than a year of engagement, we stood at around 1,000 voices recorded, and around 1,200 text message participants. When a text message survey resonates, we get around a 5 to 10% response rate. When it doesn’t, we might just get 10–20 responses, but if there are a few anecdotal thoughts, we still feel like we succeeded.
Every few months we make a point of checking in with participants and asking them what they would like to know more about or understand better in the city. We also occasionally invite people to send us questions that we can share with city leaders.
Over the summer we asked people some Hurricane Katrina 10th anniversary questions. Here’s some responses to a question about what food people were able find after being displaced by the storm and ensuing floods:
6. Share outcome
Over time we established a routine of sharing topics and questions every two weeks. Responses continued to be anecdotal, and we combined the audio and text messages as part of a bi-weekly radio segment on the local NPR affiliate, WWNO. We were building an audience, offline and online, and sharing the results at our website and on the air. One of the products, a radio show, was great, as it reflected voices from around the city, that might not otherwise get shared, on important topics, and reached an audience influential in New Orleans. Another product is simply reaching people on cell phones, and sharing an important topic with them twice a month.
A little while ago I was setting up our recording sculpture shaped like a fish at a local Whole Foods here in New Orleans. There was a young woman across the room handing out coffee samples, and when she saw me put up my sign, she yelled over to me, “Listening Post!” I laughed and went to say hi. She said she’d met me at an event more than a year ago, and texted into the Listening Post number. “I always get your guys’s text messages, keeps me in the know.” She said she’s kind of reclusive, a “crab,” in her words, and getting a note from us helped her feel like she was more connected to what’s happening in the city.
It took a few months to see that not every location that hosted our recording sculptures was a hit, and we soon realized as simple as the concept appeared to us, people still struggled to participate for a variety of reasons. They needed a nudge. We trained a group of local high school kids, from different neighborhoods around the city, to help folks operate our posts, and record their stories. The idea being, once they had somebody invite them in, and teach them how to participate, they could pass on that knowledge, and also become regular contributors.
We also realized that our text message participation was somewhat stagnant after a few months. We had hoped that method would catch on easily through facebook, radio spots, and twitter, but that wasn’t the case. So we even took our online approach offline, in an attempt to get it working. We went to as many neighborhood meetings as we could with a billboard displaying our project phone number, and invited people to join our project. Every meeting would grow our participation by 5 to 10 people.
Another innovation was partnering with organizations in the city that had invested in specific topics. They would feature on our website or in our radio program, and in exchange they would help us craft our topic questions, and share them with their already developed audiences.
We also began reaching out to specific sources through our GroundSource system to follow up on things they texted us. In a few cases we met up with people who had sent us a story, and then recorded them telling it a little more in depth, for our radio program. Gentilly resident Lisa Stevens responded to our text message question about post-Katrina restoration and development in the city. Specifically, what people thought would still be on their street in 10 years:
“There are several businesses that I know for a fact will be in this neighborhood for a long time, like Wendy’s, Popeyes, Capital One, Burger King only to name a few. Oh, and me of course!!!”
We liked her response because it both gave us some detail on what’s happened in her neighborhood in the past decade, there used to be more locally owned businesses, but also, there was a little humor in it, a little slice of her personality. We texted her back and she agreed to meet up for a formal interview. Here’s how it all came together.
Finally, the most effective innovation was posting questions on campaign style signs around the city with our GroundSource cell number. There’s a culture of messaging through public signs in New Orleans. It’s mostly a grassroots effort that encompasses everything from artful metaphors, to post-Katrina replacements for street signs, to messages pointing people towards important resources.
We wanted to tap into that organic citywide conversation. The idea was to ask really fun, simple questions, “What’s for Dinner?,” “Why are you Mad?,” and “What’s Missing in New Orleans?,” and people could respond by texting us an answer. We would then tailor a response text as an invitation to the project. Our cell phone participation pool doubled from this experiment. People loved the signs. Again, it was a very ground-level way to be in front of people, with an inviting question, and a low barrier to participation, a text message.
More media outlets need to be in the business of community engagement. By that I mean, visit neighborhoods and listen first, see what comes back at you. Don’t assume anything about how best to reach people. Then explore how to develop a two-way conversation with citizens, offline first, and later online. Use those developed networks to get people information about housing, health care, education, jobs, security, government, and more. And remember, this isn’t just an altruistic recipe for media development, it’s good business. People need information, and also want to be heard. It’s a long, hard road to build an audience, but if you take your time, and really listen to your participants, you’ll get there.
Jesse Hardman is a reporter and community media developer based in New Orleans. He’s worked on projects for Internews since 2007 in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Chile, and Tunisia.