Hearken Case Study: How Marfa Public Radio Launched To Reach A Wide Range
With an editorial staff of four and a coverage area of 30,000 square miles, here’s how Marfa Public Radio successfully launched their Hearken-powered series — and met some cool people along the way.
Marfa Public Radio in Marfa, Texas serves a geographical area the size of South Carolina — it stretches across a wide swath of the West Texas desert, from the state’s border with Mexico to the Permian Basin.
The large geographical area and small staff size (four people on their editorial staff and seven people at the station in total) were among the reasons the station turned to Hearken to power their project, West Texas Wonders. But to have a successful launch, they knew they had to get creative.
“It seemed like if we just announced the series on the air or in email, it wouldn’t necessarily do very much,” reporter Sally Beauvais said.
General Manager Elise Pepple suggested a week-long road trip to get the word out about West Texas Wonders.
“Because we’re doing this project to engage with a wide range, it made sense to be in the wide range,” she said.
They settled on making two stops each day in a different town, gathering questions in person and documenting their travels on social media and on-air. Since there would be limited internet access where they would be traveling, Pepple and Beauvais brought printed materials for people to write their questions on and return to them. Beauvais also did live two-ways (radio lingo for “on-air interviews”) on the road for local spots in Morning Edition and All Things Considered, highlighting tape of question-askers and talking about where she and Pepple were heading next.
Before heading out, the station ran promos on-air, wrote a post to promote the road trip, and sent press releases to local outlets in each of the towns they were visiting. The early promotion helped generate buzz.
Pepple didn’t have any expectations heading out since the road trip was an experiment.
“I thought we would get 50 questions and people would be uncomfortable with us approaching them,” said Pepple. “I was curious to find out what would happen.”
The road trip generated almost 200 questions from people around West Texas.
“At least five people said they saw the post on Instagram or heard us on the radio and had to come find us,” said Beauvais.
Because they were actively showcasing the people and places they encountered on social media, Marfa Public Radio also earned 100 new followers on Instagram. Their post promoting the road trip also had higher-than average engagement on Facebook and Instagram.
Another unforseen bonus: merchandise sales went up. They made $750, about 90 percent over their average from the last month.
“Elise photographed the merch in nice sceneries, so that generated online sales,” said Beauvais. “We were actually giving merch to people who met us. We didn’t sell anything on the road.”
But many of the most memorable moments came from the in-person interactions. For example, the owner of a bed & breakfast in Marathon invited a mix of newcomers and town natives to ask questions. Beauvais captured the conversation on-air, as the group discussed what they were curious about.
“Marilyn [a fifth-generation Marathon resident] could answer all the questions,” said Beauvais. “It ended up on-air. It could’ve been smoother but it was a fun moment.”
The road trip ended up serving a three-fold purpose: promoting West Texas Wonders, promoting Marfa Public Radio (“People don’t know we have an NPR station so that was nice,” said Beauvais), and developing coverage.
“It’s kind of amazing to be in a backyard in Marathon and the front porch in Terlingua and to hear different stories in each place,” said Pepple. “Engaging with people helped establish some common threads.”
“The kinds of questions people asked weren’t surprising, but now that we have these lists in the Engagement Management System, it helps me see the areas we haven’t been covering, like certain communities and infrastructure,” Beauvais added.
Beauvais and Pepple say West Texas Wonders’ success was due to the work they put into the road trip.
“For me, as a person who lives here and gets to run the station, I don’t think our station has ever done a road trip across our entire region,” Pepple said. “This set up a new model for me of ways we should be doing things.”
People can be shy and drawing out people’s curiosity takes some effort. “It took some talking to get people to open up,” Beauvais said. “There are people who have lived in West Texas their whole lives and were like, ‘I know everything about this place!’”
To get over that hump, Beauvais approached people without her recording gear. “After I established they had a question and wrote it down, I approached them with a mic after.”
Pepple added that she and Beauvais felt like traveling saleswomen at times. “How do we ask the right questions to unlock people’s curiosity? Coming up with a script to get those out would be helpful.”
Double-and-triple review your logistics. The staff held two brainstorms: one to figure out the best places where people would have a minute to chat, and another to plan where they’d stay, how they’d get there, and how they’d make the trip visible to their audience. Still, “it could’ve used more logistical planning,” said Beauvais.
“We figured out on the fly that we should break in on-air and we were on a tight timeline,” Pepple added. In this instance, Marfa Public Radio has midday programming where the format was less strict, so Beauvais could cut in whenever.
And though most locations were a hit, the biggest wildcard was going to a grocery store in Odessa.
“Not everyone goes to the library but everyone goes to the grocery store, but it’s not the best place for engagement,” Beauvais said. “You’re trying to get in and out.”
“The Midland Library were great partners,” Pepple added. “Suddenly we had a line that was too big.”
Their hunch on printed materials paid off, too. “We didn’t know if people in our area would go online, so having slips of paper helped,” said Pepple. “We still put out question slips at other events we do, like our membership block party.”
Plan to staff the effort and stay on it. Given their small staff size, Pepple and Beauvais were the only ones on the road for the whole week.
“It was exhausting!” Pepple said. “We have a big coverage area, so there were many late nights and early mornings.”
Beauvais had planned to use the road trip to do some interviews for other stories she was working on, but that plan quickly went out the window. “I had to focus on the road trip, but I did build some contacts.”
Despite the late nights and early mornings, both said doing the road trip was worth it.
“It’s so easy for any station to get trapped inside your building,” said Pepple. “As we did this road trip, I remembered more about the geography and the people. We feel lucky that we got to spend a week hanging out with people.”