By Summer Fields
As a former competitive public speaker on my high school speech team, I was drawn to the disciplines of radio speech. Broadcast journalism, particularly public radio speech, was something I worked on perfecting for competition. Later, as a student in sociology at the University of Chicago, I became an amateur podcast producer and a super-listener to many podcasts — ones made by both independent producers and affiliated with public radio. I got curious about public radio as an industry. I paid attention when journalism scholar Chenjerai Kumanyika identified a phenomenon he called the “Public Radio Voice,” the idea that people who present the news on NPR member stations sound a particular way. An upper-class, white way that doesn’t reflect the whole community they’re meant to serve. I came from the south suburbs of Chicago, an area that’s more racially and economically diverse than other parts of the Midwest, and I didn’t hear my America on the radio either. I decided to focus my sociology research on the implications of public radio voice for public radio’s audiences and the experiences of the people who work in the industry. It was that decision that led me to Hearken.
One of the core principles that drew me to Hearken was that innovation happens when people are encouraged to follow curiosity freely. In Hearken, I found a group of kindred spirits who are driven by the power of listening. They were pursuing questions that I also wanted the answers to: why do radio voices sound white and upper-class; why are very few people deciding the news for entire communities; and what can we do to change it? In my time here, I’ve learned it’s empowering to spot a problem and then attempt to create solutions and see if it works as opposed to agonizing over what might not work first. I joined Hearken because the mission aligned closely with my values: to empower communities to a freer and more expressive place, and to help institutions better listen to and respond to the people they serve.
From my sociology research interviewing more than 20 public radio creators and podcasters from underrepresented backgrounds before even arriving at Hearken, I pulled out some key themes. A major one: Public radio newsrooms’ staff and voices on the airwaves rarely reflected the diversity of the local areas they aimed to serve, leaving out key perspectives and sending a signal of who their coverage was and wasn’t for. I was eager to learn where these systemic issues were being addressed. I wanted to find and surface solutions — perhaps in the ways in which flawed institutions engage with their audiences.
One such solution was Curious City, a public-powered radio experiment at WBEZ. Everyday folks in Chicago can ask their burning questions, silly and serious, about the city, the region and its people, and go along for the ride with reporters to find answers together. Some engagement innovators in public radio stations around the country took notice of this success, and wanted to create something similar. That’s how Hearken began: connecting this community of other like-minded people — aiming to work on the same issues I was exploring — flipping the script in journalism to give power to the people.
In these early days, I saw Hearken’s potential to stir up fundamental shifts in the news industry and other public-facing institutions, to change a deep-rooted dynamic: that institutions often create solutions for the people they serve, rather than with them. There’s a pressure to provide expertise or immediate fixes rather than starting from a place of listening to the people you serve and letting them lead the solution-finding process.
I had a front row seat to how Hearken was shaking up journalism’s particular power dynamic: since newsrooms had amassed large audiences over long periods of time, they had disproportionate power to exclusively determine how other peoples’ stories are told to the broader public. The problem is, those others were often subjected to the whims of a few reporters and editors to see their stories accurately and adequately represented. This power dynamic was troubling to me, as someone who spent so much time listening to under-represented voices. Those audiences shouldn’t be taken for granted, though, given that large audiences have the mass power to render a newsroom irrelevant, so it’s in their best interest to listen. Hearken’s methodologies help create pathways to do this listening, creating alternate options beyond this institutional gatekeeping of what’s important to communities. In doing so, we help ensure the continued vibrancy and relevance of those institutions.
Since those days serving a few curious newsrooms, Hearken’s scope has expanded greatly, and in the process I’ve been empowered to exercise my talents, learn new skills, and wear many hats to support every aspect of the business. We’ve launched a consulting arm to our business, and we work with public-facing institutions across industries, from higher education to local government to foundations. We offer transformative and proven processes, training, and technology to operationalize listening.
Hearken allows me to work with all of these institutions, growing my network with a rich constellation of engagement-minded innovators. I’ve been able to apply my sociology training and curiosities in serving them. I’ve had the chance to deliver phased engagement consulting projects with teams at Hearken, including all this in 2020 alone:
- Listening to the needs of a group of private university presidents to help them change their membership organization
- Working with a public university’s alumni association on a four-month change initiative to shift their operations to better meet the needs of students, alumni and friends
- Shaping the engagement strategy of my own city government, the Mayor’s Office of Chicago, to enable them to listen to the needs of Chicago’s residents to shape our policy and decision making
Now, in my role as a Growth Lead, I spend my time listening, building relationships, and crafting creative solutions to meet the needs of prospective clients.
I’ve had the chance to learn listening-based sales from my teammates at Hearken and coaches in our network. As I’ve reflected on my path and opportunities to keep growing my sales chops, my coach has told me, “As long as you’re consistently learning something new with every passing year, and your goals are scaling up over time, you’re in a good place. You’re avoiding stagnation. Pursue your curiosity and what you most want to tackle — just jump in and try.” Hearken has given me a launch pad for doing just that.
Join Summer’s team: Hearken is looking for an Engagement Strategist in Growth and New Business Development who is a passionate listener and fearless in bringing our mission to new markets. We embrace a sales process founded in deep listening and advocating for the needs of the client, and we are looking for someone who can help us build a community of mission-aligned practitioners. Learn more, spread the word, and apply: Details at wearehearken.com/careers!