by Payton Bruni
In 2016, after Donald Trump proposed a ban that would prevent Muslims from entering the U.S., KUOW radio station Executive Producer of Community Engagement, Ross Reynolds, wondered how he could provide people with the opportunity to learn about communities they may know nothing about. The answer he reached was the “Ask A…” project, a series of in-person events where designated “Askers” and “Answerers” are given the space they need to carry out face-to-face Q&A sessions. Past “Ask A…” events have included “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a Transgender Person” and “Ask a Cop” among other event topics.
Project Goals: Reynolds said as people spend more time on electronic devices, in-person conversation falls out of style. He said he chose a Q&A format to bring those conversations back. “Our goals are to promote empathy and understanding,” Reynolds said. “You put people in contact with one another in this safe, civil situation where you’re just here to ask or you’re just here to answer.”
Tools & Technology: To put out the call for potential askers and answerers to register, “Ask A…” used Facebook, Twitter and airtime on the KUOW radio station. Toolkit was used to build the “Ask A…” website and Google Forms was used for event registration.
Impact: Reynolds said gauging the impact of “Ask A…” was a priority throughout the project. “I wanted to validate that there was something actually happening beneath the surface of this feel good atmosphere,” Reynolds said. “The preliminary research that we’ve got shows there’s a statistical improvement in empathy and understanding between the groups not only right after the event but also three months later.” Specifically, based on data from surveys filled out by “Ask A…” participants, “Ask A…” produced an increase in “Asker” knowledge of the “Answerer” group. “Asker” empathy also increased for “Answerers” immediately after “Ask A…” events as well as three months later. The entirety of the research collected on the impacts of “Ask A…” can be viewed on the “Ask A…” website research page.
Organization Background: KUOW, a nonprofit radio station based in Seattle, Washington, is the Puget Sound region’s #1 radio station for news. For 2017, KUOW reported an average of 421,200 weekly broadcast listeners and an average of 772,000 digital audience members on the KUOW.org website. KUOW reported a total revenue of roughly $9 million for the 2017 year.
Project Resources: Reynolds said the cost of “Ask A…” lies with venue rental costs and catering. He said rental spaces for the day typically cost the project $400 or $500, depending on the venue, and catering can vary with each event. Three staff members from the KUOW community engagement department work on “Ask A…” and Reynolds said the project takes up roughly 25% of his time.
Here’s What Worked
1. Reaching out to the community.
By partnering with other organizations in the community, Reynolds said it was easy to find people interested in participating as “Answerers.” For the “Ask a Muslim” event, he said he contacted the Council on American Islamic Relations Washington based in Seattle and received the contact information of 50 people who could participate as “Answerers.”
2. Screening “Askers”.
Reynolds said it was important to ensure that ideal “Askers” are the ones who got to participate in “Ask A…” events. “We don’t allow anyone who wants to participate to participate because we want to know they can benefit from this,” Reynolds said. He said the people who come prepared with productive questions and can genuinely learn from the event are the “Askers” who get selected to participate. (Check out the “Ask A…” toolkit and guide for more on how they did this.)
3. Managing the event.
With a speed dating format, Q&A sessions between “Askers” and “Answerers” typically last eight minutes before participants rotate to new groups. Reynolds said it’s important to have a staff member designated to rotating people between these rounds. “Because the conversations get so engaged so quickly, you actually need two or three people to move people along,” Reynolds said.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Ensuring public interest.
One “Ask A…” event that Reynolds planned to host was “Ask a Veteran.” However, when it came down to find participants, he said there were approximately 30 veterans willing to act as “Answerers” and only two people interested in participating as “Askers.” Reynolds said, “Don’t assume your best guess will get a lot of ‘Askers’ and ‘Answerers.’”
2. Working with the right contacts.
Reynolds said there was an “Ask A…” event planned with the help of a contact from another organization, but a few weeks into planning a different member of the same organization emailed in saying they were no longer interested. “If you’re working with an organization, you want to make sure you’re working with a decision maker,” Reynolds said.
3. Sharing expenses.
“One of the aspects of this project that we’re working on is that it’s fairly expensive for what is a small group of people who will be directly served by the event,” Reynolds said. He explained that resources spent on air time, venues and catering could add up when “Ask A…” is only impacting about 24 people each event. Reynolds said he would like to partner with more organizations in the future to share the burden of hosting and participant recruiting.
Here’s What Else You Should Know
- Commercial opportunity: KUOW received a $50,000 grant from the University of Washington to do market research on ‘Ask A…’ as a paid service for businesses and other organizations. The service would seek to improve empathy and understanding in mergers and acquisitions, diversity training, improving interdepartmental relations, and new employee orientation.
- Easy to grasp: “I’ve been kind of amazed that the more people that find out about it they instantly get it. They go, ‘of course this is necessary,’” Reynolds said. “It heartens me to hear that people realize we need to have conversations and that we need to get together in these polarized times.”
- Stories to pursue: Reynolds said potential story contacts are created with the resulting relationships formed from hosting “Ask A…” events. “For your news room it really broadens your possibilities for contacts on stories that you’re working on.”
To learn more about this project, or to read tips on how to host your own “Ask A…” event, checkout the guide and toolkit provided on the “Ask A…” website. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact Ross Reynolds by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.