by Riley Stevenson
After the 2016 election, Colorado Public Radio (CPR) reporters wanted to know how they could help bridge conversation across party lines in an increasingly polarized political climate. So in May, CPR brought together a politically and ethnically diverse group of listeners to share a meal and engage in conversation. Since the project launch, CPR has hosted two dinners attended by a returning group of listeners from varying backgrounds and recorded two smaller break-off events. The dinner series, now dubbed Breaking Bread, has been well-received by CPR’s listeners and has resulted in several video and audio stories based on the stories of those seated around the table.
Project Goals: Breaking Bread is designed to “bring people together to have interesting conversations and maybe find some common ground,” Meredith Turk, engagement editor at CPR, says. Essentially, the series hopes to answer the question: “Can Coloradans Sit Down And Figure Each Other Out?” Bringing together such a politically diverse group can be challenging, but according to Turk, the series’ goal isn’t to show people that they’re wrong. “We’re setting them up to see what happens. It’s not about convincing,” Turk says.
Tools and Technology: Reporters used GroundSource to tap into their existing source network and invite Breaking Bread participants.
Impact: The series resulted in several audio stories documenting the dinners and break-off events, as well as a photo/video series based on the personal stories of the participants. CPR has seen an outpouring of interest from listeners, and, as a result, has designed smaller Breaking Bread-style projects for audience members interested in participating.
Organization Background: Colorado Public Radio is a nonprofit state radio network and National Public Radio affiliate that broadcasts a variety of news and music programs. CPR is based in Denver, but its network of transmitters allow the station to reach approximately 80% of the state. In FY 2016, CPR generated nearly $17 million in revenue, 60% of which came from individual giving.
Project Resources: The entire project was hosted and managed by three CPR staff who cooked meals, produced video stories, and invited dinner guests.
Here’s how it happened
“In May, one of our reporters had the idea to follow the age old tradition of sitting around and breaking bread and talking to each other,” Turk says. Fellow reporters warmed quickly to the idea and soon set out to identify potential participants through CPR’s GroundSource network. After selecting seven participants, CPR staff created a pop-up “dining room” in their offices. They moved folding tables into the hallway, baked bread, and made soup. During dinner, CPR staff recorded conversations and helped probe conversations.
Although a mediator with experience working with Congress and other elected bodies was brought in to offer their expertise on finding common ground, participants also did just fine on their own. “Some of the best stuff that came out was the free form conversation that people were having,” Turk says. “By the second dinner, the participants were mostly managing it themselves.” Following the dinners, some participants chose to meet up organically and continue the conversation. For example, one woman said she’d never met a Muslim before, so a fellow Breaking Bread participant invited her to his mosque. When she went, CPR staff tagged along to record the process. “We’re trying to figure out what the next step is with this,” Turk says. “We’re letting whatever comes out of the dinners guide us now.”
Here’s what worked
1. Take a step back
CPR staff quickly realized that Breaking Bread needed to be participant-driven. “We don’t want to force what we think is an important story,” Turk says. “Because it may not be the one that really opens a deeper conversation.” Visiting a mosque, for example, was not CPR’s idea, but ended up being one of the most interesting stories that came out of the dinner series. “It worked because they both said they wanted to do it … not us,” Turk says. To ensure that the project is running smoothly, CPR also follows up with participants after events to see what went well and what could be improved.
2. Keep it consistent
The same seven participants attended both dinners hosted by CPR (minus one absence during the first dinner). Rather than cycling through new participants, CPR “wanted to see what would happen if they kept coming back. What would it be like to get to know people over time.”
3. Conflict is okay
CPR staff didn’t want to incite conflict by hosting the dinners,but they recognized that tension is a natural side effect of having conversations centered on not-so-dinner-party-friendly topics such as politics, religion,homelessness, etc. “People are really questioning people’s values and moral character because they voted a certain way. Not everyone’s happy … they’re asking each other tough questions,” Turk says. “But people are willing to talk through this with you. There are topics that aren’t about proving to you that you’re wrong. There’s more nuance to it.”
Here’s what could work better
1. Who gets a seat at the table?
CPR staff looked for a politically diverse group of participants, but, according to Turk, “There wasn’t any formula to it. We tapped our reporters and asked who they think would be a good fit and from that we have a range of people.” Consequently, the group isn’t perfectly split by political party affiliation, but, for now, Turk says they’re “doing what we can. These people don’t represent the entire demographic community. But okay, go with the flow.”
2. Keep it cozy
Rather than use CPR offices, Turk is interested in finding a home or other event venue that’s more comfortable for participants.
3. Produce more
Turk would like to produce more digital content based on the Breaking Bread series. She’s also looking to hosting larger events in the future so as to include more listeners.
Connect with Colorado Public Radio to learn more about this project.
Riley Stevenson is a multimedia journalism master’s student at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.