by Carson Skrivan and Will Cozine
Decibel is an Austin PBS project working to engage underserved communities in central Texas. Each year, Decibel chooses a new community to cover and uses a model inspired by the Listening Post Collective that works to bring the community into the story production process. Decibel spent its first year covering the Asian American community in Austin and its second year in Del Valle, a news desert on the outskirts of Austin. Decibel produces in-depth stories based on what the community tells them they care about at listening sessions. All Decibel videos are first-person that empower the community to tell stories in their words. The written stories are similarly told through the experiences of Del Valle residents, but written by Decibel staff.
Organization Background: Decibel is an AustinPBS KLRU-TV program based out of Austin, Texas. They are a community-supported, locally-owned PBS station.
The Decibel team aims to amplify stories and empower people from underrepresented and underserved communities in Central Texas. They want to move towards a more dynamic perspective, opting to let people tell their stories in their own words and let input from the community be the catalyst behind what stories get covered. Executive editor Samantha Guzman is in charge of the project, but the newsroom operates with a decentralized power structure that puts power in the hands of the community.
“My personal goal for this project is to create greater representation of communities of color on public television,” Guzman stated.
Decibel strives to be a part of a community-led news ecosystem, one where the community members are the “experts,” Guzman said. She hopes Decibel can shift discursive power away from the newsroom and back to the community members. “Decentralizing power,” Guzman said, is the ultimate goal of community-led journalism.
Through Austin PBS KLRU-TV, the Decibel team has received grants, one from America Amplified, and has access to resources such as event planners to help coordinate listening sessions with the community. They have experimented with ways to encourage better turnout like giving gift cards to people that attend the listening sessions to encourage greater participation. The team members in charge of community engagement use Eventbrite to collect RSVPs for events and create a list of contacts for Decibel. Another primary resource is time. Decibel has ample time to garner trust from their sources and build relationships with the community, Guzman said. They direct their attention to one community for an entire year, and Guzman said it is not uncommon for her to extend deadlines on certain pieces within that year.
“I think for a lot of stations, the priority is content, and the priority is having that content come out every day or being on the web first, and for us, that’s really not a priority,” Guzman said.
Tools & Technology
Since Decibel primarily operates in the world of video journalism, the team has several different cameras on hand, such as the Canon C300. Each reporter has a camera, various lenses, and audio recording equipment.
Decibel called attention to various unique issues affecting the two communities. More than just covering the problems, however, Guzman considers representation to be among their most significant and tangible accomplishments.
“I do believe that there’s power in just telling stories that are actually reflective of the people that live in that community,” Guzman said. “For me, it is a big impact that someone in Del Valle can go to our website, and they can see someone that looks like them, and they can hear their story.”
How it Happened
Prior to the current model, Decibel was monthly public access broadcast on Austin PBS that would cover topics such as homelessness or transportation. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Decibel transitioned to a weekly broadcast covering updates on the ongoing pandemic. After a few months of this, the Decibel editor stepped down, and Samantha Guzman had the opportunity to lead the team and take Decibel in a new direction.
“At that moment, we had been doing the COVID broadcast, and it had really been pushing us sort of to the limits of what we were capable of,” Guzman said. “ And it really wasn’t playing to our strengths.”
Guzman and the team saw the change in leadership as a chance to change directions and approach journalism from a more community-led approach. That’s when they found Listening Post Collective, an organization that serves communities that have historically been left out by news and information outlets. The project became a model for Decibel’s framework.
After laying the groundwork for how the project would look, the Decibel team began discussing which community to cover first. Through an audit of Decibel’s past coverage, they found that Asian Americans were their most underrepresented group, despite it being one of the quickest growing demographics in Texas, Guzman said.
After the first year, Decibel once again reflected on their previous coverage and the Austin PBS Community Advisory Board voted for the Decibel team to spend their second year in Del Valle, where there is a high Latino population and no news and information resources for the community.
Here’s What Worked
1. Creating a framework of values and goals
By adapting the model they found in the Listening Post Collective to fit their own goals, Decibel had some solid ground to stand on before diving into new territory. This framework allowed them to narrow down which communities they wanted to cover and how. It can also serve as a rubric to hold themselves accountable for areas they feel they faulted in and make corrections accordingly. Decibel has six core values per their website:
- Representation: Representation strives to not just cover underrepresented voices but also to let them tell their own stories. This allows for a multi-dimensional view of both the community as a whole and the people within.
- Authenticity: Authenticity is determined by the community, not by the Decibel team. Decibel strives to avoid exploitative coverage.
- Fairness: Decibel strives to treat others like they want to be treated.
- Transparency: Decibel is transparent about its process and all its decisions.
- Accountability: Decibel values and relies on feedback and encourages community feedback at listening sessions.
- Investment: Decibel is committed to getting the story right, no matter how long it takes. Producing a high volume of content is not a priority for Decibel.
2. Producing engaging and informative stories
The videos are first-person news and are always accompanied by an article that gives more context to the video. The content of the pieces ranges anywhere from addressing the lack of access to reliable child care, to a local car club that finds pride in showing off their vehicles. Decibel tries to avoid boiling communities down to the hardships they face.
“If we want to provide a full picture of a community, it’s not all good, but it’s not all bad, Right?” Guzman said. “ And so that’s sort of the feedback that we’re trying to elicit from people to ensure that we’re doing storytelling that’s not stereotypical.”
3. Hosting listening sessions to widen engagement with the community
The most foundational community engagement is the listening sessions Decibel holds. The listening sessions are a major source of community engagement. Conducted via Zoom due to the pandemic, the reporters open the floor to community members to pitch topics and talk about issues the community is facing. All news stories are generated by community members at listening sessions. The Decibel team plans to host its first in-person listening session in April.
What Could Have Worked Better
1. Maintaining contact post coverage
At the end of their year with the Asian American community in Texas, Decibel hosted a rap session that featured reporters and sources talking together about the process. However, the forged relationships ended there, and the team did not try to reach out to the community afterward.
“You move on to a new community because you want to continue this work, but what happens with what you leave behind?” Guzman said. “I don’t know if we’ve come up with the right answer for that yet.”
For Del Valle, they are creating a resource guide for the community, and plan on continually updating it in the future, even after Decibel has moved on, Guzman said.
2. Community engagement at the level of content creation
Bringing people into the editing process. This would only allow for better representation in Decibel coverage, but it could also help train local community members who could hopefully carry the torch when Decibel inevitably moves on.
3. Utilizing social media more effectively
Austin PBS only has one person working on social media for the entire station, Guzman said, so engagement on social media remains relatively low for Decibel. Guzman hopes that decibel can start curating groups and building communities across social media platforms, but acknowledges that it’s a resource they don’t have right now.
“That really is a full-time job for someone to be monitoring the communications that happen on those platforms,” Guzman said.
What Else You Should Know
Decibel sends a source diversity survey to everyone featured in a story, the results of which flow into a live dashboard. The survey helps categorize the demographics of their sources. Each month, Guzman runs a source report and shares it with the team so they can evaluate whether their coverage is truly reflective of the community.