How KALW’s Hey Area Project Used Hearken to Listen to Listeners

by Riley Stevenson


In early 2016, San Francisco public radio station KALW started using the engagement tool Hearken to interact with its audience and create relevant stories. KALW staff collected questions about the Bay Area from listeners, asked listeners to vote on their favorite questions, and assigned winning questions to reporters to turn into feature pieces produced in partnership with the asker. The collaborative reporting project, called Hey Area, has yielded about 15 long and 15 short stories so far — all based on ideas generated by audience members. Nearly two years since its inception, the project is still running and has expanded to include partners such as Oakland Voices and the East Bay Express.


Project Goals: Hey Area is aligned with a station-wide philosophical shift towards a more engaged, accountable, responsive organization, and is intended to share the power of story selection with community members. Through Hey Area, KALW puts “listeners in the driver’s seat of pitching, selecting and helping shape stories,” says Olivia Henry, former engagement manager at KALW. “We wanted our reporting to be based in the curiosity of our listeners.” Henry says instead of using Hearken to identify new stories and information, she wanted to create relationships with KALW’s audience. “Crowdsourcing on its own isn’t engagement. What is engagement is what you do after that,” Henry says. “You need to have a reciprocal relationship.”

Tools and Technology: The Hey Area project used Hearken as its primary engagement tool. Specifically, staff installed a widget on KALW’s home page that collects questions. Every other month, community members vote on a question to be answered. To advertise the Hey Area project, KALW uses on-air announcements soliciting questions. For special projects, like the Dear Donald Trump letter writing project, KALW increased the character count for submissions to allow for long-form responses. For a new initiative, Hey Area East Oakland (read more about it below), staff collect questions in person at live events, for example.

Impact: So far, the project has resulted in roughly 15 feature stories and 15, two-minute-long “shorts.” Reporters produce the longer stories, while participants from one of the station’s training programs produce the two-minute segments. The two-minute stories helped answer questions that weren’t long enough for full feature stories, while also helping reporters new to radio get their feet wet. Of note, many of KALW’s top-read stories on Chartbeat in 2016 were produced via Hey Area.

Organization Background: KALW is a public radio station founded in 1941 in San Francisco, and is an enterprise unit of the San Francisco Unified School District. The station’s mission is to “create joyful, informative media that engages people across the divides in our community – economic, social, and cultural.” As of 2016, KALW’s current assets totaled to $1,274,350. The majority of funds are obtained through grants.

Project Resources: KALW paid for a subscription to Hearken. Otherwise, the project required no additional financial resources. Hey Area is staffed by KALW’s engagement manager Jenee Darden and producer Ninna Gaensler-Debs.

Here’s what worked

1. Develop a system and stick to it

“We developed a very clear process for question selection (e.g. a rubric) and developed a regular cycle (e.g. one month of voting, one month of question selection) that gave consistency to the listeners and to us,” Henry says. Additionally, roles were clearly defined for reporters and for engagement managers. Reporters followed through on assigned stories, while engagement managers communicated with listeners, tracked content/engagement, and organized respondents’ questions on the back end.

2. Wiggle into existing structures

KALW leveraged its existing programs and partnerships to develop Hey Area. For example, the two-minute stories are produced by training program participants as an educational exercise and Hearken tools were used for story collaborations with the East Bay Express and with Oakland Voices. KALW collected letters from women to President Donald Trump in partnership with the East Bay Express, which were then turned into radio features. KALW also built on a previous partnership with Oakland Voices — a journalism training program for East Bay residents — to do a hyperlocal version of Hey Area for East Oakland.

3. Meet people where they live

An important part of Hey Area East Oakland is collecting questions in person and in neighborhoods. For example, KALW staff and Oakland Voices alumni attended a Day of the Dead Festival and gathered wonderful questions and connections they wouldn’t have made if they waited for people to find the widget on a website. You can’t expect people, particularly if they have no prior relationship with the news organization, to come to your page and type something into a box, points out KALW managing editor Jen Chien. You have to meet them where they are.

Here’s what could work better

1. Create new projects

“Next time I would be more proactive in proposing specific projects that Hey Area could be integral in,” Henry says. “I could have taken more initiative and tied Hey Area to certain beats or reporting projects.”

2. Get feedback

In retrospect, Henry wishes she would have implemented a survey asking Hey Area participants to rate their experiences and provide suggestions for improvement. Henry did track feedback via email, but says it was mostly anecdotal and would have liked to track quantitative feedback.

3. Get outside the newsroom

When soliciting questions from listeners, don’t forget to involve people at the organization. “I wish we could have gotten people from development, across different departments.” That could have improved familiarity of and support for Hey Area across the station, Henry says, and opened the editorial process to more non-journalists.

Here’s what else you should know

  • Hearken is a tool, not a program: “Hearken was a tool to help the Dear Donald Trump project … it was a tool for the Oakland Voice project,” Henry says. “It just makes more sense that way.” By thinking of Hearken as a tool rather than a program, Henry thinks newsrooms can be broader and more intentional in its implementation.
  • There’s a learning curve: Because KALW is a newsroom where reporters mostly pitch their own stories, Henry struggled initially to implement Hey Area.“Ultimately the way to do that was see what was already going on and take advantage of that.”
  • Designate one person as the main contact: “I wanted to make sure that the question asker felt comfortable talking to a reporter so I would mediate that discussion…rather than directly connecting them with a reporter first,” Henry says. She did this because “It’s not a question database, it’s a relationship database. I wanted to respect the relationship the listener had initiated.”

Learn More

Get in touch with Jenee Darden, Ninna Gaensler-Debs or Olivia Henry 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.

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