by Lish Wang Savson
In Spring 2017, Southern California Public Radio (known as KPCC) piloted Unheard LA, a community-driven live storytelling series that featured people’s first-person accounts of real-life experiences. KPCC’s events and engagement arm, KPCC In Person, reached beyond the station’s existing audience by using the Public Insight Network, GroundSource, and other digital and analog engagement tools to solicit story pitches and promote the event. Staff read every submission and contacted every person who shared a pitch before ultimately inviting about 25 people to tell their stories on stage. Three at-capacity events were held throughout L.A. with more than 900 attendees total.
Project Goals: Ashley Alvarado, Manager of Public Engagement at Southern California Public Radio, says the main goal for the project was “to demonstrate that through listening and trusting the communities we aim to serve, we can not only collaborate on meaningful content but grow our audience, reach, and impact.” The station also wanted to strengthen its journalism through more diverse sourcing across platforms to better reflect the diversity of one of the most diverse metropolises in the nation.
Tools and Technology: The KPCC in Person team used the Public Insight Network (PIN) and GroundSource (a messaging platform) to engage new people in the query. PIN and GroundSource are both paid services available to newsrooms.
Impact: The project’s major outcomes and impacts include:
- Reaching a much younger and more diverse audience: More than 80 percent of RSVPs were first-timers for KPCC In Person. The audiences were younger and more diverse than KPCC’s traditional audience, and after each event attendees stuck around to meet one another and the storytellers at post-event mixers.
- Establishing and building upon relationships: The relationships that KPCC built with story-submitters and event attendees will help diversify the station’s source network and expand the reach and impact of its journalism. In additions to these new connections for KPCC, one surprise outcome was how many of the Unheard LA storytellers really bonded with each other. “They’re now friends on Facebook, they’re supporting each other’s work,” Alvarado said. “It’s really cool to see!”
- Improving metrics for the KPCC In Person Facebook page: The Facebook videos of the shows have reached more than 76,000 people – “a record for us!” said Alvarado.
Organization Background: Southern California Public Radio is a member-supported public media network operated as part of American Public Media. It serves the entire Southern California region, reaching from Santa Barbara down to Los Angeles and Orange Counties, and out to the Coachella Valley. In 2015, the network had total revenues of about $22 million, 56% of which came from listener support.
Project Resources: Unheard L.A. was funded in part by a grant from the California Wellness Foundation. “This is an all-hands-on-deck initiative that requires a full-time engagement person, administrative support, a director, a stage manager, a stagehand, a social media producer, a photographer, a tech, a tech assistant, a videographer, and more,” Alvarado said. “It is not cheap.”
Here’s how it started
KPCC has a firm commitment to doing in-person programming as a part of their service to the community. Alvarado says her team had been thinking about piloting a live, community-driven storytelling event for a while, “but we had no way to fund it.” It wasn’t until her boss shared the idea with KPCC’s head of institutional giving that the idea found a champion. “He loved it and he pitched it [to a funder],” says Alvarado, “and it felt too good to be true that the funding came through!”
Here’s what worked
1. Embracing ambiguity and meaning it
In a recent piece for Nieman Reports, Alvarado and Jon Cohn, Managing Producer of Forums, Programs and Live Events, explain: “We were intentionally vague in the way we designed the query; we didn’t want to be prescriptive or exclude people from participating because they didn’t see themselves as storytellers. We embraced ambiguity, which meant responses came in that were not fully developed. And we were OK with that. Among the pitches: opera and social media, immigration and mental illness, identity and parking.”
2. Investing in engagement months ahead of the shows
First, Alvarado said, “we tried to give as many options to meet people where they are.” Postcards distributed in county libraries and posts on community bulletin boards gave people the option of emailing ideas or submitting via the Public Insight Network. Sending text messages through GroundSource was another way to collect submissions.
Alvarado and others from KPCC read all of the submissions that rolled in and reached out via email or phone to all 250 people who ended up sharing ideas.
“There’s a reason it took so long to get this off the ground,” Alvarado laughed. But since engagement and relationship building was the point of the entire initiative, the team knew it was important to invest the time and energy needed to understand what people wanted to say, who they saw as their community and how they might work together to develop their pieces.
3. Focusing on substance and people rather than performance and delivery
Many of the final storytellers had never been on stage before. Rather than spend all the time in the world to polish the pieces, Alvarado said, the team wanted to stay focused on the essence and authenticity of what people wanted to say – even if it was rough around the edges.
It paid off. After the events, Alvarado was surprised by the feedback: “[People were] articulating that they were feeling empathy [for others] in a way they hadn’t before, or felt connected to the city in a way they hadn’t before.”
Here’s what to do next time
1. Find more venues around Southern California
KPCC In Person initially hosted most events at its on-site location, but it has since started hosting events in venues around California. After hosting Unheard LA events in Hollywood, Whittier, and downtown Los Angeles, Alvarado says the team wants to find other locations for Phase 2 (still being developed).
2. Find ways to involve the sources who didn’t share on stage in KPCC’s daily journalism
About 225 people who submitted ideas for Unheard LA didn’t make it to the stage, but that doesn’t mean they are “unheard.” Alvarado is thinking through how to build on these new connections.
Here’s what else you should know
- It helps to work with someone who understands engagement: Long before Unheard LA was a specific idea, Alvarado recognized that Jon Cohn had a real understanding that engagement meant reaching people where they are and seeing how the community can shape, strengthen and support KPCC’s journalism. His team also had a way to facilitate engagement through live events. Alvarado joined Cohn’s team early on and since then has had more opportunities to engage in-person with more people.
- Partner with existing community arts groups in your events: Each of the three shows had a featured performance from a community group that was separate from the submission process. They were Cornerstone Theater Company, a multi-ethnic ensemble who created plays with and about communities; Voltron, an improv group part of the Asian AF showcase; and Young Storytellers, an organization working with underserved young people to write their own stories.
- Invite attendees to share their stories: Before releasing audience members for the post-event mixers, the host Bruce Lemon invited people to introduce themselves to someone new and not leave with their story unheard. KPCC set up a mobile storytelling booth and had people signing up to become pen pals.
For more information, check out “What Happens when News Outlets Stop Talking and Start Listening,” published by Nieman Reports, or connect with Ashley Alvarado via Twitter or email.