How St. Louis Public Radio Used Hearken to Launch ‘Curious Louis’

by Lori Shontz


St. Louis Public Radio began its Curious Louis project in late 2015, empowering readers and listeners to ask questions and pairing reporters with question-submitters to track down the answers. STLPR hired Kimberly Springer, who’d previously worked at Michigan Public Radio on another Hearken-powered project, MI Curious, in part to run the project. (She also does social media.)

At first, Springer and her then-supervisor Kelsey Proud had to spend time getting buy-in from the newsroom. “I didn’t expect to be a cheerleader for it and the way of doing it,” she said. “It’s more negotiation than I anticipated.” Now, with a larger “coalition of the willing,” as Springer calls it, along with metrics that show website visitors are spending more time with Curious Louis stories, she is working on getting stronger questions from a wider diversity of listeners.


Project Goals: In the aftermath of Ferguson, STLPR wanted to be better connected to the variety of communities in the St. Louis city and county areas. “We have the audience that most public radio stations know they have—white middle class, sort of older,” Springer said. “And then there’s the audience that public radio claims to want, which is more racially diverse, geographically diverse, age-diverse. I tend to think of Curious Louis as how can we appeal to and involve and really address stories that this desired audience wants to hear.”

Tools & Technology: Curious Louis uses Hearken, a platform that facilitates ways for journalists to interact with the public.

Impact: STLPR published 34 Curious Louis stories from questions asked between November 2015 and July 2017. They have reached more than 184,000 people on Facebook—far beyond STLPR’s 20,000 Facebook followers—and 11,000 have clicked through to the stories. Website traffic for the Curious Louis stories has been 60,000 views.

Organization Background: St. Louis Public Radio serves the 300,000 residents of St. Louis city and 1 million residents of St. Louis County, and its sister station in Quincy, Illinois, serves the other side of the Mississippi River. (STLPR also recently took over operations of KMST in Rolla, Missouri.) In 2013, the public radio station merged with the newsroom of the St. Louis Beacon, an online start-up publication with many employees who had been laid off from the area’s major newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Project Resources: STLPR hired Springer specifically to coordinate this project—she maintains the Hearken site, and she connects with editors and reporters. She has no other additional full-time staffers, and it isn’t her full-time job, either. She splits her time between this and social media. Curious Louis is considered 40 percent of her job; she thinks it should be 50 percent. Without a dedicated staff, she has to spend time interesting editors and reporters in doing the work. Half of the staff’s 22 reporters have completed stories, and so have three interns. The talk show’s online producers have also organized segments with guests.

Here’s How it Happened

Kelsey Proud, now at WAMU, hired Springer for this job based partly on Springer’s work as a social media producer at Michigan Radio, where she worked on a similar project, MI Curious, with digital manager Mark Brush. The Curious Louis project began in late 2015.

Here’s What Worked

1. Building a “coalition of the willing”

Having editors who buy into the idea makes getting stories reported easier because editors can assign Curious Louis stories to reporters, putting it in the workload officially. Also the producers of St. Louis on the Air, the station’s local talk show, have brought the questions to a wider audience than just the website.

2. Experimenting with formats

One reporter was willing to try writing web comics, and when it turned out that an intern was a strong illustrator, the two paired up for several Curious Louis stories. The key question: “Can you think about what it is to produce a Curious Louis story that might not be what a story usually looks like? The web comic got 1,400 views, which Springer calls “fair to middling,” but she also made 100 copies to distribute in places where STLPR doesn’t think it is well represented. And is also part of an “undeclared Civics 101 project” that also includes a questionnaire to help people figure out whether they need an ID to vote and, if so, what kind.

Here’s What Could Have Worked Better

1. Getting participation from a wider variety of St. Louis County’s segregated and insular communities

“I think it’s hard to overcome a lot of the distrust people have of the media and traditional ways of doing news stories,” Springer said. “And maybe people don’t want to get over it because they feel like they’re being heard in the way that traditional journalism has set up for them to be heard.”

2. Getting buy-in and streamlining the editorial process

Giving reporters time to work on Curious Louis stories requires getting buy-in from a leadership team of five editors. Reporters, each with a specific beat, report to one of those editors. In Springer’s previous newsroom, which was less hierarchical, reporters were able to look at the questions that came and pick ones to do. That doesn’t work here because the editorial calendar is driven by spot news and features. So Springer pitches top questions to the editors, who decide which reporter (if any) has time to work on it. If she’s putting up questions for a vote online, she presents questions to the editors, who pick the three that go up for a vote. Now she knows reporters and their interests better, so she can often informally chat about a question with a reporter who might be interested and ask if she should approach the reporter’s editor.

Here’s What Else You Should Know

  • Playing politics – The second year of Curious Louis has coincided with the election of St. Louis’ first new mayor in 16 years, providing a chance to focus more on content for first-time voters and people who have been disenfranchised. Springer and her boss, Brit Hanson, would like more stories with a “Civics 101” feel. That’s an audience Springer’s previous boss, Kelsey Proud (now at WAMU in Washington, D.C.), had also identified as a target. But reporting stories aimed at that demographic proved difficult; the newsroom knew that “political junkies” are loyal listeners and readers of “a particular kind of news—almost an inside-baseball type of news.” Curious Louis initiated its “Ask the New Mayor” question call in early 2017, and the first one—what does the mayor actually do?—resulted in a story that delved into why the mayor of St. Louis is weaker than mayors of other cities.
  • Pageviews aren’t enough – Springer wants to get away from “vanity metrics,” such as page views—even though Curious Louis stories often get more clicks than other pieces. But Springer doesn’t find the metric useful. “I feel the same way when people talk about podcast downloads—well, I download tons of podcasts I never listen to.” What Springer does want to know: Who is consuming each Curious Louis story, and are they able to use what they learn, or is it solely entertainment.
  • Tagging along – Springer is working to figure out a way to unobtrusively accompany reporters while they’re working on a story. Not as a journalist, but in her dual role as engagement editor and social media coordinator. She’d be almost a marketer, one who’s not interfering in the process, but observing. “These stories are often evergreen. It’s more about having a second set of ears there thinking about different ways of spinning it out.”
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