How WUWM Informed Wisconsin Voters

by Kendy Schwing and Ezra Bañuelos


WUWM’s 2022 Voter Guide serves as an educational resource for voting-aged Wisconsinites, providing comprehensive information during election seasons. WUWM fills in the gaps for local political races, addressing questions about candidates, guiding voters on the voting process and reporting on election outcomes. The Voter Guide gathers community questions via canvassing and in-person engagement to see what issues matter most to readers and listeners ahead of the election season. Incorporating this feedback helps connect with listeners and reach people where they are to reflect the information needs of WUWM’s audience.

Organization Background: Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, WUWM is a national public radio (NPR) station operated by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. WUWM broadcasts both local and national news, including content from NPR, APM and BBC. The member-supported station is committed to producing in-depth news, thoughtful conversations and smart entertainment.


WUWM’s Michelle Maternowski and Valeria Navarro Villegas described the voter guide’s goals, resources, tools and impact: 

Project Goals

  • Create a resource to help readers know how to vote. 
  • Provide information about the candidates and what they stand for on the Wisconsin ballot.
  • Reflect on the information needs of WUWM’s audience using community feedback through community outreach. 
  • Incorporate feedback into the stories WUWM chose to pursue by reviewing notes from community outreach sessions and Hearken modules. 
  • Share information on different digital platforms. These included WUWM’s local radio station, podcasted audio clips, the WUWM website and social media sites to reach people where they are.  

Project Resources

  • Digital Transformation Program (DTP):  A virtual program developed by the Poynter Institute to educate, assist, and coach public media senior leaders and their staff on the best strategies and tactics to transform their organization’s digital operations and culture. The training was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). DTP helped WUWM’s staff think of ways to share content on Instagram and how to present information that performs well for search engine optimization on their website. 
  • Election SOS: A non-partisan initiative supported by U.S. journalists responding to critical election information needs. Election SOS offers training for journalists, connecting them to best practices, resources, and support for election coverage. Election SOS gave WUWM’s staff tools to engage with their community before beginning reporting. 
  • Community canvassing is used to develop stories tailored to WUWM’s audience. In 2022, WUWM’s engagement specialist selected areas, like local grocery stores, for journalists to converse with the community and ask what issues were on their minds. 
  • Advancing Democracy (2024): A fellowship program run by four journalism support groups—Hearken, Solutions Journalism Network, Trusting News and Good Conflict—intended to help newsrooms shift their political reporting away from horse-race narratives and opinion polls toward stories that prioritize the key concerns of their communities. This training highlighted engagement and problem-solving approaches to journalism and ways to be more transparent and nuanced in their reporting. WUWM and other newsrooms selected by Advancing Democracy participate in a curriculum that includes training in the Citizens Agenda approach, solutions journalism, Engaged Elections, Good Conflict and building trust with audiences. Advancing Democracy informs the station’s current election coverage mission and its 2024 Voter Guide.

Tools & Technology

  • Hearken: An audience engagement platform media organizations use to involve their audience in the journalistic process by collecting questions, prioritizing ideas, and fostering two-way communication to create more community-driven and transparent storytelling. WUWM used Hearken before the Voter Guide project. 
  • Google Forms (2024): An online elections survey and form-building tool provided by Google, allowing WUWM to create and distribute customized surveys or questionnaires to members of their community and political candidates to collect data and responses. The utilization of Google Forms surveys came from the staff’s Advancing Democracy training. These surveys are found on the WUWM website, which can be found in the Voter Guide and Elections sections of the site.


WUWM’s Voter Guide’s impact on the greater Milwaukee area and the state of Wisconsin:

  • Recent survey responses on the Voter Guide include positive feedback telling WUWM to keep up the good work.
  • Certain candidates who were declining interviews with WUWM started accepting interview requests.
  • Community members successfully pitched election-season stories to WUWM through Hearken modules and grocery store outings
  • The 2022 Voter Guide performed better in terms of page views and engaged time with posts compared to WUWM’s average metrics. Voter Guide stories impacted by the community also performed better than WUWM’s other stories on average.

How it Happened

Before the Voter Guide was established, WUWM had already been doing ‘meet the candidate’ stories as well as stories created from community input. After participating in the Election SOS training, WUWM’s journalists opted to scale up and merge their engagement practices with these ‘meet the candidate’ stories. This merger launched a more formal Voter Guide with a team of journalists working to compile election season information in an accessible manner.

What Worked

1. Holding Politicians Accountable 

WUWM’s Voter Guide includes a method to compile information about candidates who refused to speak with the station. In 2022, the Wisconsin Republican nominees for governor, U.S. senator and attorney general all denied or neglected to respond to WUWM’s interview requests. To address this, WUWM created the non-interview, which includes compiled quotes and policy proposals from these candidates in specified issue areas. This information is meant to serve in place of an interview to educate community members about all major candidates. 

One year later, WUWM reached out to an ideologically conservative candidate for the Wisconsin Supreme Court who had not yet accepted their interview request. After WUWM explained its non-interview process, including links to previous non-interviews, the candidate agreed to be interviewed. The non-interview incentivizes political candidates to speak directly with their community through local stations like WUWM. Whether they interview or not, WUWM will share their stances with the public. 

2. Listening to the community 

All of WUWM’s election stories included a Hearken module asking community members what they want to know about the upcoming elections. Those submissions helped shape what stories the station covered and provided potential updates to previous stories. WUWM received additional questions about a story published about the 2022 Milwaukee County referendums. This gave WUWM a chance to update the story multiple times to reflect and answer questions from community members. 

What Could Have Worked Better

1. Answering audience questions

WUWM’s 2022 Voter Guide successfully answered audience questions. However, future Voter Guides would benefit from more ‘explainer’ stories and answering questions from community members. This would increase civic engagement and understanding, ultimately helping strengthen local democracy.

2. Establishing what will be covered

Depending on the election year, there can be more local elections than a station or news outlet can cover. WUWM’s Digital Manager, Michelle Maternowski, wanted to produce more ‘meet the candidate’ stories for more of the races on Wisconsin’s ballot while clarifying what races they won’t be able to cover due to capacity.

3. Look for gaps

WUWM’s survey process provides an opportunity to see the community members they aren’t reaching. These survey responses show their core base, and looking at the demographics of these respondents can show who is and isn’t engaged with their content.

4. Closing the loop

Closing the loop is an important part of the surveying process. WUWM’s 2024 Voter Guide incorporates this approach more than its predecessors, emailing survey respondents with the finished stories that answered their questions.

What Else You Should Know

WUWM continues to update its methods with each new Voter Guide. Every staff member attached to the most recent Voter Guide has an assigned role to streamline the creative process.  Since the 2024 Voter Guide survey opened in January, WUWM received over 650 responses. Story ideas from the 2024 Voter Guide are initiated from these community surveys. 

Learn More

To learn more, reach out to WUWM’s Digital Manager, Michelle Maternoski, and WUWM’s Digital Editor, Valeria Navarro Villegas, by email. You can also check out the following links:

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