Station Experiments in Social Media

On the last full day of the IMA Public Media 2007 conference, there was a session on station experiments in social media, moderated by Jake Shaprio from Public Radio Exchange, and including:

Shapiro kicked off the panel by arguing that while “social media” should seem to be a perfect fit with the mission of public broadcasting, the public broadcast sector as a whole has not been at the forefront of social media technologies.

Where there should be a solid opportunity to join the two, based on architectures of participation, authenticity, transparency, motives other than the profit, and a drive for relevance, instead there seems to be a significant reluctance, or mistrust, or perhaps just a time lag.

These panelists will talk about what their stations are doing in the social media space – experiments in the sense that no one sees these projects as settled, final answers, but as steps in a given direction which others might learn from.

Chicago Public Radio’s Daniel Ash described the Chicago Matters series, which included working with guest bloggers as well as visiting local community forums and getting audio comments – a great way to help mitigate the digital divide issues, make audio commentary more accessible, and also seed the conversation with interesting ideas.

He also described the Chicago Public Radio Flickr Group, which enables the audience to submit images to be considered for use on the home page of the site (though moderated, of course, since Flickr can be dangerous in unmoderated mode).

Finally, he mentioned, but did not go into much discussion of, the secret radio project.

(Full disclosure – CPR is an Optaros client, though I haven’t been directly involved with them).

Schrenkler described a number of different initiatives at MPR – so many I’m sure my notes don’t capture them all (probably true of all the speakers).

One of the most interesting, from my point of view, is what they’re calling their Public Insight Network – essentially a panel of people-formerly-known-as-the-audience who contribute their insight to the station’s reporting:

About once a month, we’ll ask you to share your observations, insights and experience. We then pass on your information to our reporters and editors who may follow up with a request for more information, or perhaps an interview. It’s a great way to share what you know.

It’s a fantastic way to seed and guide the conversation – not abdicating the editorial role or just handing everything over to unmoderated, anything goes conversation, but enabling a much broader set of points of view and understandings to become part of the story. Adding the internet and social networking into such a concept is a perfect use of the ‘net as an enabling technology and mechanism for making connections while still preserving MPR’s mission.

They’ve also sponsored / created Minnewiki – a mediawiki based “online reference about music-related artists, groups, and venues that have a connection to Minnesota.”

For example, see the entries on The Suburbs, The Replacements, and Hüsker Dü (yes, I went to high school in the Minneapolis area in the eighties – go RHS class of ’88).

She pointed out that enabling these kinds of contributions does require everyone to give up their inner desire to correct grammar and proofread on others’ behalf – but that the trade off is well worth it. Thousands of pages of content get created that did not exist before the wiki was in place.

Ken Freedman talked about the origins of “freeform radio” at WFMU.

They experimented very early on – WFMU was clearly the most “avant garde” of the stations in terms of how long they’ve been trying social media experiments. (Long enough to show the truth of the idea that Web 2.0 is really just “the Web” making a second arrival in the public consciousness).

They started with live radio shows in which the hosts said nothing, but just opened the air to folks with something to say. They had forums, they have podcasts, they have blogs. The WFMU’s “Beware of the Blog” – just as an example – is currently 551 in technorati rankings, with 8,000 inbound links from 1700 blogs. That’s what real, organic, be-interesting-and-get-out-of-the-way buzz looks like.

The only real unanswered issue was a question from the audience at the end: what do you do to broaden access to what you are doing online by all of the people in the communities you serve – to the folks who don’t have internet access, but also to folks who might have some access but don’t necessarily know how to subscribe to an RSS feed, or have what you might call low social media literacy.

I think part of an answer is in concepts like CPR’s going out and creating real (non-virtual) forums for discussion, with the ability for folks in those forums to get their audio comments on the air and on the web.

In truth, this is really where public media has the greatest opportunity: not just speaking to the “web enabled” but helping ideas, concepts, and discussions cross back and forth between the virtual and the physical worlds.


  1. Thanks for your review and comments, John. I didn’t really go into all of our efforts to help bring our luddite listeners up to speed on things like RSS. What we do is to provide links and screen shots which will help them figure these things out. For example, on our podcast page, we provide a help section which contains screenshots which attempt to hold people’s hands through the process.

    But you are correct that we could and should be doing more in this area. But it’s difficult with such a small paid staff.


  2. Ken – thanks for the comment.

    I didn’t mean to imply you guys weren’t doing anything, or enough, or whatever.

    It’s a broader point about public access to new media and “the new digital divide” – the difference between having 24/7/365 broadband wireless on your personal $3000 laptop versus 30 minutes a day of shared time on a library PC with an internet filter and nowhere to save files.

    Hopefully the answer comes in two forms:

    1. The community model – not increasing the paid staff, but increasing the help the sophisticates offer the newbies.

    2. Public media’s role in helping move content back and forth between traditional media (radio and TV) and online media. (It ought to be able to go both directions . . . )

Comments are closed.