‘The Pub’ #73: Why your organization needs a clubhouse, live from Boston

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Artist’s rendering of the Newsfeed Cafe (Image: WGBH)

Artist’s rendering of the Newsfeed Cafe (Image: WGBH)

What do the Public Radio Exchange, WGBH in Boston and the Nine Network in St. Louis have in common? All have recently made significant investments in brick-and-mortar facilities for public engagement.

In Boston, workers are putting finishing touches on the Newsfeed Cafe, a coffee shop on the ground floor of the Boston Public Library that will feature a WGBH radio/television studio in the corner. Outside, thousands of people streaming by on busy Boylston Street will see WGBH personalities broadcasting at street level through walls of plate glass.

A few miles away, in Boston’s North Allston neighborhood, PRX has just opened the Podcast Garage, a do-it-yourself audio production studio that experienced pros and novices alike can rent by the hour at minimal cost. It will also be a hub for training programs and other community outreach.

In St. Louis, the Nine Network and St. Louis Public Radio are about to celebrate the second anniversary of their Public Media Commons facility. What used to be a gated parking lot between their respective buildings is now a futuristic, open-air event space where they can project films and other artworks across huge building faces.

On this week’s episode of The Pub, we talk about why public media organizations would want to reach people in person instead of over the air — so much so that they’d build a facility in which to do it. Plus, I offer a metaphor about what public media can learn about community engagement from religion . . . by forcing my audience to sing together.

WGBH COO Ben Godley, PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman and Nine Network SVP of Engagement and Content Amy Shaw are my guests in this WGBH-hosted live recording at the Boston Public Library, held in conjunction with the 2016 Public Media Development and Marketing Conference.

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We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me at adam@current.org or @aragusea on Twitter; my supervising producer at Current, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or @currentpubmedia on Twitter.

If you’d like to offer a comment to be used in the program, please send on-mic tape (recorded in a studio, with a kit, a smartphone, anything) to adam@current.org either as an attachment or through Google Drive. Please keep it short!

Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

  • Another big idea for ‘GBH.

  • Aaron Read

    I used to live like eight blocks from where the Podcast Garage is…that’s “Lower Allston” (or more typically, “This is LA, not Boston,” as popularized by t-shirts from the Common Ground pub…which itself, ironically, is actually in “Upper Allston”, itself south of the Cambridge Street bridge over the MassPike. Pretty much all of Lower Allston is barely above sea level whereas Upper Allston (and adjacent neighborhood Brighton) is quite hilly, hence the names.

    Who the heck calls it “North Allston”??? ;-) Nah, I’m just busting on PRX. I think the podcast garage is really cool. And despite my institutional rivalry with WGBH, I love the idea of their coffeeshop studios and hope they find enough success with it to provide a template for other pubradio stations to follow.

    FWIW, a good friend of mine grew up near where the podcast garage is, I think technically that’s part of Brighton but where the line is tends vary on who you ask. Take a look at the Google Map of Allston (which puts the garage squarely in Allston) and note how tortured the borders are. :-)

    https://www.google.com/maps/place/Allston,+Boston,+MA+02134/@42.3602287,-71.1447815,14z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x89e379cfbae0c321:0xebfcd6fb7acb4e8e!8m2!3d42.3539038!4d-71.1337112

    • Adam Ragusea

      I don’t know if PRX calls is North Allston. I called it North Allston, because back when I was at WBUR and I reported on Harvard’s secretive purchase of all that land, the neighborhood group that mobilized in response called it North Allston, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority called it North Allston — basically everyone I talked to called it North Allston. And as you say, there is no coherent line between Allston and Brighton, which is why the city calls the broader neighborhood Allston-Brighton.

      • Aaron Read

        Heh, that’s funny. Back in 1998-99 I lived at 101 Hooker St in Lower Allston (right next to, I kid you not, Hooker Park – check the map!) and I remember getting yelled at by the locals for calling it “North Allston” and told it should be called “Lower Allston”.

        To each their own, I guess. It’s hilarious how worked up Bostonians get about this stuff, though, ain’t it? :)

  • Brad Deltan

    I like the idea of a space to interact with a station’s “consumers/customers” (aka “listeners”) but two things come to mind:

    1. Radio is a BROADcasting medium. It’s primary strength is to serve tens…if not hundreds…of thousands of listeners. A coffee shop will, by definition, only be able to serve a few dozen, maybe a hundred. Yes, there’s a strong argument for “super-engagement” and increasing donors as a result, but it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees in enterprises like this. Stay focused on the ROI.

    2. I like the idea of a radio/TV station branching out into a new business arena to try and leverage its strengths to find new revenue streams. But I wonder about trying to do it in such a low-margin business. Food service, while easier to reach an audience with, is notoriously difficult to make money in…and there’s no guarantee the customer base interested in the coffeeshop will be the slightest bit interested in the broadcast outlet.

    I recall there was a commercial cluster in a rural market where the owner was also owner of a chain of cellphone stores around the region. Supposedly that was a very symbiotic relationship, and at the time cellphone stores could make money hand over fist.

    • Adam Ragusea

      FYI, WGBH has no part in the food service business at the cafe. A contractor is doing all that. They’re simply leasing the space for the studio in the corner for $50k.

      • Brad Deltan

        That’s probably smart. It helps limit their liability/exposure, certainly. OTOH, if the cafe doesn’t survive and it goes vacant…that distinction won’t matter much in trying to attract/retain an audience at that location for WGBH to engage with.

        Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it’s a bad idea…I think it’s a *great* idea. But anyone attempting to copy it for themselves, needs to vet it very, very carefully and make sure there’s a comprehensive risk/reward analysis done.