Framed around broad questions, NPR’s ‘Nation Engaged’ built election coverage with strong local focus

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NPR reporter Asma Khalid answers a question during an event produced by WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show for A Nation Engaged. (Photo: Ruth Tam)

This past year, NPR and its member stations launched A Nation Engaged, an editorial project testing new ways to collaborate using resources that already exist at local stations.

In designing the project, we set out to cover topics that are important to voters this election year. We chose broad themes that would be framed by a single question and could be answered in a variety of ways over the course of one week.

Our goal was to spark a national conversation during election season by combining nationally reported pieces with local original stories and show segments. As of last week, we had produced seven iterations of the project, involving nearly 60 stations in more than 30 states.

Here’s how the collaboration works: NPR launches the special coverage around the chosen topic, such as “America’s role in the world,” on either Morning Edition or All Things Considered. We invite producers of local talk and call-in shows, as well as station-based reporters, to do their own stories or show segments on the theme.

We wanted to create a seamless experience for listeners: They hear an NPR story on Morning Edition and then locally produced variations on the topic throughout the day on their local station.

We found that A Nation Engaged has been a great way to create quality content with a local focus. Large, medium and small stations participated in a variety of ways. Some took up the topic on their broadcast call-in shows. Others reported pieces for either local or national air. Some produced events or created digital first build-outs with photography. Many took part in conversations on social media.

‘Big quilt’ of stories

This project also showed that there are a lot of different ways to approach a topic. In August, the framing question was “What is America’s role in the world?” KPCC’s arts and culture show The Frame led a conversation about the export of American culture. Its particular approach to the theme tied in with NPR content and what stations all around the country were doing.

At WNYC, The Brian Lehrer Show handled the same question by following up on a national piece from Greg Warner, NPR’s former correspondent in East Africa, about whether the U.S. should be involved in advocating for gay and lesbian rights in Africa. Lehrer knew that he had a significant number of listeners of African descent, and he explicitly urged them to call in. When the phones started ringing, callers from Uganda, Kenya and Ghana talked about their feelings in ways that were incredibly vivid and personal. A topic that had been covered on national air became explicitly local.

For that same week, Milwaukee’s WUWM produced a piece on the international ambitions of Harley-Davidson, a local company. In that context, the theme of America’s role in the world focused on the motorcycle business.

What makes this project different from simply producing a segment or show on a topic related to a story that aired on ATC or Morning Edition? When producers and reporters at local stations all over the country are focusing on one question, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

NPR provided background information and research on the topics, and access to editorial expertise. We invited talk shows in particular to join the project, so their listeners could be engaged in creating the content. Finally, we gathered all the pieces and conversations together in a digital build, so that all stations could see what the others were doing.

Rachel Osier Lindley of the Texas Station Collaborative, who coordinated the involvement of KERA in Dallas, KUT in Austin, Texas Public Radio in San Antonio and Houston Public Media, said the design of the project benefited listeners in several ways.

“We had the freedom to go beyond just doing a local version of what NPR was doing,” she said. “We could look at the content as a big quilt and be creative as far as what complementary stories and conversations we could add.”

Events small and big

Some stations took the project further, as an opportunity to host events related to the topical themes. WBHM in Birmingham, Ala., created what I call a “micro-event.” It was designed to deeply engage a small group of listeners and didn’t require a great deal of planning or resources.

Through Facebook the station invited listeners to the local Sweet Tea Restaurant. About 15 people showed up for a conversation over lunch. The national piece that kicked off the coverage asked the question “Does my vote matter?” WBHM started by playing that report, then its reporters led the table discussion. They didn’t record the conversation, but their equipment was at the ready in case something stood out.

WAMU in Washington, D.C., hosted an event at a local arts and culture center. Kojo Nnamdi, host of its local midday show, and NPR political reporter Asma Khalid led a conversation about “What it means to be an American.” The station invited the general public to the event as well as previous guests of The Kojo Nnamdi Show who producers knew would have specific stories to share on this question, according to Michael Martinez, managing producer.

As a result of this audience curation, the event drew a very diverse participation. Audience members included an Ethiopian businessman, a woman of Pakistani descent who has spent most of her life in the U.S., a Latina member of the Maryland General Assembly, a Nicaraguan immigrant and a D.C. voting rights advocate. Among the many participants who spoke, a convicted felon described how he felt about not being able to vote.

The audience reflected the diversity of the community, and its members recognized each other’s different experiences. Through a video stream offered on Facebook’s NPR Live page, the event attracted an additional 170,000 viewers. And a recording of the event was rebroadcast on The Kojo Nnamdi Show the next day. With this multilayered approach, producers from The Kojo Nnamdi Show were able to reach audiences in person, on social-media and via local broadcast with the same content.

For me, as a nearly 20-year veteran of NPR, it was one of the most satisfying experiences of my career, in part because of the ways that the audience members from so many different backgrounds deeply listened and learned from one another.

Local ties, diverse content

A Nation Engaged also showed how important local reporting is to creating diverse content. The reporters and producers who are most directly connected with their communities are often in the best position to create reporting that reflects the diversity of those communities. Thanks to the relationships those local reporters and producers have built and sustained over time, this project produced rich content that reflected diversity from all around the country.

Sakila Islam, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, recorded her poem for Michigan Radio’s Stateside. (Photo: Jodi Westrick)

Sakila Islam, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, recorded her poem for Michigan Radio’s Stateside. (Photo: Jodi Westrick)

For example, Michigan Radio’s daily talk show Stateside commissioned poems about the theme “What does it mean to be an American?” The show’s producers reached out to several youth organizations — including a spoken-word group at a Detroit high school; an after-school program for teens in Ann Arbor; and literary and writing programs in Detroit — and recorded 11 teens reading their poems.

“Most of the places we had a relationship with, which helped, because it was about a week turnaround to ID some people who most likely already had something written that fit the prompt in some way,” said Joe Linstroth, e.p. “The big bonus was that many had performed their work a time or two.”

Stateside aired five of the poems over the course of a week, and also posted them on its website and social media feeds with photographs of the poets.

One poem, “Apology to My Father” by Bangladeshi immigrant Sakila Islam, tells of her father’s experience coming to America. Another is by Marrim Al-akashi, a Muslim-American poet of Iraqi descent. Two more of those poems featured the experiences of African-American students, including “Kitchen, After Rumi’s Guest House by Kyndall Flowers, a 17-year-old student at Ann Arbor’s Pioneer and Community high schools.

Listeners’ voices

As we had hoped, A Nation Engaged led to experiments of all kinds, including different ways of promoting content across the week.

Last month WUWM in Milwaukee, a regular participant in the project, collected audio clips of people answering the question “What does it mean to be an American?” News Director Marge Pitroff told me that they produced nine 30-second promos using tape from nine different people. The promos ran at various times throughout the week of Oct. 10, across all day parts and hours. Here’s one example:

“My name is Randy Jackson. I’m a Desert Storm vet, eight years in the Navy. What it means for me to be an American is to be able to have a good quality of life and be able to take care of my family, you know, my grandchildren, be able to go anywhere that I want to go and not have to be checked and harassed and show my ID.”

In addition, WUWM produced three pieces asking the question to college students, war veterans and Muslim-Americans who live in Milwaukee. Each segment aired during local cutaways of Morning Edition.

Many stations invited listeners to answer the question by leaving voicemail messages on special phone lines. They then aired those responses in various forms. Colorado Public Radio used GroundSource, an engagement application that uses mobile messaging to gather community stories from audience members. This approach allowed CPR to add those participants to its database for use in future stories on this topic and others, according to Kelley Griffin, v.p. of news.

Co-branded logos

We wanted stations to be able to promote this project as their own in collaboration with NPR, so NPR’s marketing team created a co-brandable logo that was a unique twist on a map of the U.S. engaged in conversation. To this stations added their own logos next to NPR’s.

Several stations used the logo to promote content in their local markets and as co-branding for their social media pages. Some created sharable social media cards with audio clips of their local pieces. This allowed them to combine visuals and audio in a single tweet and make it pop out in a Twitter stream.

In one of the most robust examples of social media promotion and branding, WNIJ in Dekalb, Ill., took a clip of audio from A Nation Engaged, added a photo and the co-branded logo, tweaked the background color and posted the card in its Twitter feed. This newsroom also created cards that highlighted short pullout quotes in a special font and combined the text with photographs and co-branding to produce visually unique tweets.

The co-branded logo ensured that each tweet maintained WNIJ’s identity and featured its contributions to a national reporting project.

Evaluation time

We are in the process of determining what happens next. A systemwide survey will be going out soon, and we hope as many member stations as possible will respond. Especially for those stations that did not participate in A Nation Engaged — we’d like to know more about why. What would it have taken for you to join?

Wahl (Photo: John Poole, NPR)

Wahl (Photo: John Poole, NPR)

Ultimately the project will be considered successful if it allows listeners to more deeply engage with all of our content and hear themselves and their experiences as part of the stories we tell. It is clear that engagement among member stations with NPR in projects like this will be crucial if we are to meet the audience needs of the future.

We know that collaborations between NPR and local stations have potential to create a national conversation around a broad theme, and these can be more meaningful to local audiences when they hear people and concrete experiences from their own communities. Once the election is over, the need for public radio to continue building audience connections across cities, states and regions will be more important than ever.

Tracy Wahl created A Nation Engaged in her role as NPR’s executive producer of editorial franchises. A former e.p. of Morning Edition, she is leaving NPR Friday for “new adventures.” 

An earlier version of this commentary mistakenly described Michigan Radio’s Stateside as a call-in show.