Minnesota Public Radio pursues underserved audience with new Somali-language content

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A story about 14-year-old Yusuf Dayur, a Minnesotan fighting back against President Trump's negative comments about African nations, is presented in Somali on MPR's website.

Somali residents of Minnesota now have a new source of news tailored to them thanks to a new initiative by Minnesota Public Radio.

MPR News Somali, currently in a beta phase, provides regional and global news for Minnesotans in Somali. The content includes text and audio on MPR’s website.

MPR launched the service at the end of December in part out of a greater desire to serve Minnesota’s large and growing Somali population, said Nancy Cassutt, executive director of news and programming. As of 2015, Somalians represented the second-largest foreign-born group in Minnesota, totaling approximately 31,400 people, according to the Minnesota State Geographic Center. Yet in the past, the Twin Cities region and MPR’s own coverage have lacked “original reporting on local and regional news in Somali,” says Michael Olson, MPR digital and engagement editor.

Cassutt

The other contributing factor to the creation of MPR News Somali was the network’s relationship with the BBC World Service, facilitated through American Public Media, MPR’s national programming division. The partnership gives MPR distribution rights to share BBC content through its radio and online platforms, including access to BBC Ogaal, an online broadcast and news program focused on current events in Somalia.

“We have a growing group that we are trying to reach with our content and our services, and we have this exclusive relationship with the BBC,” Cassutt said. “It just turned out to be sort of a match made in heaven for us, to be able to do some experimentation to reach diverse audiences.”

MPR News Somali also contributes to the station’s Ground Level project, which focuses on understanding divisions between Minnesotan communities, some of which are perpetuated by language barriers.

MPR has published content in other languages in the past on a per-project basis, including Hmong and Spanish. But MPR News Somali is the station’s first attempt to provide a consistent news stream in another language, according to Olson.

The network is translating two or three of its regional news articles each week into Somali, using translators outside the station. Translation costs range from 25 to 35 cents per word. The translation process usually delays publication by a day or two, so Olson prioritizes content with a longer shelf life.

Olson

“We’re not necessarily changing our editorial focus, especially not from the regional perspective,” Olson said. “It’s all stories that are being covered and that we think are important to all Minnesotans. It’s just kind of selecting what are the ones that really stand out and will be valuable for news consumers for at least a week.”

MPR is marketing the project on social media, targeting Somali audiences by language when possible using algorithms and relying on MPR listeners who speak both English and Somali to promote the service by word of mouth.

It’s tracking social media response to the project to help gauge its success. Some Facebook users have made racist comments about the Somali service, while others have questioned why MPR prioritized Somali over other languages.

But most feedback has been positive, particularly on Twitter, where users have voiced excitement about the project, said they will spread the word about it, and encouraged on-air programming in Somali.

“People are hungry to know about this state. Especially if you are new to Minnesota, you are very hungry for information,” Olson said. “Right now we’re just listening to people, and we want to be able to see if folks are willing to engage with us in this space.”

MPR is also promoting the service by partnering with KALY Radio, a Minneapolis low-power radio station serving Somali and East African communities. MPR is providing content to KALY in return for promotion of the partnership to KALY’s listeners.

“We don’t know for sure, but we think that it’s easier for us to find folks in a digital environment and to partner with other organizations that they are already following, such as Radio KALY,” Olson said. “And what is it that we can do to help other organizations? What can we do with our content, and how can we provide our content in a way that’s useful for other organizations where they already have the audience?”

MPR News Somali is funded through the end of February out of the broadcaster’s operating budget. The network is seeking additional funding for the service. If it hasn’t found support by mid-February, it will consult with Radio KALY and the BBC to determine how to proceed, according to Olson.

If MPR can find funding, Cassutt said she would like to see the service continue and potentially expand into other languages.

“It’s the ultimate public service, I think. It’s just, can we afford to pay the translation fees and what’s the next one that we can offer?” Cassutt said. “We could offer a lot of translations because in Minnesota, there’s diverse communities all over that we could be serving.”

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