America Amplified’s Midterm Election project began in the spring of 2022 with the goal of leveraging the public media network to help people across the country better understand the power of the vote and how to exercise their right to vote.
It was not a timid mandate, but we were well positioned to make the effort. America Amplified has been working with stations across the country since 2019, sharing resources and training to strengthen community engagement in public media. We know public media is already a trusted source of information for many people in our communities. Our aim was to broaden that trust and to make sure our stations were at the center of civic conversations about elections and voting.
The midterm project was limited in scope and timing. We focused on engaging audiences to answer their questions about the mechanics of voting. The public phase of the pilot launched last summer, so there was little lead time. Nonetheless, we learned numerous lessons for future engagement around elections.
Did we meet our basic goals? Michigan Radio’s Political Director Zoe Clark thinks so: “If we’re able to answer one listener’s question … that feels small,” she says. “But if 10 people hear the answer, and then another 1,200 people hear our county clerk give the answer [on-air] … if someone learned and felt more empowered with that knowledge, then I would say ‘Yes.’”
“We tried to be in front of people in our community with … this consistent message that we were going to stand for facts,” says Scott Blanchard, director of journalism for WITF in Harrisburg, Pa. “This project definitely helped us do that. And even if [an audience member] didn’t ask a question, the fact that they know there’s this organization out there willing to connect them with an answer, I think that is an important role for us to play in communities.”
Expanding our work with stations
America Amplified is a four-year-old initiative funded by CPB to promote and support community engagement journalism in public media. In 2021 and 2022 we worked with 19 small and medium-sized stations to help them develop and refine strategies for engaging their audiences and broader communities in their journalism. Our host station, WFYI in Indianapolis, is known for its longstanding commitment to and staffing of community engagement.
The Midterm Elections project was conceived as a pilot for a broader 50-state initiative aimed at helping Americans understand how to vote and what will be on the ballot during the 2024 general election. The official launch came in mid-May with an announcement of CPB funding for the pilot. We added 11 stations, expanding to work with a total of 30 stations across 25 states, including places where the midterms were expected to be highly contentious such as Arizona, Michigan and Georgia. In July 2022, we provided stations the tools and support they needed — including a Hearken question prompt embed for their websites plus social media assets — to gather questions about the mechanics of voting from their audiences and communities.
Learning what audiences wanted to know
Participating stations shared the same Hearken prompt: “What questions do you have about how to participate in the upcoming midterm elections?” From mid-July through mid-November — over about 16 weeks — stations received over 600 questions from their audiences and communities. Questions came into a central Slack workspace monitored by America Amplified. With the help of a database populated with election information and in collaboration with station editorial staff, America Amplified staffers answered the questions and drafted FAQs for stations to post and distribute.
More than half the questions received by stations had nothing to do with the actual mechanics of voting and were related to issues and candidates. Still, the question prompt fulfilled a central tenet of community engagement journalism: Discover what information your community needs and provide it to them on a platform they use.
There is ample evidence that social media and mobile platforms are the best channels for reaching beyond our broadcast audiences into new communities. We’ve supported stations in creating WhatsApp newsletters, building texting clubs and joining community Facebook groups, among other strategies. For this project, America Amplified worked with a social media content producer and a graphic designer to create social media and printed assets for stations to promote the question prompt and their FAQs.
As a baseline, stations were encouraged to post the Hearken embed on a unique landing page on their websites and on all of their election-related stories. Because of differences in stations’ capacities to carry out engagement strategies, we also created a tiered system for embed engagement. It started with posting online and sharing on social media and grew more ambitious from there. Stations could add on-air promos, emails to station membership, Instagram Reels, YouTube videos, printed materials, live events and listening sessions.
KJZZ in Phoenix, for example, leaned into distribution of print materials. The station wanted to connect with new voters but lacked the staff to do in-person engagement. Instead, they adapted America Amplified digital assets into placards and stickers featuring a QR code, which directed people back to the question embedded on their website. The station partnered with 10 community colleges to place the posters in high-traffic areas on campuses all over the Phoenix metro area.
Many stations adapted the question and answer format for broadcast and social media. Blue Ridge Public Radio in Asheville, N.C., asked audience members to record their questions and then produced a spot combining the submitted audio with answers provided by the county clerk. Similarly, Michigan Radio inaugurated a segment for Instagram and TikTok called “Ask the Clerk” with an enthusiastic county clerk, a unique theme song and questions from the audience.
During the project, we surveyed stations three times to understand how well America Amplified met their newsrooms’ needs. After the election, we also convened a focus group of station staff to learn more about what worked and what didn’t.
Stations told us they appreciated the social media assets and the experiments with in-person engagement — even if some stations didn’t receive a huge amount of questions and if the majority of the engagement was with their current audience, rather than the community at large. For stations that hadn’t done much engagement work in the past, collaboration with America Amplified provided valuable training in engagement techniques and demonstrated the service stations can provide to their communities at little expense.
Many stations saw upticks in unique visitors to the America Amplified content on their websites during the midterm project. Election content on New Hampshire Public Radio’s website reached an average of about 3,500 unique pageviews per post during the pilot, while its FAQ generated through America Amplified attracted more than 21,000 unique pageviews. Similarly, in Juneau, Alaska, unique pageviews for KTOO’s election posts averaged 1,500. Its post-election explainer about the ranked-choice runoff, which was based on questions the station received, drew nearly 9,000 unique page views.
At KJZZ in Phoenix, web traffic for 2022 election coverage shattered all previous records, according to News Director Chad Snow. “Now, how much of that had to do with election fever just intensifying across the country? Probably that was a big factor, but we really were impressed with the traction we got from the American Amplified questions,” he said.
To promote its project, KJZZ directed listeners and digital audiences to its online Voter Guide. That page housed the Hearken question prompt, as well as a house ad pointing users to the embed form. That landing page got nearly 22,000 unique pageviews between July and December 2022. The web traffic was more than double the pageviews for the same page in 2020.
Lessons that laid the groundwork for 2024
Web traffic is not the best measurement of engagement, but one clear lesson from this pilot is that we need to work with stations to establish uniform metrics for tracking digital engagement.
The project also provided lessons about how audience engagement differs substantially from community engagement. Posting the question prompt on stations’ websites and social media platforms was an effective way to reach current audiences, especially those who were interested in learning about the election. Reaching beyond that audience to the broader community is much more challenging. Stations need to build in-person relationships and trust in communities that public media has not traditionally served. That takes time and focused efforts by staff and outside partners.
WUSF in Tampa, Fla., an America Amplified participant since 2019, held several listening sessions with targeted audiences ahead of the midterm elections. The station has worked with an engagement consultant who has strong relationships with Black communities in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Fla. The listening sessions informed WUSF’s election coverage, including two episodes of the local public affairs show Florida Matters, and three news features. WUSF also received 100 questions from its audience — more than any other station in our midterm election cohort.
That deeper engagement pays off, of course, far beyond the election cycle. It produces journalism that better reflects our communities and attracts new audiences that discover public media for the first time.
Through feedback from audience members at live events and through questions submitted online, this project also clarified audience needs and challenges for many stations. They learned that, for the most part, their current audiences already understood the mechanics of voting. Audience members didn’t ask many questions about obtaining an absentee ballot, for example, or which IDs were required at polling stations. To meet our goal of empowering voters with information they need to vote, we need to stretch beyond this audience to reach a new one — voters who actually need information on how to vote and who haven’t voted in the past because they lacked that information.
Reaching this audience will take time.
We need to start earlier to build relationships with those voters, and we need to recognize that elections don’t just happen on the first Tuesday in November. With early voting and absentee voting across much of the country, elections begin at least a month before Election Day. The “news hook” for election coverage and election engagement is really that entire election season. Ideally, the process of building engagement muscle for effective and meaningful engagement around the 2024 election will begin this summer.
Engagement is increasingly recognized as a critical part of news coverage and audience growth, but most public media stations don’t have staffers who are dedicated to this work. During this project it became evident that without someone dedicated to the process and practice of engagement, efforts fell short. Stations that were most successful during this project were those that have engagement specialists on staff and were able to integrate engagement efforts across departments. For example, development and marketing staff with engagement experience were able to collaborate with reporters and editors who were covering the election.
Finally, we need to expand the range of questions we are prepared to answer. Providing reliable and trustworthy information on the mechanics of voting to communities that need it is central to the mission. We learned from the pilot that people who already know how to vote were also looking for information. They want to know about complex issues on their ballots, candidates’ voting records and the positions and the credentials of judicial candidates. Together with stations’ editorial staff, America Amplified provided answers to questions like these whenever possible during this election cycle. We pointed to stations’ voter guides or to voter guides created by nonpartisan outside groups such as the League of Women Voters. For the 2024 election, we need to help stations create local voter guides, research judicial candidates and develop backgrounders on hyperlocal races and issues. This research also needs to begin well ahead of time.
It is critical for public media stations to broaden their appeal and deepen their relationships with the communities they serve. The 2024 election, with all the anticipated fireworks and contentious divides and debates, gives us the opportunity to build better lines of two-way communication between our newsrooms and our communities.
Alisa Barba is managing editor of America Amplified. She is an award-winning journalist and editor with extensive experience in local, regional and national news coverage.
Chelsea Naughton is digital content manager for America Amplified. In her previous job with KUER in Salt Lake City, she overhauled the station’s digital presence and launched multiple podcasts.