ChatGPT helps would-be writers find inspiration on community radio

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Mark Sanford Gross

The KGUA studios in Gualala, Calif.

A show on a community radio station in California is using artificial intelligence to give fiction writers a creative boost.

Since its launch in 2020, KGUA Writers on KGUA in Gualala, Calif., has encouraged community members to submit pieces of creative writing, whether they’re experienced or beginners. Each episode, hosts give writing prompts to inspire submissions that they’ll read on the show’s next installment.

Mark Sanford Gross, creator and co-host of KGUA Writers, said he came up with the idea for the show during the coronavirus pandemic when he observed a lack of community amid lockdowns. 

“We have to have the radio station reaching out to the community,” Gross told Current. “It’s a public radio station. And we can get people onto the radio hearing and feeling accountable because everybody’s fighting depression [and] fear. So if they can connect with each other and have something to be accountable for, I think we can do something.”

The growing popularity of AI programs inspired Gross to introduce a new experiment into the mix. Instead of responding to prompts, listeners are submitting their own. Gross then feeds them into ChatGPT, the AI chatbot.

The exercise allows people who don’t think they’re good writers to hear what their ideas sound like as short stories, Gross said.

“It’s all about blending the creativity and having someone help you kickstart,” he said. “Everybody that says ‘I can’t write, I’m not good enough. I have a blank page. How do I get started?’ — it doesn’t matter. We just will start you, and from there we’re going to develop your writing.”

‘An excellent tool’

The first episode of the show incorporating ChatGPT aired Jan. 30. The response has been overwhelming, Gross said, with listeners who don’t normally write into the show starting to participate because they’re not being asked to write a complete story. 

Kate Dewey, a loyal listener to KGUA Writers, has been sending in stories since the show launched in 2020. “It’s been just a tremendous experience for me,” she said.

Dewey’s first prompt for the show’s ChatGPT segment was “I’m in the middle of my life, and I suddenly feel very lost. Things that felt certain no longer do. Does midlife feel this lonely and unstable for everyone?”

ChatGPT’s 299-word answer began:

My name is Kate Dewey and I am in the middle of my life. I always felt like I knew where I was going and what I wanted. But lately things that felt certain no longer do. I feel lost and unsure of what the future holds. I have a good job and a loving family but something is missing. I feel like I have been going through the motions that I am not truly living. I am sure what it is that I want. But I know that I’m not satisfied with my current state of being. I have always been a planner, and I’ve always had a clear vision of my future. But now I find myself questioning everything and feeling like I’m at a crossroads.

Dewey said that using ChatGPT has offered a new way to explore ideas. “What it did was highlight maybe some different pathways for me to go down with my writing from here,” she said. “It’s an excellent tool to get you started.”

Barry Hollritt, a writer who has contributed to KGUA Writers since the beginning of the show, said that hearing his idea turned into a story by an AI program reminded him of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The prompt for his first ChatGPT-generated story was “I need to write a metaphoric lyrical story about the night I slipped out of my Rome, Italy, hotel room from my sleeping girlfriend and climbed the top of the Colosseum.” ChatGPT wrote:

I slipped out of my hotel room like a thief in the night, leaving my sweetheart sleeping. Bathed in moonlight, I had to see the Colosseum, to feel its ancient might. So I set off on my journey into the dark and quiet. I climbed the stairs, my heart beating fast, each step a challenge. … The Colosseum loomed above me. A giant in the night. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was such a sight. The ruins stood tall, like a sentinel of old, a reminder of the past, a story yet untold.

Hollritt said that as well as generating stories, ChatGPT has helped him critique writing he’s submitted for earlier episodes of the show and will help him send in “more refined” stories for future episodes.

“In the past, there would have been a professor that I submitted this to,” Hollritt said. “But here, it’s something new. … This is fun, it’s unique, and it’s quite different.”

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