KQED’s Forum is attempting to deepen the sense of community created during its daily broadcasts and promote stronger connections among listeners with the launch of a Discord server.
The team at Forum, a live call-in radio show, decided to expand into the digital realm to create an environment where they could foster discussions about issues pertinent to the Bay Area community.
Forum co-host Alexis Madrigal said that he views the server as a way to broaden the show’s reach and engage with community members who might not be able to regularly listen to a live broadcast and participate in important conversations.
“I think of Forum and shows like it as really big, crucial civic infrastructure,” Madrigal said. “We want to be able to extend that civic infrastructure to the broadest set of people, and we also want to be able to extend it to a different set of people who might need to interact in other ways.”
According to KQED, the station is the first to launch a Discord server. (Fans of KEXP in Seattle have created their own server to discuss the station.) Many other organizations and institutions have used the platform to build online communities.
KQED received a $200,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to fund the creation, development and maintenance of the server. The grant covers the salary of digital community producer Francesca Fenzi, a full-time staff member focused specifically on the project. Hosting a Discord server costs $30 each month.
The station also received a $250,000 grant from CPB to support the project for another year. The funding will pay for an evaluation by Impact Architects, a research and strategy firm. CPB also provided the station with subgrants of $50,000 each to help stations in underserved regions work with KQED’s team to experiment with creating their own Discord servers. KQED expects to identify three or four stations to receive the grants in 2024, depending on which apply.
‘Why are you doing it?’
Discord, which launched in 2015, has primarily been used by the gaming community to connect with players around the globe. However, in recent years the platform has grown in popularity among users seeking to connect with others with shared passions and interests.
For Forum, the decision to use the platform arose from seeing the success other organizations have had with Discord, as well as team members who have had positive experiences joining servers and finding community online.
According to Madrigal, Fenzi spent time exploring servers launched by Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism group, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium to draw inspiration for the Forum server. Ethan Toven-Lindsey, KQED’s VP of news, says that he was inspired by his participation in various college football servers on Discord.
Still, Toven-Lindsey said, the team has had to navigate unexpected obstacles as it builds a community from scratch.
“I think a really interesting challenge is actually the name Discord itself,” he said. “It’s hard to get over. I think if you’re in the gaming space, you sort of know and you get what it is, but for people who don’t, they’re like, ‘Well why are you doing it in that place?’”
Despite the challenges, the project is off to a strong start. Since launching Aug. 10, nearly 800 users have joined the server and begun engaging with the growing community.
The Forum team posts daily with links to each day’s broadcast and the topics that will be discussed. They also prompt audience members with questions to engage in discussions, offer feedback and opinions, and contribute to future on-air segments.
Among the KQED staffers most active on the server are Madrigal, Fenzi and Marlena Jackson-Rotondo, the station’s engagement producer. They all post regularly and frequently engage with users, though all of Forum’s staffers interact on the server from time to time.
Madrigal said that he has seen audience interaction with the show and the topics discussed go beyond traditional forms of engagement, such as calling in or sending an email, as users interact with each other on the server and new topics emerge from their conversations.
For a recent episode of Forum focused on ice cream in the Bay Area, the show’s team used a #food channel within the Discord server ahead of time to ask audience members to share their favorite local ice cream shops and discuss the various cultures represented. The question prompted dozens of comments that were used in the episode. Producers used the comments to build an interactive map showing where users could find the ice cream shops suggested by their fellow community members.
Within the server, the team also hosts Discord-specific community challenges to promote engagement, such as asking users in the server’s #show-and-tell channel to show off recent DIY projects they’ve created.
According to Madrigal, this engagement, particularly with the more fun and light-hearted episodes of Forum, has helped to strengthen the sense of community among the audience and facilitate conversations around the more difficult and sensitive topics that the show covers.
“Actually getting people to know each other and have some trust in the people who are on the other side of the screen is a precondition for the harder conversations,” he said. “So what we’re building, and what I think you’ll see is, I think, a space that can do both, and that both are actually intricately tied together.”
While the server is still in its early stages, the team hopes to continue growing the community and exploring the tools and interaction options Discord offers. Apart from discussing the server on-air during episodes of Forum, the only other promotion has come from Madrigal’s social media posts prior to the launch. KQED has not yet paid for any additional marketing or outreach for the server.
The team also recently enrolled three volunteer moderators who hold the title of “community steward” within the server. The moderators will help build the community and ensure that discussions remain respectful and that community guidelines are being followed.
Another benefit to hosting the community on Discord, according to Toven-Lindsey, are the analytics that the platform offers. Operators of Discord servers with more than 500 users gain access to analytics for growth and activation, retention rates, user engagement, and visitors to the server. “We have reached this important milestone to be able to do that,” he said.
‘Maybe public media can do it differently’
While the team does hope to see more users join the server, Toven-Lindsey said that ultimately an obsession with scale might not make the most sense for this type of community.
“While we want this to be an open, big-tent community, the goal isn’t to grow as big as possible,” he said, but to create a strong, mutually reinforcing dynamic between the on-air and online communities.
Madrigal said he has dreamed of creating an online community of this nature since he joined Forum in June 2021. To him, it feels especially necessary in a time where interactions on social media are increasingly toxic and people are losing faith in commercial media.
“If you look at the history of public media, it actually grows out of a moment when there’s all these people who are looking at commercial media in radio and in television and saying ‘There’s got to be a better way,’” he said. “To me, that’s an inspiring part of the story because it says to me, ‘Hey, we don’t like the way that social interaction happens in the online world.’ We think that a big piece of that is the kind of algorithmic engagement strategies that have fostered particular kinds of social interactions online that have been destructive for democracy and civic life, and maybe public media can do it differently.”
Madrigal also said he hopes that the Forum server can act as a model for other public media organizations to build their own online communities using Discord.
“Maybe there’s an expansion model for something like this Discord that goes from station to station,” he said. “We’re really excited about working and talking with any other public radio station or public media outlet that wants to do something like this.”