Three Things for March 31, 2022
This week: The Slap Heard 'Round the World. Local newsrooms and the AI Opportunity, plus creating a podcast incubator to attract new and diverse talent.
THING ONE: Was Coverage of “The Slap,” A Slap in the Face to NPR Stations?
This past Monday was one of those heavy-filled news mornings that seem to happen more frequently than in years past. There was the aftermath of President Biden’s comments, perhaps, about ‘regime change’ in Russia, plus the latest news from Ukraine.
Also, early Monday morning, a federal judge ruled that former President Trump and a lawyer who had advised him on how to overturn the 2020 election most likely had committed felonies, including obstructing the work of Congress and conspiring to defraud the United States.
But, the thing that everyone, and I mean everyone, was talking about was “the slap” that occurred on Sunday night at the Academy Awards presentation. I don’t think there’s any need to recap what happened because the chatter was everywhere on social media and quick-turn memes to television news. And yes, Morning Edition devoted about three and a half minutes to recapping the Oscars that included a two-way between host A Martínez and Pop Culture Happy Hour host Aisha Harris where the incident was discussed as part of a recap of the night.
And then Morning Edition moved on.
As the morning went on, the buzz and the chatter seemed to get bigger on social media and traditional news outlets and was everywhere in conversations across the country.
That is, except on most public radio stations.
1A follows Morning Edition on many NPR news stations across the country, which would have been an opportunity to capture the intense reaction from the awards show.
Except there was no reference to this buzz. 1A covered the potential of war crimes in Ukraine in the first segment and then shifted to a conversation about a book that explores the microscopic changes in our brain’s chemistry for the remainder of the first hour. This discussion was part of an ongoing series named “the Scientific Method.”
Then hour two of 1A had a discussion on media literacy, which was also part of an ongoing series on the show.
I don’t want to suggest that these three conversations weren’t worthy of time on public radio. They were, and I’m delighted to see a discussion about media literacy showing up on 1A.
However, if one of our goals with a live radio stream on public radio is to reflect the moment, this sure didn’t pass the test. Even as the day advanced, Fresh Air didn’t go there either.
Finally, Here and Now devoted ten minutes to “the slap heard ‘round the world” and other news from the ceremony. That was after 12 noon in the Eastern time zone.
There was one place where NPR did have had an audio presence after Morning Edition, and that’s when their excellent TV critic Eric Deggans had the opportunity to discuss the “slap” and other Oscar news that most other media outlets were discussing all morning long.
And that was on Twitter Spaces.
I’ve written previously in Three Things about social audio as a place where public radio might be able to use its audio advantage to reach younger and diverse audiences via platforms like Clubhouse, Spotify Greenroom, and Twitter Spaces. Earlier this month, Amazon also launched a similar live audio app called Amp.
On Monday morning, Deggans and NPR Arts Correspondent Mandalit del Barco participated in a Twitter Spaces conversation. Matt Adams, the engagement editor at NPR, was also on hand to feed audience questions to the two NPR reporters. The discussion was honest and probably more raw and intimate than what you might hear if these reporters were having this conversation for an All Things Considered segment.
First off, this is a very low-tech production that might make the audio broadcast purists shutter, but that’s not the point.
What is the point is that NPR is taking this moment, as they’ve done with other timely events in the last year, and engaged in live conversations directly with the audience through a relatively new platform.
Digital Content Next wrote about NPR’s experiment with social audio earlier this month. Reporter Jessica Patterson talked with engagement editor Matt Adams, who we also heard on the Twitter Spaces Oscars “broadcast,” about NPR’s efforts to experience on Spaces.
Moving into social audio spaces made sense because it allowed them to meet audiences where they are. Audio also clearly plays to the strengths of their radio roots—but offers added benefits. And, unlike live video, which may take a while to set up or look a certain way, Adams explained, social audio can be set up in minutes. “This is like, get on your Twitter app. You start it. And then you’re just in a conversation. It’s very quick and easy.”
Adams discusses in the piece how the use of Spaces is a way to attract new audiences to NPR content.
As companies invite speakers to social audio spaces, their followers are notified that there’s a Space happening. When NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon interviewed Matthew McConaughey, they did it on Spaces. And that brought Matthew McConaughey‘s fans to NPR’s Space. “They might not follow NPR, they might not even listen to NPR, they might just be there because they’re Matthew McConaughey fans,” Adams said. “But maybe we pick up some new followers… and that’s key.”
“It’s a great way to just interact with people that you might not be able to interact with otherwise. I think that’s very cool.”
Last fall, the experiment included the What’s Next series, where NPR ran two or three Spaces every day for a week. This series used NPR’s 50th anniversary as the reason to present live conversations on topics ranging from kids and COVID, climate change, The Supreme Court, and specific conversations with reporters at WBEZ in Chicago and at Louisville Public Media.
The WFPL - NPR Spaces program is below, where reporters discussed policing in Louisville.
What I liked about this experiment is that NPR worked with member stations on some of these conversations, which is a good start to a networked approach on a digital platform that public radio desperately needs to compete effectively in the years ahead.
However, what is needed is that these collaborations should be the norm, not the exception, in how NPR and member stations work together.
Jumping back to Monday, I’m still perplexed that more could not have been done for stations to better capture the pulse of what the country was talking about following the Will Smith - Chris Rock incident.
It was no surprise that Airtalk, the daily program from KPCC in Los Angeles, was on the story on Monday morning, devoting most of an hour of the show to recapping what happened on Sunday night. I liked their approach because they included listener calls and emails into the conversation since this was something that people wanted to talk about and engage in the discussion.
We often talk about the need to be live and, in the case of stations, local.
What we also need to remember, though, is that sometimes a national or international story can be a local story.
And that was certainly the case on Monday with the Academy Awards.
I would love to see more experimentation with platforms like Twitter Spaces to be live and relevant, but the national programming for stations shouldn’t be neglected to go live on Spaces.
The audience numbers about 24 hours after the live Spaces conversation on Monday with Eric Deggans and Mandalit del Barco attracted around 8,300 Twitter users that tuned in for some portion of the discussion.
However, it seems that bringing these two into a kicker segment at the end of one of the hours of 1A would have reached a considerably higher number of listeners and given stations relevance to the national conversation.
It’s time to recognize that NPR needs to be able to do both, and while we need to continue to experiment to reach new audiences, I think the network needs to push itself not to sacrifice stations in doing so.
That’s the kind of network approach that public radio needs to be talking about that will make us competitive and use the advantage of live to the fullest extent possible.
I would love to get your comments on how stations and NPR can work together to experiment on different digital platforms. What are your thoughts?
THING TWO: Taking Advantage of the AI Opportunity in Local Newsrooms
It’s been fascinating to observe the progress being made from last year’s $3 million investment by the Knight Foundation to help local newsrooms better utilize artificial intelligence (AI) from a strategic use, both on the editorial and the business side, within their organizations.
This week, the Associated Press, working with Northwestern University’s Knight Lab, released a report that found that the adoption of AI is underused in local newsrooms due to time and resource constraints.
In a summary posted on Northwestern’s Medill Local News Initiative site, the report highlights familiar weaknesses in the local news environment.
“Many newsrooms spoke of staff turnover, frequently losing the one person who had been the driver of innovation. Others spoke of being unable to spare one of a handful of reporters to take a month to learn how a speculative technology might enhance, and not distract, from their other duties,” the report notes. “What’s more, current technology in local newsrooms is patchy and often does not sync. Adding still another layer to an already cumbersome technology stack can be out of the question for many newsrooms.”
Nearly 200 newsrooms that included print, radio, television, and digital-only outlets participated in the survey. The findings noted strong interest in automating routine tasks, streamlining production, and making better use of content that could free up time for reporters and editors. However, many local news outlets lack the time and resources to experiment, and that additional training is needed for newsrooms to garner the benefits of AI in their operations.
Still, investing a little time in AI now could save newsrooms a lot of time later, said Professor Jeremy Gilbert, Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, which participated in the AP study. “You have to spend some time thinking about the tools that everyone needs to be more efficient,” Gilbert said. “It really is incumbent on journalism leaders and funders to do this in a way that is practical.”
Among the findings that were of great interest to local newsrooms with tasks such as transcribing and translating interviews, delivering story recommendations to online readers, reporting scores from high-school sports, and enhancing the fact-checking process.
Multiple newsrooms in scorecards and interviews asked for help with gleaning insights from government meetings and documents. The Ouray County Plaindealer in Colorado already applies AI transcription to recordings of government meetings. Co-founder Erin McIntyre wants to go a step further and get alerts from those transcripts. Technically, this type of content discovery can use both Machine Learning (ML) and National Language Generation (NLP).
Meanwhile, The San Francisco Chronicle also wants to get to the point where AI delivers alerts on newsworthiness based on a transcript of a city council, school board, or board of supervisors meeting. With hundreds of government bodies in its coverage area, the Chronicle wants automation to take over initial coverage of some governmental meetings.
One example of the practical use of AI cited in the report was from Michigan Radio and its Minutes initiative. Minutes is an application that downloads transcripts and uses machine learning to transcribe audio to text. The app monitors sites where local governments post videos or audio of meetings, then transcribes that audio into searchable transcripts that reporters can use to research stories. The station also packages the audio into podcasts for citizens to listen to in more than 40 cities in the state.
This project is one of three technology innovations recognized by the NAB in its 2022 PILOT Innovation Challenge. This year’s challenge sought startups and growing companies to provide solutions to some of the key challenges and opportunities facing broadcasters over the next two to three years. The challenge specifically sought products or prototypes that align with three new focus areas of the 2022 NAB Show associated with the content lifecycle: Create, Capitalize and Connect.
Based on the survey, a few other areas in that AI could support the newsgathering operation could include:
Content Discovery. Flagging and gathering social media content like trends, quotes from newsmakers, flag and gather content on government websites, e.g., COVID-19 data, court records, law enforcement records.
Data Analysis. For investigative journalism, revealing patterns in crime; streamlining data-based reporting of government records, home sales, cleaning datasets; election reporting, informing editorial decisions, and source audits.
Identify Under-covered Topics. Monitoring that identifies potential topics to cover that have not been covered by news organizations.
The report also provided several recommendations on how AI could support activities in producing and distributing news content. This includes website and newsletter personalization, search engine optimization, and push-alert personalization.
The study found interest from news organizations in many areas that could streamline services on the business side. These include:
Audience Analytics. Tracking user journeys in detail to understand retention and sales, assisting coverage decisions, demographics, referral details, prospecting for donations, tracking which paragraph a consumer stops reading in a story, and new ways to understand what types of content engage audiences.
CRM, and Automating Customer and Donor Services. Chatbots to handle routine subscriber, member, and donor service issues, self-service tools, and implementing a CRM.
Donor Message Personalization. Personalize ads, underwriting messages to prospective donors, and A/B testing of donor messaging.
Since most local news organizations surveyed are interested in doing more with AI, the AP will offer a free online curriculum beginning next month, open to all U.S. news outlets.
It will feature live, virtual workshops and recorded tutorials. International news outlets will have access to all recorded sessions. “We will be digging into a range of technologies and focusing on the pain points that AI and automation can help to alleviate at the local level,” said Aimee Rinehart, program manager of AP’s local news AI initiative.
To participate in the training, organizations can register online for the curriculum.
The full 56-page report detailing the survey results on the AI readiness of U.S. newsrooms is worth the read. You can download it at this link.
THING THREE: Looking to add diverse voices to your station? Consider Becoming a Podcast Incubator
The deadline has just passed for submitting entries to NPR’s fourth annual Student Podcast Challenge. The contest has been an excellent way for NPR and some member stations to showcase some amazing young talent from across the country.
A similar project to bring diverse voices to a local station started last year with the Louisville Public Media Podcast Incubator.
In a conversation with LPM’s President and General Manager Stephen George, the Podcast Incubator was a way to bring new voices and new audiences to the station through this innovative program.
The idea is the brainchild of Laura Ellis, LPM’s Director of Podcasts and Special Projects. Ellis was promoted into her current role at the station in late 2020 and given the charge to launch and manage the incubator designed to amplify important and diverse voices and stories in Louisville.
The program was officially announced in March 2021 and LPM received more than 80 pitches for podcasts to be part of the project in the first month.
In December, Current reported on the first podcast released as part of the incubator program, Where Y’all Really From. The podcast, hosted by Charlene Buckles & Dan Wu, tells the stories of Asian Americans in Kentucky.
“We know that there are tons of great stories and brilliant people in our community who have a story to tell or have conversations that we wouldn’t normally have access to,” Ellis told Current. “So this was our way of connecting with those folks who could benefit from our expertise and helping them to bring their idea to life.”
The program will prioritize shows created by and for people of color, marginalized genders and identities, and nontraditional backgrounds and is designed to be accessible for people with multiple work and family obligations and differing time commitments. Selected applicants work with LPM producers to develop their ideas into a recorded and edited full-season podcast.
An interesting part of this initiative is how the station handles the intellectual property of the podcasts. In the terms of the agreement with participants, LPM maintains the exclusive distribution rights to the podcasts; however, the producer retains ownership of the podcast itself and has the option to take the distribution elsewhere at the conclusion of the agreement.
In addition to bringing content to the station, there’s also a positive revenue component of this initiative as LPM sold out the sponsorship for the incubator quickly, with four organizations signing on to support the project.
The Podcast Incubator is part of LPM’s initiative around on-demand audio, including a new podcast distribution partnership and a paid internship designed for a person of color and/or marginalized gender who wants to learn how to edit and produce podcasts.
The distribution partnership is for people already producing a show looking for help with the logistics of getting it out into the world. Under this model, finished episodes are submitted to LPM, who will help publish them on podcast apps, LPM websites, and NPR.org. A similar arrangement is made with participants regarding the rights and intellectual property of the shows.
The goal here is to build brand awareness of LPM with the diverse audiences for the many podcasts that it is distributing and producing in-house. LPM’s strategy with podcasts is one of the ways it’s distinguishing itself in the market. Another is its focus on newsletters.
LPM produces nine different newsletters designed to connect with audiences across its various services and platforms (including a newsletter about its podcasts). The idea is to establish a connection beyond the broadcast service and create a pipeline for membership.
And it seems to be working well.
The organization’s revenue increased by more than $2 million in FY 2021 (its most recent fiscal year) to $8.9 million as it completed a significant newsroom expansion.
Louisville Public Media’s Stephen George will be part of a conversation that I will be moderating at the Public Radio Super Regional next month in Denver.
KOSU-FM Executive Director Rachel Hubbard and WYPR President and General Manager LaFontaine Oliver will also be a part of the discussion focusing on how stations differentiate themselves in an ever-increasing competitive marketplace for local news.
The session, titled “Eat or Be Eaten - The New Competitive Environment for Public Radio News Stations,” session will take place on Monday, April 11, 2022, from 1:45 - 3:00 pm in the Maroon Peak Room at the Grand Hyatt Denver. You can still register for the conference at this link.
That’s Three Things for this week. Thanks for reading.
Agree that NPR stations missed the chance to be even more relevant with this. Not surprised however. "We" have long looked down our programming noses at arts/entertianment/pop-culture, as unworthy. It's a mistake, as I infer from your piece (and I agree) to assume that our listeners/users do not care about this category of topics. My fear is that they simply find it elsewhere. I'll not soon forget hearing a piece in one of the magazines on country music. I walked down the hall to our PD at that time and said "did you hear that?" as I shook my head. Their answer was "yep, it reminded me of someone finding something dead by the side of the road, and poking around at it with a stick as if to say eeeuuwww what IS that?!" One of the bigger belly laughs I've had in my career. We have to be better, and more relevant. One issue is that if the magazines are going to ignore a story, or "lightly" touch it, it's tough to then coordinate getting it into one of the talk shows because they're not produced by the network. No coordination, plus 300 program directors creates our classic free-for-all national treatment. NPR and Marketplace have had the same challenge around financial stories. Glad you called this out!
Love the shout out to twitter spaces. At America Amplified we're looking into exactly what you are suggesting -- using twitter spaces to amplify local stories and reach new audiences AND to collaborate with NPR on national stories with local touch.