At Nashville Public Radio, Emily Siner’s bringing together the movers, the thinkers and the community
In April, about 50 people gathered at Nashville Public Radio to hear enterprise reporter Emily Siner interview a pastry chef, a letterpress poster maker and a cyber security expert.
The idea, as Emily puts it, was to find people who work behind the scenes in fascinating places and ask them more about their jobs.
I love that Emily pitched the idea for a bimonthly event series to her bosses and that they championed the idea. But what I love even more was that Emily then turned the live event into both a podcast and a newsletter — ensuring that a feedback loop was then created between the station and their audience in person, then on digital, and then through email.
The podcast, called Movers and Thinkers, is described as “one part TED Radio Hour and one part Fresh Air — mixed with a Nashville flavor.” I asked Emily to talk a little bit more about the podcast and what other local journalism organizations could do to ensure that their live events live beyond the event itself.
MK: How did you come up with the idea for Movers and Thinkers?
ES: Nashville is booming — people are moving to the area in droves, and many of them are young professionals who love NPR and This American Life and Serial. But after meeting a lot of people like this, I noticed that very few of them seemed to feel a connection specifically to Nashville Public Radio. And it makes sense: There aren't opportunities to see the station firsthand if you're not a pledge drive volunteer or a big donor; we have great local news but no local show or podcast; and young people tend to be more transient and therefore less rooted in a community.
Meanwhile, I'd been talking with our digital editor about piloting a podcast, and creating a live event that could double as a podcast seemed like the best of all worlds. After all, the whole point of digital initiatives is to connect with your audiences better. What better way to connect with your audience than to bring them into the physical world with you?
Once I stumbled upon the idea of interviewing fascinating, under-the-radar people, I got so excited that I couldn't fall asleep. Generally, that's how I judge if an idea is good.
MK: Who is the audience and who came to the first event?
ES: We wanted this event series to bring in a younger and more diverse audience to the station. The event was free but required an RSVP, and it sold out in a week. We ended up with a nearly full studio of about 50 people, many of whom were in their 20s and 30s.
We noticed two things: One, we promoted the event only online — through social media and through our weekly newsletter — and that probably helped bring in younger people. Two, the audience seemed to reflect the panelists: Our three speakers all skewed younger, but they were also all white, as was most of the audience. I made sure to reach out to people of color first for our next panel, which, in addition to bringing in more diverse audiences, will also enrich the conversation.
MK: Tell me a little bit about the podcast that was created after the first event.
ES: Even though the live conversation lasted about an hour and 15 minutes, I knew that wouldn't hold people's attention in podcast form. So I ruthlessly cut down the tape, taking out anything that didn't hold my attention, anything too insider-y or jargon-y, anything repeated. I edited it down to about 21 minutes of tape and then added a light narration in between the Q&A, à la TED Radio Hour.
MK: And the newsletter – I love that the event spawned both a podcast and a newsletter, which can let people know about the next event or podcast.
ES: Before the event, we put a survey on everyone's chair, and I announced at the beginning and end that we would be giving out WPLN bumper stickers to those who turned in their survey. As part of the survey, people could sign up for our then-nonexistent Movers & Thinkers newsletter. I also included on our listserv anyone who had signed up for the event online.
Right now, I'm only planning on using the newsletter to notify people of news events and podcasts. But I'm making sure it has a more conversational voice than our normal station-wide newsletter.
MK: What future events do you have planned?
ES: Our second Movers & Thinkers event is June 25 with a new theme — people who are finding innovative ways to solve Nashville's dire problems. I'm currently wrangling speakers for that. Right now, the station is aiming to do an event every other month and release the podcast a couple of weeks after.
MK: How will you judge if the series is successful?
ES: One obvious analytic is how many people show up. We would love to grow to the point where we can no longer fit in our studio (and we already were almost at capacity during our first event) and can partner with other cool local nonprofits to host us, like the indie movie theater. For our podcast, we can measure how many people are listening. But a big part of our measurements right now are less tangible: Are we getting positive feedback? Is this improving our standing in the community?
MK: What advice would you give for other stations who want to try this?
ES: My advice is three-pronged.
Prong one: You need to find one person (or small group of people) who is really, really excited about something like this. I'm not sure these kinds of things can come from the top down. In WPLN's case, I came up with the idea and then was put in charge of implementing it, with active support from my radio editor and digital editor. It took a lot of work, between planning the event, hosting the live show and editing the podcast. If I weren't super enthusiastic about this, it would have been really hard to do well.
Prong two: Once someone is excited about an idea, encourage it. Think of a new idea like a small spark of fire: If you don't circulate air around it — or in this case, enthusiasm — it will die. Certainly it's important to ask skeptical questions before letting someone plan an event in the station's name (i.e. How are you going to get people to come?). But be positive. Create an environment where people want to come to the higher-ups with ideas.
Prong three: Do it with quality. When something is new, there are fewer eyes on the product and no expectations. But a lack of quality or lack of attention to detail will just turn away the few people who do see it. We proofread everything we send out or put online; we created high-quality logos; we put together a thoughtful survey for the audience; we gave out thank-you gifts to speakers; we bought awesome snacks; we mastered the podcast before putting it online, etc.
MK: What kind of feedback have you received from the audience?
ES: We received immediate, almost completely positive feedback from the live audience, both in person and from the survey they filled out. People complimented the guest selection, the fact that it was held in our studio, the casual setting. The highest compliment I got was this: "By far, the coolest community event I’ve been to in Nashville."
There were a few small criticisms — some people thought it felt awkward that we dedicated a lot of time at the beginning for mingling; one person told me to ask more in-depth questions. Some people didn't respond to the survey at all, so I have no idea what they thought. But overall, I was pleasantly surprised.
I've also been surprised that multiple people have emailed in recent days about how much they enjoyed the podcast. That requires more than a few keystrokes of effort. It's very helpful to know that people are listening and liking it.
MK: What else is Nashville Public Radio working on that other stations should know about?
ES: We've been exploring Nashville's main thoroughfares — they're called "pikes" here — with a photographer who takes pictures of street art and iconic local signs. These stories are primarily online with photos and commentary, but we've been supplementing each one with a radio component as well. Here's the first story in the series. I love the idea of telling a city's story by breaking it down into streets or neighborhoods.
MK: One more: How does this help Nashville Public Radio's goals?
ES: There are two major benefits, one internal and one external. The biggest internal benefit is that it allows me as a reporter to reach out to really interesting people I wouldn't probably come across otherwise. These people aren't the executives and spokespeople I come across all the time in my daily reporting, nor do I have to have a specific story in mind to interview them for Movers & Thinkers; they just have to be interesting and fall loosely under the event's theme. I see this becoming a way to connect the newsroom to communities or groups we don't normally cover.
Externally, this helps us get our name into the community and create more interest in Nashville Public Radio, which hopefully will translate to more listener members. One of the great things about working here is that our loyal listeners really feel a sense of pride and ownership in their local public radio station; for the younger newcomers who don't yet feel that, I want Movers & Thinkers to help them get there.