'Framed by WDET' takes public radio out in public
More than 60 percent of people in Hamtramck, a city in Detroit, Michigan, speak a language other than English at home. Many of those people are from Bangladesh. In Hamtramck’s 2.1 square miles, there are more than a dozen dress shops that cater to the predominantly Muslim community.
When WDET’s Courtney Hurtt and photographer Kenny Karpov decided to tell the story of Hamtramck’s Bangledeshi in 2014, they set out along Conant Street — where many of the city’s cultural dress shops are located. But the story they told didn’t end on-air or online, where the piece now lives.
They secured a location, a store-front art gallery located only blocks from the dress shops, and set up an audio and visual exhibit, which featured 16 portraits and scenic images, accompanied by eight oral vignettes and displays of traditional Bangladeshi wear.
“Numerous attendees walked down to the dress shops after their visit,” says Courtney, a digital specialist at WDET. “Many attendees shared that they were traveling to visit Hamtramck to the first time — or the first time in a long time — to view the exhibit.”
The work was later installed at the Islamic Society of North America's convention in Detroit, which brought together over 15,000 people from around the world.
I thought Courtney and Kenny’s idea was absolutely brilliant. People could come in and look at pictures and hear stories from their local dress shop owners and customers — and then go visit the local dress shops. Courtney and Kenny designed the in-person show to complement the radio and online pieces. In other words, Courtney and Kenny designed their public radio story specifically for a public space.
“It’s one thing to hear a compelling story about a nearby neighborhood on the air while you’re in your car, but it’s a whole other thing to hear this story across the street from where it was recorded at — and then have the ability to walk across the street and meet the person that was interviewed in the story,” says Courtney.
As WDET puts it, it’s “pushing the boundaries of public radio” — specifically by telling the stories of different neighborhoods and then bringing those stories to the neighborhoods themselves. I reached out to Courtney, who was happy to explain more about the piece, which has now turned into a two-year-long series.
You're working on a project called "Framed by WDET" that will see eight audio-visual exhibits travel throughout the Detroit region. How did you come up with the idea for Framed?
Framed by WDET was actually designed collaboratively. We were working regularly with local photographer Kenny Karpov when he came to us with an idea to do a story on Bangladeshi dress shops in Hamtramck. From conversations with him and WDET’s GM Michelle Srbinovich, we came up with the concept of telling an audio and visual story that could be experienced on multiple platforms — on-air, online and within the community.
Kenny and I spent about six weeks on the ground meeting store owners and shoppers. We weren’t sure what to expect, so the narratives were truly organically formed. After we secured a location only blocks away from many of the dress shops, we worked to get our listeners and community members there to experience the audio series in person.
It was a success with over 300 people showing up to the opening event, including members of the Bangladeshi community. That’s when we began to formulate the series concept and search for funding.
Why did you decide to integrate photojournalism and audio storytelling
"Framed by WDET" has many objectives that serve both the greater Detroit region and WDET.
Incorporating photojournalism and storytelling was really a way to position WDET in an unfamiliar place, both to reach new audiences and to expand the way our current listeners can experience radio. It allowed us to both expand how the story could be consumed online, but also gave reasons for listeners to also experience it in person.
What happens when you take audio and put it in a physical place?
It’s one thing to hear a compelling story about a nearby neighborhood on the air while you’re in your car, but it’s a whole other thing to hear this story across the street from where it was recorded at — and then have the ability to walk across the street and meet the person that was interviewed in the story.
The folks that came out appreciated the fact they could listen to a story, then go see it in person. They also had an opportunity to ask questions with me, the producer, and Kenny, the photographer. Overall, they were not just being told a story, but could also engage with it in a very real way beyond just “liking” or “sharing.” And the fact that the story was about a specific ethnic community and culture just made it that much richer.
What has the reaction been?
Our second story about Delray appeared both in a Delray community center and miles away in a local gallery in Midtown Detroit. The Delray exhibit attracted many community members who appreciate that their voice was being heard and positioned in a compelling way for others to listen.
In fact, many came to speak with the storyteller Laura Herberg to share nostalgic memories. We heard a lot of personal stories about what Delray used to be and how the narrative that was being told today wasn’t always the case at the actual launch event.
At the event in Midtown Detroit, we met individuals who grew up in Delray, but hadn’t been back in a long time because of the changes that took place. They brought their children and grandchildren to hear the stories about the place they once lived.
Do you think about storytelling differently when you tell them in this way?
I don’t think about storytelling differently when it’s told in this way. At its core, it’s still all about creating narratives and illustrations to share happenings and perspectives.
What I do think about differently is the way public media can meets its objectives. I think "Framed by WDET" is a clear example that depicts the principle that form follows function. The purpose of our organizations are at the center and can be expressed in a number of ways.
If part of our mission is to: a) deliver balanced and well-informed local coverage, b) bring a diverse set of voices to the table, and c) inspire people to (re)discover and appreciate the cultural diversity of our region — there are hundreds of ways in which these objectives can be met.
While it’s not traditionally the product a public radio station would produce, Framed by WDET still meets these organizational objectives. And in turn, does so in such a way that reaches new audiences and engages our current listeners in a new way.
If other stations or organizations wanted to try taking their storytelling into public spaces, what would you suggest they do?
First, don’t hesitate to reach out to us! We’re just starting the third piece in the series, but are already thinking about how the project can be expanded to involve contributors in other cities.
Other than that, I would begin to think about which station objectives a project like this would serve. Knowing this will help stakeholders and station leadership understand its value. Then from there, begin identifying the talent that you’d like to work on the project (storyteller and producer). I’ve found that many independent producers and artists are already covering topics they’re interested in, and projects like this help give them structure and exposure. Tagging onto something an independent producer is already working on is a win-win for both the station and artists.
Lastly, when you select a community or topic to discuss, be able to answer what benefit this has to them, and how you plan to create access for community members to experience the project...maybe even ones that are different than you traditional audience.
I just love what you did in Hamtramck. How do you describe the story to people who ask?
Here’s the short intro piece I’m worked on to post on our new platform:
Hi, my name is Courtney Hurtt. A while back I worked with Detroit photographer Kenny Korbin in this “Framed by WDET” series called “The Dress Show.”
We spent about eight weeks visiting Bangladeshi dress shops in the city of Hamtramck, taking time to learn about the culture from the people that work and shop here.
Now what you need to know is that Hamtramck is only about 2-square-miles. It’s a city within a city, and the reason for this is really a story in itself.
But what’s amazing is that when you’re there, it’s pretty hard to ignore the number of dress shops.
When it gets dark and you’re driving down Conant Street, your vision is filled with bright lights reflecting on these beautiful garments in window displays. Striking reds, bright green and soft blue streams of fabric line the streets.
So join Kenny and I as we take you inside, uncovering the stories behind these Bangladeshi dress shops through voices of the people that live and work in Hamtramck.
I love that. Is it hard to balance this project with your day job?
Not really, it’s this project that fuels me and keeps me inspired. It helps that my role is clearly defined and that I have timelines that I’m working against to make it happen.
Currently, I’m not the storyteller for this project. I’ve transition to managing it. That means helping with the selection process and making sure stakeholders understand their roles. I’m also involved in helping our Development, Membership & Underwriting teams strategize ways to support this project. I provide them with materials and help them understand the vision.
Where do you look for inspiration online and offline?
What else are you working on at the station these days?
Well, I am transitioning to an operations position that will allow me to play a role beyond digital production. It’s exciting and it’s different, but essentially I will be working on making sure that the resources and processes are in place for project like this, and the overall station, are successful.
Correction: Hamtramck is a city within Detroit.