How a small public radio station uses a bread truck to spark community engagement
Editor’s note: Localore: Finding America is a national initiative from the Association for Independents in Radio supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Wyncote Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Tenore, Poynter's former editor, is an AIR freelancer who is helping identify lessons learned from the initiative.
When Jess Mador moved to Knoxville last fall to begin an unconventional storytelling project at WUOT, she wanted to cover parts of Tennessee that public media often miss. She hoped to reach the far corners of the state, pique people’s interest and foster a sense of connection.
“My thought was: what better way to do this than in a food truck?” Mador said.
That question led to a community health project called TruckBeat — one of 15 public radio projects that the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) supported through its Localore: Finding America initiative.
The program, which has run three times since 2010, pairs independent producers with public radio and TV stations around the U.S. to create new storytelling models for communities that public media doesn’t typically reach.
AIR hired the producers and gave them a budget to complete the projects over a nine-month period. Half the producers, including Mador, left their homes and moved across the country for their projects.
TruckBeat is an example of what’s possible when an independent producer and station work together to create unconventional storytelling. At the heart of it all was a 1980s bread truck.
The upside to meeting listeners in person
Mador worked with Matt Shafer Powell, WUOT’s director of news content and executive producer, to find a food truck that she could use while reporting on East Tennessee residents’ health concerns.
It wasn’t easy to find a reasonably priced, serviceable food truck without a kitchen. But during a chance meeting with a reporter from NBC affiliate WBIR, Mador learned that the station was trying to sell a live truck it had purchased to cover the World’s Fair in 1982. The converted bread-delivery truck — which had only 54,000 miles on it and cost $4,000 — was just what Mador and WUOT had been looking for.
Mador then worked with a designer to get the truck wrapped with the TruckBeat logo. She began driving it to neighborhoods and used it as a roving billboard, listening booth and recording studio.
She didn’t drive it to all of her assignments, and the loud generator sometimes made it difficult to record interviews inside the truck. But it gave the station a new way to interact with both longtime public radio listeners and people who had never heard of WUOT.
“We were able to build buzz and excitement for TruckBeat, and people seemed to want to be part of what we were doing in a different way than with a conventional journalism project where you’re not able to bring your storytelling into the community in quite the same three-dimensional fashion,” Mador said.
Mador also organized several TruckBeat events, including “Roane Is Better Together.”
The event took place at the iconic Princess Theater in Roane County — a largely rural area about an hour outside of Knoxville — and attracted about 300 people. It featured a screening of two TruckBeat video documentaries about the opioid crisis, along with a related panel and opportunities for audience participation.
[caption id="attachment_442218" align="aligncenter" width="740"] WBIR’s truck undergoing a transformation. (Courtesy of Mador)[/caption]
Identifying topics that resonate with listeners
At the beginning of the Localore: Finding America initiative, AIR asked each of the producers to spend time observing their communities — “not with lens or microphones pointed forward, but with great humility,” AIR Executive Director Sue Schardt said.
She encouraged them to consider: “What is the rhythm and flow? Who are the magnetic personalities? What means do people use to generate their ‘social media?’ It may not be Twitter or Snapchat."
Mador took this requirement to heart. Rather than parachute into East Tennessee communities, she spent several weeks meeting with community members and listening to what they had to say.
She also sought help from Powell, who had created a crowdsourcing project called Tenn Words. The project asks community members to answer the question “What keeps you up at night?” in 10 words or less — online and/or at WUOT events.
[caption id="attachment_442223" align="aligncenter" width="740"] Some of the many Tenn Words responses. (Courtesy of Powell)[/caption]
Powell and Mador read the estimated 750 responses that had been gathered up to that point and found that health was a primary concern. People expressed fears about heart disease, obesity, memory loss, lack of healthcare services and the widespread opioid epidemic in Southern Appalachia.
“We identified health disparities as an important, underreported area for TruckBeat to explore,” Mador said. “We operated from the standpoint that health is something we all share. It’s an everyday reality, and a perfect lens for examining other complex social issues such as poverty and income inequality.”
Throughout the project, Mador, Powell, and a small team of producers did hundreds of person on the street interviews and produced dozens of radio segments/podcast episodes and short video documentaries.
The stories explored topics such as how one Knoxville community is fighting for local safety and health improvements; how the opioid crisis has led to overcrowded jails; and how a promising new drug treatment court is providing hope for addicts.
Mador also reported deeply personal stories, including a heartbreaking piece about a father who killed his drug-abusing son in an act of self-defense.
TruckBeat, and the use of the truck for community engagement, is continuing on a part-time basis. Mador and Shafer-Powell recently collaborated with the Inside Appalachia podcast on a special opioid-related episode, and are taking part in a new series, “Finding America,” which is airing on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Weekend Edition.”
The six-week series is aimed at giving the incoming president and citizens a chance to engage with the stories of everyday people in Appalachia and other areas of the U.S.
Prior to TruckBeat, WUOT hadn’t taken a long-term, deep-dive into health reporting. “We have more of a general assignment approach to the kind of reporting we do,” said Powell, who is one of 15 staffers at WUOT. “We’re not big enough to have beats. We never had the opportunity to really put the focus on health reporting that we wanted to do.”
Using Tenn Words responses to inform TruckBeat’s coverage helped show listeners that the station really cared about their concerns, Powell said. Truckbeat morphed into a sister project of Tenn Words: Wherever the truck went, so did the Tenn Words story booth.
The crowdsourced approach was inspired in part by Hearken — a startup that encourages journalists to collaborate with the public throughout the reporting process.
Jenn Brandel, a former Localore producer and the founder of Hearken, recently wrote: “If there’s no pathway for input from your audience to shape the content decisions your newsroom is making, then it’s not audience engagement.” Engagement, she wrote, “happens when members of the public are responsive to newsrooms, and newsrooms are in turn responsive to members of the public. It’s a feedback loop.”
[caption id="attachment_442220" align="aligncenter" width="740"] A Vietnam veteran fills out a Tenn Words post-it with a response to the question: What keeps you up at night? (Courtesy of Powell)[/caption]
Avoiding the “local speed bump”
Mador and the other Finding America producers left their station partners after the incubator program ended this past fall. Since then, producers and stations have been trying to find ways to sustain their projects and hold onto their lessons.
With his General Manager’s support, Powell committed to spending 25 percent of his time sustaining TruckBeat and Tenn Words. Projects like this offer local stations a competitive edge during what’s been referred to as “the golden age of podcasts,” Powell said. Gone are the days when local stations were the primary pipeline to national shows like “This American Life” and “All Things Considered.”
“What we have to do as a station is adopt the philosophy that we can present something to listeners that Ira Glass can’t, that Diane Rehm can’t, that ‘Morning Edition’ and ‘All Things Considered’ can’t,” Powell said. “What that is is good quality community-based content.”
This has to do with avoiding what Powell refers to as “speed bumps” — the noticeable difference in quality when a public radio station switches from national programming to local programming. “You’re driving along and you hear a speed bump,” Powell said. “The technical quality breaks off, the talent isn’t as good…”
The goal is to be open to new projects that can make the drive smoother. There’s always the risk that they’ll eat up too many resources without yielding a strong return. But sometimes it’s a risk worth taking.
"Worst-case scenario is that they won’t get us one more listener, or they won’t raise one more dollar. But the reason we’re doing them is because they’re part of our mission," Powell said. "The community engagement philosophy is becoming a much bigger part of the culture of WUOT, and I don’t want to see that die on the vine."