How do you convince people to care about a local, municipal primary election in a city with historically-low voter turnout?
That’s the question KPCC’s managing editor Kristen Muller posed to science reporter Sanden Totten as they were planning KPCC’s coverage of the Los Angeles primary municipal elections, which took place last week on March 3.
“I was bemoaning the fact that it was going to be hard to get people to pay attention, and then [Sandor] said, ‘Maybe you don’t convince everyone — maybe you just find a single person.”
KPCC Reporter Meghan McCarty was tapped to find “the average non-voter in Los Angeles” and set off on a quest. She knocked on doors, stood in a supermarket parking lot with a sandwich board and emailed everyone she knew to see if they could help her find “a non-white renter under 45 who doesn’t vote in local elections but might be engaged enough to have their minds changed and have it all recorded for the radio.”
Eventually, she found Al Gordon, a chef and partner of a restaurant in Los Angeles who had lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade but never voted in a local election.
“Al was the perfect combination of someone who had interest in the community,” she said. “He was also aware enough to know a lot about issues that could potentially affect him, but he hadn’t given them the time of day yet.”
Convincing Al To Care
KPCC began to shape its coverage for the upcoming election around Al. The resulting on-air and online campaign wasn’t boring or wonky. It was fun and funny, and it taught voters across Los Angeles about the upcoming election in a creative, personalized way. (Every news organization covering elections should take note and listen to these stories: they’re good, and well-reported, and gives lots of information — but they’re also fun and engaging and personal — and make you want to hear or read more. It’s a tough bar for political reporting, but especially for municipal primary elections.)
KPCC structured two campaigns for the elections: one for radio and one for online.
“We knew we had two very different audiences to serve and tried to cater to them,” Muller said. “The radio stories had to have broad appeal to people because our audience is dispersed over five counties…but low voter turnout is a statewide issue so we knew the issue mattered. The key was to entertain and make the stories as much about Meghan’s quest as it was about Al’s evolving attitude.”
The narrative arc played itself out over several on-air radio pieces. In Part 1, the radio audience was introduced to Al. Part 2 featured a political scientist, who sat down with Al and tried to help him (and KPCC’s listeners) sort through the candidates. In Part 3, Al and Meghan attended a candidate forum together and broadcast what they learned to listeners. In Part 4, Al held an open house election forum at his restaurant. And in the last installment, Al became one of the first people to cast his ballot in the election.
As Al learned, listeners at home learned as well — about voter turn-out, how candidate forums work and about the candidates themselves.
KPCC’s digital efforts also began to coalesce around Al. Digitally, the station had one simple message: to make Al care.
“The message invited people to help out, to become part of his quest,” Muller said. “We had given the audience enough specifics about Al — he is a small business owner and rents his home — that they could make very tailored pitches to him.”
The candidates got involved as well. The day after KPCC ran their first Al story, several candidates showed up on the doorstep of Al’s workplace. Their responses were then integrated into the story, McCarty said.
“From the start, we wanted the listeners and the audience to play a part in the effort to make Al care,” she said.
“A huge part of that was disseminating the story on social media and making the radio stories funny enough so that people would actually take the time to engage with them after they got out of their car.”
The station created a hashtag – #MakeAlCare — and asked both candidates and ordinary citizens to weigh in online. They reached out to people around the state who were working on the low-voter turnout problem and asked them to get involved. They made Instagram videos and documented Al’s journey in a cartoon. Los Angeles’ mayor, Eric Garcetti, even recorded a YouTube video explaining to Al why it was important to care about the election.
— LA Mayor’s Office (@LAMayorsOffice) March 3, 2015
“We included the social media response in almost every web posting using Storify, and used some responses for short radio spots that kept the story alive on days between features,” McCarty said.
The social and radio campaign worked. “Overall what we heard from the audience was incredibly positive and enthusiastic,” McCarty said. “Getting the Mayor to weigh in and shoot a video tribute to #MakeAlCare was amazing. I think we had just hoped this might crossover into a larger cross section of our audience — we dreamed of Rock the Vote celebrity-types weighing in, but it just goes to show it’s hard to make local elections sexy.”
Even so, the station is planning to make Al a part of their upcoming run-off election coverage this spring. They’re also looking into expanding the project for future elections.
“The question now becomes how we can convince all of the other ‘Al’s’ out there,” Muller said. “If Meghan spent a week with every disaffected voter, she’d be on this project into the next century….we’d like to scale it up.”
Scaling it up may be difficult but it’s a challenge McCarty is willing to take on, despite ongoing low voter turnouts.
“I made Al care, he did vote,” she said. “Obviously we can’t put every voter on the radio and amplify their voice, but maybe next time we’ll expand to a whole city block.”
Muller said making Al care also motivated her newsroom to think outside the box and try new and creative ideas.
“The excitement that the series ignited in the newsroom was really rewarding,” she said. “It’s important to the future of our organization that we have successful audience engagement efforts. Now we have one we can learn from.”
Voters also learned. One Instagram user reached out to McCarty, writing “I am voting because I am inspired by the ongoing reporting on how few people vote in these elections.”
That was what KPCC had hoped and why they decided to focus on Al in the first place.
“It really shrunk down this huge impersonal political process into a manageably microcosm, which is what we are always going for,” McCarty said.
Al meets the LA City Clerk Holly Wolcott at Election Division HQ #MakeAlCare @kpcc