How WCAI turned a coffee shop into a public radio satellite studio

July 21, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

The motto of Coffee Obsession in Woods Hole, Massachusetts is “Coffee. Internet. Art.”

But now, the coffee shop just down the street from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution can add some new words to its blue wooden sign: “Public Radio Outpost.”

For the past several weeks, the coffee shop has played host to a “radio box” installed in an old phone booth next to the tables, where locals chitchat, read newspapers, and browse the Web. The “radio box” – a recorder and microphone placed inside an old telephone booth in the coffee shop – was placed there by WCAI, Cape Cod’s public media station, which happens to be right across the street.

WCAI is not the only organization in public radio that’s currently experimenting with publicly accessible recording boxes. Last week, WNYC installed a pay phone that acts as a mini recording microphone and put it across the street from where Eric Garner died on Staten Island. The pay phone, which has its own Twitter account, collects voice mails from anyone who would like to stop by and record their thoughts about the case.

A similar experiment, called The Listening Post, is taking place at a public library in New Orleans, where anyone can answer weekly questions posed by WWNO.

I think of all three of these audio explorations as the radio version of “Humans of New York.” They’re designed to get people to share their thoughts and feelings in places that they pass through on a daily basis.

What I particularly liked about the experiment in Woods Hole, though, is how decidedly low-tech it is. It’s so low-tech, in fact – that anyone at any news organization can build and set up a “Radio Box” in a matter of hours — with not a lot of money.

I also liked that Woods Hole’s radio box sprung from the mind of Dinah Rothenberg, the station’s summer intern. She happily answered my questions about how other news organizations can learn from her summer-long project.

Photo by Dinah Rothenberg

Photo by Dinah Rothenberg

MK: Dinah, right off the bat: how did you come up with such a great idea?

DR: I am from Germany and came to Woods Hole to intern at Atlantic Public Media for the summer. I have been going to Coffee O (a coffee shop) in Woods Hole every morning since I arrived. I sat right next to an old phone booth, reading the newspapers and drinking my coffee. Sitting there, I started seeing all these Cape Cod characters chatting, reading and relaxing. Since I came here for an internship at Atlantic Public Media, I’ve thought a lot about storytelling and I wished I could hear the thoughts of the people who I was surrounded by. The phone booth seemed to be the perfect place to create an intimate room in a public place where people could share their ideas and stories.

I love audio, I love storytelling and I love the idea of empowering and supporting people to share their own stories. The idea of someone sitting alone in front of a microphone thinking and talking without interruption was very, very interesting to me.

MK: Was the coffee shop your first choice?

DR: The coffee shop was my first choice.

MK: Why?

DR: The phone booth was already there and I felt that the atmosphere might encourage good stories. Many customers there have some time to sit and chat. They meet friends and are already in a good storytelling mood.

MK: Can you share what you’ve learned so far?

DR: I learned that the low cut filter helps a lot to reduce the background noises of the coffee shop. It was kind of hard to figure out in the beginning how to get the best sound and it still is sometimes. Because naturally people are talking in a different way, some stay far away from the microphone, and others come too close. I think the solution is to have good concise instructions and headphones so that people hear immediately how they sound.

I also learned that people need good prompts/questions to come up with a story and they need to know that their story matters. As soon as they realize that the stories are aired on public radio, they get really excited and happy about the opportunity.

MK: What are you hoping the results of the project are?

DR: I hope that I get the chance to keep working on it and hope to broadcast many Radio Box stories. I also hope that in the future people will really keep using it as a channel for their own ideas and memories.

MK: How difficult is it to maintain? What do you have to do to maintain it?

DR: It’s easy. The recorder and the microphone are inside a wooden box. There’s a hole for the microphone and a small square hole that displays the recorder. The top of the wooden box is closed with a lock and the only thing I have to do is to take the SD card out of the recorder every evening and go through the stories. The recorder is in a voice-activated mode, which means that it starts recording when something in front of it makes a noise at a certain level.

It’s good on one the hand because people don’t need to press any buttons but on the other hand it starts recording with just regular coffee shop noises – so there are hundreds of files at the end of the day. But there’s no real maintenance, I just have to make sure that everything has power and works.

MK: How much did it cost?

DR: I bought some wood from a lumberyard and started with the help of friends to build the box. Atlantic Public Media loaned me the audio equipment. I spent some money on posters, Viki Merrick gave me Christmas tree lights for the inside of the booth. That’s all. I spent about $50 to make it work. Luckily, the phone booth was already there. Waiting.

MK:  What kinds of stories are you getting?

DR: Each week, I post three new questions and people choose one to answer. (I also have a sheet posted on the outside of the booth where people can suggest questions.)  So far I have collected stories about favorite songs, favorite outfits people had as a kid, what people dreamt last night, and what animal they identify with and why. Actually they don’t necessarily have to answer a question, they can share whatever they want. But I think it will take some more time for people to get comfortable and tell stories without answering a prompt.

MK: How are you getting the word out?

DR:  The local NPR station here on Cape Cod, WCAI,  is broadcasting the stories during Morning Edition and All Things Considered. They publish them on their website as well. We’ve also posted news of the Radio Box to Facebook and Twitter.

MK: With unlimited resources, what would you do next?

I would travel around to different countries and put Radio Boxes in as many places as possible. I would try especially to find places where people don’t have the chance to share their thoughts — people whose voices aren’t typically heard in public media. Radio Boxes around the world might seem a little ambitious. Perhaps a more doable first next step is to install Radio Boxes around in this country. Maybe one in each state? Or two? Or three..? As many as possible.

I also plan to start a public listening event at the coffee shop. Every afternoon there will be 30 seconds of listening. People with their coffee listening to a story that has been recorded right next to them. A small interruption of the daily life that might give you new ideas and make you think and laugh.

MK: If another public radio station or media outlet wanted to try this, how would they do it?

DR: If another media outlet would like to do it, they could try putting a similar wooden box with a microphone and a recorder in a public space or they could contact me to work on that together so that we might turn the “Public Radio Box” into a recognizable project that gives people all over the country the possibility to share their stories.