July 28, 2017

It started with an open-ended question during a podcast episode (“How has student debt affected your life?”), and now more than 3,000 people from across the globe have responded. In many ways, it’s a first for Death, Sex & Money.

“It’s by the far the most responses from listeners,” said Anna Sale, host and managing editor of the WNYC-produced podcast. “It really felt like we were hitting on something that a lot of people had stories about, but also something that people felt bottled up around.”

Death, Sex & Money, an interview show about “the big questions and hard choices that are often left out of polite conversation,” launched an ambitious audience engagement project late last month to capitalize on that growing interest. Titled “Our Student Loan Secrets,” the initiative allows listeners to tell their own stories about student loans and debt, which are then placed on an interactive world map. Users can also take a quiz about their personal financial situation to see how it fits among others and — of course — listen to podcasts about student debt.

The goal of the project? To normalize talking about debt and show people they’re not alone.

“There’s this sense of a discrepancy between how people feel like they’re presenting themselves in the workplace or socially. They have perhaps what looks like the trappings of success,” Sale said. “I think what we hit on was that there has been an enormous paradigm shift in how people pay for college and, as a result, what kind of payments they face when they start their careers. But the public conversation hasn’t caught up with that paradigm shift.”

Since announcing the project on the podcast June 21, Death, Sex & Money has doubled its newsletter subscribers. It’s received thousands of stories from around the world about listeners’ own student loan experiences, and even solicited photos of debt balances. About 17,000 people have taken the quiz.

“The quiz was our attempt to have you be able to say, ‘I recently graduated, I owe this much in student debt — what does this mean?'” Sale said. “It again emphasizes that idea that you’re not the only one in your situation.”

In addition to user-generated content and interactive features, “Our Student Loan Secrets” links to several resources about student loan debt, such as NPR’s “Your Money and Your Life” Facebook group, where people can get community answers to specific personal finance questions. Other free resources the project links to include NerdWallet’s Student Loan Calculator and the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

The idea for building out a comprehensive audience project centered on student debt came about due to the sheer amount of listener interest in the topic.

“The reason that the web engagement part of it came up is because we got such a high volume of responses,” said Katie Bishop, a producer for Death, Sex & Money. “We wanted to demonstrate to our audience the enormous number of people we heard from.”

In a way, it was kind of a natural extension of what Death, Sex & Money had already been doing.

“We always collect stories from our listeners, and we have a very incredible inbox where people email us stories,” Sale said. “But one of the challenges we’ve had is we know how awesome our inbox is and how much people are sharing with us, but how to create an interface where people can engage with other stories without us mediating.”

Sale said the Death, Sex & Money team met with the WNYC data, digital and graphic design teams early on to determine how to best capitalize on the listener responses. The map, quiz and other key components of the project were brainchildren of that meeting, and were largely inspired by other projects WNYC podcasts — such as Note to Self — had produced.

“Our Student Loan Secrets” is similar to some of the other audience engagement initiatives Death, Sex & Money has attempted in the past. After an episode about breakups earlier this year, the podcast published a Google Sheet called the “Breakup Survival Kit” that allowed people to contribute their own advice about ending relationships.

“It was really neat to just watch people fill that in, so I think this was just the next iteration of that — how to create something where people are sharing with each other,” Sale said. “It’s all part of our effort to try to continue to build out the orbit of our listener community.”

Since people have to opt in to listen to each episode, Sale said she thinks podcasts could use big projects like”Our Student Loan Secrets” as a key way to engage with their audiences.

“When you have that buy-in, there’s just a more intense feeling of community. Our listeners will share things with us — there’s a real sense of conversation and continual feedback,” she said. “I think that that’s definitely something that podcasts more generally can take advantage of.”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
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