November 9, 2015 jesikah

Brand-O-Rama: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Public Radio

I’ve always been a little put off by the marketing concept known as branding. To me it calls up images of cattle, slaves, and Nike swooshes.   None of which I find appealing. But recently I participated in a branding process that turned out to be totally transformative. Here’s what happened.

I’ve always been a little put off by the marketing concept known as branding. To me it calls up images of cattle, slaves, and Nike swooshes.   None of which I find appealing.

But recently I participated in a branding process that turned out to be totally transformative. Here’s what happened.

I’d been working in the documentary unit at Capital Public Radio, the NPR affiliate serving California’s Central Valley and Sierra Nevada, as a part-time community engagement consultant for a little over a year.   It was a little like professional dating—getting together regularly through discrete projects to see if we wanted to mutually commit to full-time staff employment.

It wasn’t clear that we would.   I’m not your typical pub radio gal. My background is in participatory media.   I work with under-represented communities to identify topics, co-create stories and use them for local dialogue and problem-solving. CapRadio, on the other hand, is a fairly traditional news operation with journalists (most of which, like me, fit the public radio demographic) who huddle together, decide what is newsworthy and create stories for broadcast.

But, you know, opposites attract.

CapRadio’s Senior Editor for Innovation Catherine Stifter and Chief Content Officer Joe Barr brought me in during the spring of 2014 to design a community engagement process for our documentary series, The View From Here (TVFH). Over the next year, I piloted a series of engagement strategies to accompany TVFH’s documentary Hidden Hunger, including stakeholder convenings, a project advisory board, a mobile storybooth, a live broadcast party, an art exhibition, a community conversation workshop, and a series of large-scale civic storytelling events.

The results were off the charts in terms of impact—for storytellers (the people formerly known as sources), listeners, journalists, and community partners. It was clear to everyone involved that we had done something innovative, artful and powerful.

That’s when Joe and Catherine invited me to participate in a series of meetings to “rebrand” TVFH to give community engagement more of a starring role. At first, I had to reign in my snark when our fearless marketing diva, Kim Tackett, tossed around terms like “brand promise” and “brand attributes”. But as we kept meeting a curious thing happened. I started sharing my deepest hopes for public radio. I spoke up about my public service media philosophy and talked about the pivotal role media can play in civic life, especially when diverse voices have a seat at the table. I figured these ideas would get shot down, or at least toned down. That eyes would roll. I was wrong. These ideas got amped up and made into a community engagement manifesto—not just for TVFH, but for our newsroom writ large.

The title of our document says it all: The Purpose and Promise of Community Engagement in Journalism at Capital Public Radio

We lay our cards on the table in the opening paragraph

“Community Engagement in Journalism is a direct response to our charter as a public service agency. We are here to serve our community­–­to listen, to provide a space and tools to help tell stories, and to create social impact. We are using public radio to build stronger communities. At Capital Public Radio, our definition of community engagement is working collaboratively to discover, understand, and voice community needs, concerns, and aspirations.”

Then we get even more aspirational

“The most effective stories reflect and represent our community at large, not just the Capital Public Radio core audience. Community engagement is an expectation of ourselves, and what others should expect from us.

Our work, not only what we produce, but our process of engagement, inspires and advances our community conversation. We are an interactive forum for change. We can create change in public debate, policies, understanding, and how people relate to each other. Our commitment to community engagement plays a key role in how we report.”

My favorite bits are what I think of as our visionary talking points:

The process of community engagement helps us discover, develop and report the stories that impact and inspire. It is how we make sure the voices in our stories are as diverse as our community. These stories are woven into our landscape, our culture and our personal connections, often in ways we aren’t aware.

Community engagement is a wraparound approach to more respectful, participatory, and transformative storytelling. It runs parallel to our reporting and doesn’t end when the story is aired. It keeps the story going as we–our team, the subjects of our stories, and our listeners­–learn, understand and act. Community engagement also helps us develop a richer pool of sources, as we develop new and valuable relationships, engaging partners beyond our go-to experts. Our sources will reflect the diversity of our region, not just our existing contacts. At the same time, we uphold traditional reporting principles (i.e. objectivity, balance, two source confirmation, healthy skepticism, etc).

Telling the stories of the whole community, including those whose lives may differ from ours, is a necessary act of public media journalism. We must meet our storytellers where they live, to amplify their voices, and bring our listeners with us. As public radio journalists, we are driven to dig deeper. This can only happen, authentically and respectfully, with a commitment to the process of community engagement. We are media makers, and to be awake in the world and in our work is to share what we see with others; not only the struggles and conflicts but the joys and connections in people’s lives. We need to reach further than our radio signals cover ­–to places where we do not live, where our community is most diverse, sometimes challenged, and where our work can be of value.

Community engagement takes time, patience, new skills, and a genuine commitment to collaboration. It requires flexibility –as our projects will evolve, providing new opportunities, and sometimes taking new directions. It requires an investment in relationships and the time to develop trust and loyalty. It requires creativity as we explore how to tell a story with a different viewpoint, and how to build the partnerships to share it in a new and meaningful way. It requires a team, working together, to turn a story inside out, and deliver something unexpected and extraordinary–a story that will make a difference in someone’s life.

As we are developing and reporting our stories, we are building relationships and connections, and serving our community. This is the public service that public radio can uniquely deliver. Bringing together journalists, community leaders, and those directly affected by social issues, to collectively report on a story, generates journalism that can change minds and empower communities.

Pretty awesome right? Not your standard public radio newsroom fare for sure.

At the beginning of the branding process, Kim encouraged us to be bold and visionary, to craft a document “that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning”.   Being the ultimate “not a morning person” I have to say this manifesto DOES make me want to throw back the covers and get rolling. Every time I read it, this manifesto reminds me what I’m about and striving for in my public media work.

Creating this document has given me a sense of belonging I didn’t have before at the station. It’s connected me to the wider public media movement and made working in public radio something I’m proud to do. In fact, CapRadio recently offered me a full-time staff position, and I took it.

As the “what is community engagement” in public media conversation heats up around the country, I recommend (dare I say it) taking part in a branding type process to get to the heart of your organization’s shared vision and values and create a foundational document, like our manifesto, that can keep you heading toward your true North.

Photos by Andrew Nixon from Capital Public Radio & Steve Fisch of