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Christopher Lydon

Long before the term citizen journalism became trendy, ordinary citizens shared the stage for decades with professional journalists in talk radio. They collaborated, they cajoled, they ranted and they often added wit and wisdom to live radio call-in shows. But with the advent of the Internet, public radio shows are finding that websites — and blogs in particular — can be powerful places to involve the audience more deeply in the creative process of the show.

NPR is using blogs for the early development of new shows, as well as boosting interactivity and reader input for mature shows such as “Talk of the Nation.” Chicago Public Radio is launching a new local station/website Vocalo to serve various ethnic communities by asking locals to record and submit audio segments. And Search Engine is a show being tested by CBC in Canada that would involve listeners in the show’s development, while also opening up full interviews for public remixing.

All those efforts follow in the footsteps of the pioneering Radio Open Source show, hosted by Christopher Lydon, but truly created by the community effort on its bustling blog. The hour-long show runs on air and online four times per week, and one to two of those shows each week comes from an idea from the online community. The blog has a regular thread of pitches from audience members, and when an idea graduates into its own blog post, the audience/participants can give input on guests and angles for discussion on the air.

“Open Source is smart talk radio on speed,” Lydon told me. “It’s global, it’s egalitarian, it’s 24/7. What we’ve discovered after two years is that it works. We can train participants and they can train us…It’s humble, slow work, but the whole idea of listener-created content, where listeners become writers, is a good idea and it works like a charm.”

In fact, one of the listener/contributors, Garrett Zevgetis, became such a prolific help online that he’s been hired as a summer production intern at Open Source. For the past two years, Open Source has been syndicated on 30-plus stations out of Boston by Public Radio International, but the syndicator will be dropping the show after it lost a key funder at the beginning of 2007.

The University of Massachusetts-Lowell dropped its support due to budgetary constraints, but Open Source gained a much needed grant from the MacArthur Foundation earlier in March. Recently, the show put out a call for donations on its blog and raised more than $150,000 in a week to stay afloat for the summer. Lydon doesn’t believe he can support the show completely from direct donations, but he also isn’t worried about being the pioneer who did the dirty work but died trying.

“There are no promising simple business plans out there yet for earnest young entries in the blog world,” Lydon said. “It’s going to need some help…But I don’t worry about [running out of money]. We’ll see what happens, you know? We’re having a lot of fun, we make interesting discoveries month by month, and I think there are endless possibilities.”

[See UPDATE below for more on Open Source’s broadcasting challenges.]

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Greta Pemberton

Greta Pemberton, the Blogger in Chief for Open Source, told me the show averaged about 150,000 listeners on-air per week and 150,000 downloads of its podcast per month. She told me one of the keys to success with audience participation is giving people guidance on how to pitch show ideas.

“What we’ve learned [with pitch ideas] is that you can’t just do a thumbs-up or thumbs-down,” she said. “You have to teach people how to pitch to you, and explain that a nationally syndicated public radio show needs a news peg. We need good talkers or a show that’s broad enough but not too broad. At the beginning we didn’t give people guidance on pitches and it was really a chore to go through them. Since we’ve been responding with more feedback, we’ve been getting a better response.”

Of course public radio staffs are constantly strapped for time, so I wondered if all this feedback and input from the former audience meant that producers and web folks had even more work to do.

“It absolutely adds work and it’s absolutely rewarding,” Pemberton said. “We talk about this at big public radio conferences and some people are jumping on the bandwagon, which is fantastic. But we tell people it does add a tremendous amount of work. Every producer has to take an hour out of their day to read comments from the site, and decide whether we need to respond to them or not. It becomes a big part of the job and it tends to be neglected when you have to crank out an hour-long radio show each night. But it also means that the listeners are much more invested in the process, which means they’re more invested in the show.”

NPR Develops Shows in Public

The granddaddy of public radio, NPR, is trying a double-pronged approach to online collaboration, testing out pre-launch radio shows as blogs through the Rough Cuts section online, and creating adjunct blogs for current shows. One new show, Tell Me More has already “graduated” from Rough Cuts after it launched as a radio show in April, and another show, simply dubbed the Bryant Park Project has designs on going “on the web, through podcasts, in video and even on the radio,” according to the description on the blog. Its blog includes audio segments, text commentaries and some rough video shots to gauge audience interest and help shape the show in advance of production.

Maria Thomas, vice president and general manager of NPR Digital Media, told me that the new production style meant that NPR shows would be cross-platform from the start.

“In the old radio days, the way [a show’s development] would have worked would have been in a vacuum,” she told me. “A group of people would have tried pilots, and kept trying things and so on, and then an expert would say it was ready…We want people to think of [Rough Cuts] as being the place to weigh in and share their ideas. It’s a new way of doing a programming effort. Rather than starting as a radio show and then building a web presence, we are doing an online thing that’s viral that leads eventually to a radio show.”

While the Bryant Park Project already has a podcast (even though it doesn’t yet have a fully realized show name), the blog seems a little lonely for participation, with only scant comments. That’s less of a problem at Blog of the Nation, an adjunct to the popular two-hour call-in show, “Talk of the Nation.” On the blog, host Neal Conan and three producers elicit even more reader input. Mainstream media broadcasts, such as NBC’s Daily Nightly with Brian Williams, are starting to make blogs an important component for behind-the-scenes details and more audience interaction.

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Neal Conan

At NPR, Conan told me he was reluctant to blog, with all the work he already has on his plate for the show, but said “it’s something we need to do, and I want to do — I wish I could do more of it — but my primary focus is still on the radio show.” Conan hopes that eventually blog comments and perhaps incoming text messages might help reduce “caller lag,” where a person’s comment becomes stale by the time they get on the air past the screeners. But having someone coordinate and answer a live stream of blog comments while the show is on the air might make for an even more crazy production than it already is, Conan figured.

And how far can you take user participation and feedback, and where does that leave the professional producers and hosts? Conan still sees an important function for the pros at NPR.

“People come to us because they trust us and we have to earn that trust,” he said. “If there’s a guest that’s suggested, we still have to check them out. We have to add our editorial context into the conversation. But listeners want to have more input, and that’s fine. But this is still NPR News and we have to put our imprimatur on it.”

Conan and Thomas both say the technology at NPR still hasn’t caught up to the ideas there for collaborative radio via the web. For instance, “Talk of the Nation” still can’t take comments via text messages. One place they might look for inspiration is the BBC, where the folks who produce the call-in show World Have Your Say allow listeners to text message comments and even call in to participate in editorial meetings each day. There’s even a Contributors’ Charter that explains how the former audience can help set the agenda for the show, give input to morning editorial meetings, and ask to be featured on the show.

“Some of you simply email or post a comment [about the show’s topic],” wrote producer Ros Atkins in the Charter. “Others who want to come on air leave your phone numbers or VoIP ID. If you’ve asked to come on air, we will try and get in touch with you.”

Taking Open Source Further

So where does the concept of collaborative radio go now, past the pioneering and experimental stages? Chicago Public Radio decided to try a new avenue to reach ethnic and underserved communities that didn’t relate to the “NPR sound” of WBEZ. They decided to create a new station, called Vocalo, that would sound like the communities by reaching out to those same communities and helping them record their own shows and segments.

Vocalo soft-launched its website first, asking for people to join and submit audio stories, and is now running a few hours of orginal programming per day over the air with a 7,000 watt transmitter. Later in the fall, the station has FCC approval to go to 50,000 watts and cover most of the Chicago metro area.

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Wendy Turner

Wendy Turner, general manager of Vocalo, explained to me that they hired radio hosts who came from different communities and will play segments no longer than 7 minutes long, quick-cutting through various topics.

“We hired a staff of seven host/producers, and only one of them comes from public broadcasting,” she said. “The rest come from other places in the community and bring to the table ethnic and economic diversity. We have an African-American comedian, and an Arab-American filmmaker…they all bring their own piece of culture to the table. What they have in common is a passion for exploration of the community. Eventually there will be 19 of them, and they will go out and explore all kinds of community organizations, arts groups, youth organizations. These organizations are hungry and eager to point us to people in their communities, whose stories we could tell.”

Vocalo plans to actually set up recording studios in different areas of Chicago and train community members to tell their stories. Turner says she is taking Lydon’s Open Source idea outside of the web and into the real world as well.

“I think Open Source has a similar idea, which is to create a life and community around topics and expand it beyond the broadcast,” Turner said. “I think it’s a great program and experiment. What we’re doing is trying to make that a 24/7 service to our community and make it for our population who lives here. And we’re not waiting for people to come to our website, but going out and seeding that participation.”

Also taking Open Source further is a project being tested by CBC, called “Search Engine,” a 30-minute show that looks at cultural and political events through the lens of the Internet. The producers set up a rudimentary website and blog for the test, posting entire interview audio from the first test show, and asking people to comment on ideas and even send in musical ideas for breaks.

Jesse Brown, the show’s host and co-producer, told me they are considering putting all source material for the show into Creative Commons licensing so that the audience could reuse and remix the shows for themselves.

“What about issuing journalistic assignments — asking listeners to gather responses from their communities on a given topic?” he said. “Ideally, it could be like having a freelancer in every city and town, or an inside source in every workplace and institution. There are some very exciting possibilities here, and we want to explore them all with Search Engine. Of course, part of the open model would involve the community itself generating new ways for it to be utilized.”

One of the challenges of doing any of these collaborative shows is that of funding. While Open Source struggles to get steady institutional backing, Vocalo also is in search of corporate sponsors, and Search Engine still hasn’t been approved as a regular series by the CBC. The question remains whether funders, foundations and corporations will value a collaborative radio show and online elements as much as they do traditional radio audiences that they’ve always reached. Backers will have to take into account not only audience numbers for on-air listeners but also web traffic, podcast downloads and increased loyalty for an audience that is more engaged in the creative process.

Hopefully, public radio will understand it has a chance to re-energize itself, and serve more of the public via collaboration and Internet reach. Torey Malatia, president and general manager of Chicago Public Radio, explained in a commentary in Current just how much of a catalyst the Net could be for public media:

If public broadcasting loses its vitality, the reason won’t be that new technologies have swept away the radio tower and the need for wide-reaching wireless media. The cause will be our own rigidity in neglecting to join broadcasting with new media that can enliven and enhance the content we produce. We have effectively disconnected from those we are mandated to serve. Until we wrestle our content out of the vise of tradition, we will be incapable of helping our communities ignite the ideas that support their evolution. Radio and the Internet each offer a unique kind of access to information, and both are necessary for listeners to join the civic conversation and be heard.

What do you think? Do you like the idea of more collaborative radio shows and stations, or do you think they are not economically feasible? Do you think this is a trend that will spread to more mainstream public radio shows? Do you know of other collaborative radio programs or stations? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of Neal Conan by Antony Nagelmann. Photo of Christopher Lydon by Steve Garfield.

UPDATE: More bad news for Open Source, as hometown station WGBH in Boston won’t be airing the show anymore. Here’s what producer Mary McGrath said on the Open Source blog:

We learned on Friday that WGBH in Boston has decided not to continue airing Open Source as of July. We are disappointed, of course, and surprised as well. To us the station expressed concern about our long-term funding and said that our program had not developed the Boston audience they had hoped for. We enjoyed the association with the revered brand of WGBH. At the same time we felt the difficulty of breaking through with a one-hour program, in the evening, on what prides itself as a music station. Alas, we never stopped running into people who didn’t know we were on the air in Boston at all. We’re grateful for our superb production colleagues at WGBH. We’re confident about finding the right way to keep distributing Open Source to stations and podcast listeners far and wide.

We’ll see how they pull that off, and perhaps the Internet and podcasting can support a full-blown public radio show in some way.