Here at PRX, we’re developing innovative mobile apps for public media. To do this, we like to try out new technologies. So we partnered with The Echo Nest, based a couple of subway stops away from us in Davis Square, Somerville. The Echo Nest does pioneering work with digital music: Their “music intelligence” platform scours the Web for music news, analyzes music files, and identifies music trends.
The first product of this partnership is Bandito, a free iPhone/iPod app that scans your iTunes music library and serves up news and reviews about the artists you listen to most, gleaned from a range of online sources. You can also read up on the artists that are hot right now, whether or not they’ve already made it onto your iPod.
There’s no need to be surprised when you see pics of PRXers Matt MacDonald and Rekha Murthy (right) among the likes of Brooke Shields, Darrell Hammond and Dan Savage at the 2011 Webby Awards ceremony last night. That’s just the crowd we roll with these days. No biggie.
Pandora DJ’ed the event, which basically meant a guy in a suit stood behind a table and occasionally hit a button. It was just too weird that Christiane Amanpour was part of the same event as Antoine Dodson, though Dodson’s performance of Bed Intruder (with the Gregory Brothers) was the highlight of the night for me and Matt. And when the inventor of the cell phone came to the podium, Matt beat him to the punch: ‘Can you hear me now?’
I didn’t need to know about News Director Holly Kernan’s Murrow or Sigma Delta Chi to understand that there is something special going on at KALW News. Week after week, KALW is churning out (and uploading to PRX) oodles of well-crafted stories — stories that may take place in San Francisco, but are captivating no matter where you are. As a curator of Public Radio Remix, I can’t get enough of them. Yet, KALW’s newsroom has a tiny budget and a staff of only nine: Holly, her cohost, two engineers and five producer/editors.
In the following interview, KALW News Director Holly Kernan told me how KALW does (and doesn’t) make it all work.
How are you pulling it all off? Oh man, it’s not easy. We are all overworked and underpaid. But it’s just that we’ve put together this stunningly creative team here.
We started this newsroom from scratch in 2004 to try to fill the void in local media left by shrinking commercial outlets. A couple premises were at the center of it. One was that arts and creativity would be at the center of our news coverage. Another was that we would strive to have the highest possible quality reporting and production, even though we had no staff — I think we started with me as a half-staff. So our formula was to have professional editors and a newsroom with community volunteers and student reporters in our training program. We try to help them skate the creative edge and do really high quality work; and our newsroom ends up looking like the community we serve.
What are you prioritizing in your newsroom? How do you decide what to cover?
“Don’t give me an issue.
Tell me a story.”
Stories, stories, stories! We prioritize those delight and discovery stories that connect us. We don’t cover all the beats that we’d like to just because of money, but we prioritize stories and topics that other places might be reluctant to cover, like criminal justice and education — because we think that’s part of the mission of public radio. And because we’re local, we’re trying to tap into the ‘what’s your neighbor doing,’ How can I meet that neighbor through this connective tissue of radio?
One thing that stands out for me is how easy it is to take your stories and rebroadcast them for a national audience. How are you balancing or framing local vs. national storytelling?
I’m doing the happy dance from what you just said!
My sense is that usually a good local story is a good national story, but frankly we decided not to give a damn about national, because our mission is to report on this local community. But we are looking for great stories, right! That’s one of the things that we constantly drum into people’s heads: don’t give me an issue. Tell me a story. Maybe it’s a story that will help me understand an issue or a topic, but I want a story. And stories are about people doing things, not about issues. So maybe that’s it.
You guys are doing so much on such a small budget. Can you talk about how you make your budget work?
“I buy lottery tickets.
I really do buy lottery tickets.”
We don’t! When we started this in 2004, I thought that if we could be successful — and from all of the things you’re telling me and all the awards we’ve gotten, we have been successful — somebody would just drop 5 million bucks on us. I was so naive. That didn’t happen yet. I buy lottery tickets. I really do buy lottery tickets.
But really, my priority is paying people.
You must save money by working with students and volunteers, though?
“Our experience is that when you
hold people to high standards,
they meet them.”
Yes. We have about 20 community volunteers who are rotating through all the time. We don’t have our volunteers making photocopies and transcribing things, we have them producing for us. We’ve created this environment that is so fun to be in and it’s such a creative place. People keep coming and coming and wanting to work with us. A lot of them eventually go on to other places like NPR, KQED (one of the other San Francisco public radio stations), and KPBS (the major public radio station in San Diego).
How do you make sure that what you’re going to get from all of these volunteers is good quality?
Well, we train them for a long time. We teach them how to get hot tape, and we do heavy, heavy editing. The quality varies somewhat but our standards are very high — and our experience is that when you hold people to high standards, they meet them. Some people look at student work as less than professional, and our expectation is that you can do professional quality work. We do triple sourcing, and we fact check everything. And we guarantee broadcast, which also forces us to really be rigorous.
What kind of programming or projects do you dream about doing, regardless of funding, say 5 or 10 years down the road?
You know I’d love to map the cultural and artistic geography of this place: something interactive with an iPhone app, with stories that could pop up anywhere you were. Where you could touch a screen and hear a story about your local bookstore, or upload your stories. I’d love to be able to collect stories better and then produce them.
And then, to be able to cover public education in a sustained way, with young people leading that coverage.
I could keep going! If someone has that 5 million, I have some ideas!
What’s brewing at KALW now that we should be looking out for?
We just started a partnership with Youth Radio that we’re really excited about. We’re hoping to expand our daily show Crosscurrents from a half-hour to an hour, using more local youth radio content. Also, we’re located inside of a high school and we’re going to start a training program for high school students, having them produce new stories from new perspectives for us.
Earlier this month PRX launched new sharing options that allow producers and stations to embed PRX audio players in their websites, blogs and elsewhere. KFAI was one of the first stations to try it all out. When their acting News Director, Todd Melby, began embedding their pieces on the KFAI homepage and Facebook… this happened:
Do you see the y-axis? Those page views are in the thousands.
We’re pretty into our phones over here at PRX. And that’s as it should be, I suppose, as many of us spend our days conceiving, coding and promoting mobile apps for public radio.
A couple months ago Radio Diaries producer Joe Richman — equipped with his first-ever iPhone — asked me what PRX’s favorite apps are. I put the question to my colleagues, and return with the following list of our favorite mobile apps.
“Melodica is a revolutionary music application that mixes lights and sounds in a unique way, allowing anyone to compose music intuitively creating amazing visual effects just with the tips of your fingers.”
We love it when great work gets recognized. Those of you who happened on the iTunes podcast page today may have noticed Saltcast featured right up top. The bi-weekly podcast – “The Backstory to Great Radio Storytelling” – is produced by Rob Rosenthal for the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and PRX.org. Horn tooting definitely in order!