Coming soon: Experimenting beyond the 24-hour news chain and more from AIR’s 2017 report

TruckBeat van parked on the roadTwo years of field research and community collaboration will soon culminate in a report that captures the impact and key findings from Localore: Finding America. AIR’s 15 producer teams learned important lessons about expanding the boundaries of journalism and using the tools available to media-makers professional or casual. At its crux, the report presents three ways to take action and 10 steps to making community-driven stories. Find the report, Break Form: Making Stories With and For The People here.

The following Q&A is a glimpse of what is to come in the report. Jess Mador, lead producer of  TruckBeat shares her thoughts on the first key step: Make room for work beyond the deadline-driven, 24-hour news cycle. This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

TruckBeat is a storytelling project about East Tennessee based in Knoxville at WUOT. The team takes a truck-turned-mobile studio out on the road to report in depth on community health. The project was led by independent producer Jess Mador in collaboration with WUOT news director Matt Shafer Powell and continues at WUOT.

Tell us about yourself and your professional background.
I am a multimedia journalist and documentary maker. I recently joined WYSO in Yellow Springs as an editor and reporter after 10 months at Knoxville station WUOT, where I produced TruckBeat for Localore: Finding America. Before Localore, I spent time as both an independent freelancer and a public television and radio station staffer, including as a reporter/producer at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. I’m increasingly excited about entrepreneurship, innovation, and working in the space where digital and social media, community engagement, and public media journalism collide. Let’s make stuff!

Why a food truck? What worked — and what didn’t?
We wanted the truck to be a gathering place — part billboard, part listening booth — to hear what issues matter most to people across the Knoxville region. The idea was to flip the food-truck trend on its head and use our truck as an in-person street engagement platform, a chance to meet people who may not already listen to public radio, to spark curiosity, conversation and participation among community members. Also, it was important for the truck to be a work of art in its own right. I’m proud that the design reflects Knoxville’s personality, featuring the city skyline and the iconic Sunsphere.

Our truck was originally built to deliver bread. Then, Knoxville TV-news station WBIR repurposed it in order to broadcast live from the 1982 World’s Fair in downtown Knoxville. In 2015, WBIR no longer needed the truck. So, they sold it to us for TruckBeat. We cleaned it out, salvaged the old analog equipment and turned the inside into a low-budget, but broadcast-quality recording studio.

WBIR took excellent care of the truck. But it was old. It sometimes had trouble starting, and it couldn’t handle highway speeds very well. The main issue was generator noise. Once the weather turned hot the loud generator made it difficult to record interviews inside the truck.

We’d park the truck in a visible spot, open up the back, and set up a sidewalk listening booth. We’d ask people to respond to a particular health-related question with a vox-pop audio or video interview, or by writing their answer on a piece of paper to be posted on the side of the booth, where others could see and react to it.

People’s in-person responses informed TruckBeat’s reporting. We also collected people’s questions using Hearken — a platform that allows journalists and their audience to collaborate in the process of making stories.

Lead producer Jess Mador and WUOT station collaborator Matt Shafer Powell pose with the truck.

What’s next for the truck?
Now that Localore has officially ended, WUOT owns the TruckBeat truck. The station has committed to continuing the community engagement project on a part-time basis for at least the next two years. I’m proud TruckBeat has given WUOT a whole new way to interact with the community.

What was the thought process behind your team’s approach to health reporting in the community? What did you want to accomplish and what were your struggles?
We knew from reporting and research that many people across Southern Appalachia suffer more health problems than people in other parts of the United States. Health is an ideal lens for examining other social issues such as poverty and income inequality.

But we needed to find out whether health disparities were an issue that the average person in the Knoxville area worried about. So, we crunched nearly 800 survey responses collected by WUOT’s Tenn Words project and found many East Tennesseans were, in fact, concerned about a variety of health issues. We looked at that as a sort of mandate to guide TruckBeat.

Access to physical and mental health care is a big issue in East Tennessee. The state has not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans are uninsured.

We hoped TruckBeat’s audio and video stories could help begin a new conversation about the impact of health disparities from the perspectives of the people most affected by them.

And because of the severity of East Tennessee’s opioid crisis, we quickly realized TruckBeat needed to make addiction and recovery a major focus of our health reporting. We covered the opioid epidemic from a community and mental health perspective with audio and video stories.

The news cycle can get buried in sensational stories about crime, poverty, and despair. What differentiates TruckBeat?
Localore granted producers the freedom to not respond to the daily news cycle in the traditional way. TruckBeat, and WUOT’s sister project, Tenn Words, were built around the idea that people in the community should be telling us what their issues are — not the other way around.

However, we tackled some difficult topics: mental health, poverty, violence and despair, disparities in access to health care, and the opioid-addiction crisis. We went beyond the headlines by telling stories that traced the ripple effects of health policies and issues all the way down to the community, family, and individual level.

We also focused on resilience in the face of poverty, of inequality, of addiction and violence. So, in our coverage of East Tennessee’s opioid epidemic, for example, it was important to hear about recovery efforts as well as addiction.

We made a point to cover some of the solutions rural and urban communities are pioneering in response to the particular health-related problems they face, real stories of everyday people in extreme circumstances reacting with humanity, compassion, resilience, and optimism for the future. These stories guided our coverage. Context was essential.

Tell us about the project Tenn Words.
Tenn Words is WUOT’s first experiment with multiplatform engagement, launched several months before TruckBeat began. Tenn Words asks community members to answer one question in 10 words or fewer, online or on a little slip of paper that’s posted on a portable sidewalk story booth so others can read it and discuss it.

The first Tenn Words question was, “what keeps you up at night?” Now — thanks to audience Hearken votes! — the question has changed to, “what restores your faith in humanity?”

Initial positive audience response to Tenn Words inspired Matt to enter WUOT into the AIR “runway” competition to become a Localore incubator station. After Localore began in November 2015, we faced the challenge of figuring out how Tenn Words and TruckBeat could best collaborate.

We quickly realized Tenn Words and TruckBeat were perfectly compatible. Tenn Words introduced WUOT’s audience to the station’s new approach to engagement. TruckBeat became a key part of that strategy. It was fun to build upon what the station had started and experiment with new ideas for encouraging audience participation.

TruckBeat helped to expand Tenn Words’ digital and social footprint, allowing WUOT to go further into the community to discover the people and stories that make East Tennessee so interesting and unique.

Likewise, the Tenn Words sidewalk story booth invited people to interact directly with the truck.

Was there a specific response you read that stood out to you?
We both have many favorite responses to the first Tenn Words question, “what keeps you up at night?”

Some responses are funny, some are weird and some will break your heart, to quote Matt. There is a powerful alchemy in asking a stranger to share a story.

  •   One response that’s particularly haunting came from a 30-year-old man, who wrote, “the children I killed in war.”
  •   Many responses related to poverty, such as this one from a homeless man, who wrote, “my brother is in and out of jail, my mother works all the time.” There was one that said, simply, “losing my job.”
  •   Many are health-related, such as, “if I’m too sick, who will care for my children?,” “my cancer coming back,” or “what if I can no longer afford my medicine?” or simply, “Stress.”
  •   There are also many lighthearted Tenn Words responses, such as, “my snoring husband,” or “cats.”

We also used Hearken modules to collect health-related questions for TruckBeat. Here are some examples of responses we received:

  •   “Why isn’t there assistance for diabetics who cannot afford insulin, even with insurance?”
  •   “How can LGBT/trans individuals get more competent health care?”
  •   “What plans does the state of Tennessee have, if any, to establish more free and state-run drug rehab clinics?”
  •   “For people without insurance, how are they receiving medical care in East Tennessee?”

Some of the Hearken responses led to follow-up stories. Two examples of this are:

Do you have a favorite moment from TruckBeat?
There were too many favorite moments to count … but here are a few that come to mind:

The day we took the TruckBeat truck “home” from about a week at the paint shop was amazing. When it was finally ready, cinematographer-collaborator Phil Batta and I were there to watch as workers peeled back layers of brown paper to reveal the TruckBeat design for the first time. After so much planning and imagining how the finished truck would look, seeing it in real life was surreal. I couldn’t believe we pulled it off. I still break out in a big smile every time I see the truck. It’s a bombshell. That first day, we took it on a little joyride down to World’s Fair Park, where we had fun shooting this promo video for TruckBeat.

Other favorite moments were every single time we took the TruckBeat truck to a neighborhood event. It was a blast meeting people and watching them react to the truck for the first time. People loved to stand with friends or family in front of the Tenn Words sidewalk story booth at the truck, reading and reacting to other people’s responses. We met so many interesting people and we always came away with more stories than we expected.

One especially fun day was when we brought the truck to a neighborhood health fair in East Knoxville. Another major highlight was our #Roane Is Better Together live storytelling event at the beautifully restored 1920s Princess Theatre in Harriman, East Tennessee, with an audience of around 300 people.

If you could travel back in time, what tips would you give the Jess Mador who was just starting out with TruckBeat?
Looking back, there are many things I would change about TruckBeat’s execution. There are also many plans we simply ran out of time before accomplishing. With just nine months for our first phase (TruckBeat’s first phase was actually 10 months), we hit the ground running hard and fast.

  •   I learned it’s tempting to take on too much and spread your resources too thin. It’s perfectly OK to start small, experiment and evaluate the results before scaling up, keep it manageable — don’t try to do everything at once.
  •   At the same time, be bold. Have fun. Try stuff. Experiment: with ideas, with story format, length and style.
  •   Be “full-spectrum.” A story can have a longer and unexpected life on social media. Your podcast or radio segment may be just the first step. Or the last. Consider breaking up a story into smaller pieces, use the pieces for promos or distribute them across different platforms, build live events around them. There are no rules.
  •   Think about sustainability. Don’t wall off engagement projects into a silo. Connect this valuable work to the station’s infrastructure. Seek out strategic partnerships with key allies inside and outside the station for a deeper community impact.
  •   Design your project with your audience in mind. Be transparent about what you are doing and why. How can community members participate? What got an enthusiastic response? What fell flat? What can you learn from the results?  

What is the best advice you’ve received so far about making community journalism?
I received so much helpful advice at the start of Localore, including:

  •   Go outside. But … also remember to bring community members inside the station.
  •   As you build a new engagement project, be patient with your station. But … be impatient with your station: you are a disrupter!
  •   But … remember to respect your station’s brand and legacy, too.
  •   Think sustainability; think replicability. Look for ways to continue your engagement project long after the initial launch.
  • Remember: Your community’s primary social platform may not be online. Discover where people in your target audience already gather.

What are some stories/projects on your radar right now that break away from sensationalized news content and forms?
It feels like we are experiencing a new golden age of public media. There is so much happening out there.

For a start, I would say all of the Localore: Finding America projects eschew sensationalism to handle difficult or hot-button topics with sensitivity and nuance.

Just one example of many:

  •   Precious Lives: Before the Gunshots at WUWM explores what is driving the epidemic of gun violence in Milwaukee’s inner city. Through stories and live events created by and with people touched by this violence, Precious Lives: Before the Gunshots examines the roots of the bloodshed in an effort to improve life for everyone in the city.

What does finding America look like to you?
Localore: Finding America reflects the magic of ordinary life, seeking hidden connections between seemingly disparate people and places, while at the same time illuminating what makes communities unique. The spirit of Finding America is storytelling informed by curiosity and authenticity to time and place — journalism that reveals a more complete reflection of life in small towns and big cities across the country today. As Matt has said, Finding America is a place of discussion. Of empathy. Of understanding.

Note: This Q&A incorporates some insights from Matt Shafer Powell, TruckBeat’s Localore: Finding America station collaborator. Matt has been the news director/executive producer at 91.9 FM WUOT in Knoxville for the last 14 years. But this month he leaves WUOT to become chief content officer at WFYI Public Media in Indianapolis. Matt is also an audio engineer who has produced for public radio, commercials, and soundtracks for videos and films. Matt joined WUOT in 2002 after heading up Michigan Radio’s West Michigan Bureau. He is a multiple National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and serves as the representative to small stations on the board of the Public Radio News Directors Inc.

Learn more about TruckBeat on its website or at Finding America, at Poynter, or watch a slide presentation about the project. Sign up to be notified when the final report is published.