By AIR Media Strategist Jessica Clark
While Dayton, Ohio is home to award-winning filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, over the past year they’ve traversed some unfamiliar territory. For one of the 10 public media transformation projects that comprise AIR’s national Localore production, the pair worked with Dayton-based WYSO to develop a first-of-its-kind interactive documentary about how locals are reimagining themselves and their community: Reinvention Stories.
Developed in collaboration with interactive storytelling team Zeega, the site has rolled out over the course of the spring, revealing stories of eight Dayton residents in three parts: who they were before the bottom fell out of the city’s economy, what happened next, and how they are reinventing themselves.
Each act offers interactive features, inviting audience members to explore further and contribute their own reflections on the city’s prospects. In addition, WYSO is producing a series of paired stories—audio and video on the same subjects—profiling other residents who have taken a leap to change their lives.
WYSO General Manager, Neenah Ellis, is a Peabody-winning reporter who has worked in public radio for more than three decades. In the following interview, she describes what it was like to collaborate on this cutting-edge multimedia production, and how the station engaged community members in documenting their own transformations.
Q: The final act of the interactive documentary launched a few weeks ago. What kind of response are you anticipating?
Ellis: The response overall has been great. The multimedia portion has been a huge experiment for all of us—we had no way of knowing what would happen because we’d never done it before. Parts I and II have been extremely well received, and we’ve gotten a lot of press. We think it’ll stay the same for part III, which means that we’ll be able to sustain high-volume interest for 6 months.
Act III also has a new interactive capability: a beautiful map of the Dayton area, with all of the neighborhoods and the people who have been interviewed represented by a dot. Users can also upload photos and stories, and become part of the documentary.
This interactive piece is what makes the project unique, and what will give it a long life. It helps us imagine the project in the future, find new people to interview, anticipate trends—for WYSO it has a million uses, so we’re really excited about that. It’s been hard…but I think it’s well worth it.
Q: How do you anticipate extending the project?
Ellis: Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert got funding from the MacArthur Foundation, so we’re planning a second year now. We’ll pull together another team as we did with the first one, and analyze what worked and what didn’t so that when we roll it out again it will be more streamlined.
The stories from year two will probably launch in January 2014, and WYSO is raising money for a third year. Also right now, we’re still airing the paired radio/video stories—Wednesdays during Morning Edition at 6:30 and 8:30.
We’re working right now on pieces for early May, and trying to decide on how many to do overall. Then, will re-run them, so we’ll get a full year’s worth of programming
Q: Do you feel as though this documentary is bringing new kinds of listeners to the station?
Ellis: Not only did it get my staff physically out into neighborhoods, but once they get there, their consciousness is different. This summer we’ll pick new neighborhoods, so it will extend us out even further. Anecdotally, we’ve gotten a lot of good responses from listeners, but we are still trying to match new members up with the neighborhoods.
As the stories air on the radio, we also see a lot of Facebook and email traffic, so we know that people are sending it out to their friends. So, there’s that great social media expansion of awareness as well.
One woman named Debbie Bradley, a former General Motors worker, started a discussion [online] among the GM workers about whether many of them have been able to reinvent themselves. She’s a real success story…became a nurse, and fulfilled her dream. We told her story and it kindled a conversation.
Q: What have you learned about the relationship between film production and radio production?
Ellis: The short films are different from the radio pieces, in some cases quite dramatically. The radio stories tend to go deep very fast, and the video stories tend to go wider. You get a different feeling about a person’s life with family photos, for example, while the radio pieces are deeper and more contemplative.
We’re hoping to bring all of the radio and film producers together and ask them what they’ve learned and share it.
Q: What lessons would you share with other stations?
Ellis: I do believe strongly that this project has really increased our capacity as a pretty small station to innovate…but it’s not a given.
You really have to have a vision, to have done the foundational work. We invested in a webmaster, have a high-functioning web platform, began community media training a couple of years before we began Reinvention Stories, had good media contacts—so the project allowed us to build on all that previous work.
We also leveraged Reinvention Stories to create a new team of volunteer media makers in combination with our paid staff, building on the Community Voices program. Now, in its third year, it has a cumulative effect, because people keep coming back. It encompasses a lot of projects, including Reinvention Stories—if we didn’t have that umbrella, we’d have a harder time perpetuating it.
But, as a small station, there are trade-offs. In a bigger station, there’s a bigger cushion, more people. There weren’t as many news stories this year because reporters were out walking out streets. So we had to decide that it was worth it.
I’m just so proud and happy that CPB and all of the other funders stepped up and recognized the potential for independent producers working in public stations. I hope the other nine Localore stations had as good an experience as we did, and that other stations open their doors to local makers, and realize that they’re a great resource.
Curious to learn how the other Localore stations built new storytelling strategies to engage communities? Read previous posts in this NCME series and visit Localore.net to experience them for yourselves.