Bernstein Family Foundation is a proud supporter of WAMU 88.5- American University Radio. With a listenership stretching across the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, WAMU plays an important role in the nation’s capital. The Foundation, in its quest to promote American democracy, has given life to the online platform, Voter Guide, which seeks to inform constituents of their election ballots. I sat down with its creator, Christopher Lewis, Director of Digital Media, to get deeper insight into his work at WAMU.
Tell me a bit about your background and your path to assuming this position.
For many years, I worked for print magazines, always on the digital side. This position, which I have held for 4 years, was a really fun and interesting challenge as radio is a different format, of course. There’s a whole different set of challenges related to digital audio which I feel like we’ve just started to scratch the surface on. But in my previous careers, I did a lot of work on digital and product strategy around content, so this was a natural fit.
How you are innovating WAMU’s current and emerging digital platforms?
Part of our strategy is about becoming more platform-agnostic and not worrying so much about [FM] broadcast as the sole form of content. This means being ok with our content living exclusively on social, and being ok with our content being embedded on somebody else’s website. We are embracing that from a business standpoint and making it work to our advantage.
How are you using WAMU’s standing in the local community to improve public outreach and forge a better dialogue with your audience?
We try to make our content as available as possible, and we’ve done a number of things to do so, like putting video cameras in the studio so that people can see what actually happens during a live broadcast. We also do community events — being able to produce radio shows in front of audiences at our new building is a real advantage. We have seating for about 100 people to come in and watch radio being produced. We’re trying to do it more regularly. The Kojo Nnamdi Show has been particularly focused on finding avenues to bring the community into its conversations. For example, we have events like ‘Kojo In Your Community’ where we go to a locale in the D.C. metro area and produce a radio show where the audience is an active participant.
You’ve got an interesting contrast going on here- traditional versus digital media. According to a recent report, usage of traditional media in the U.S. dropped 2.4% in 2015 while digital media use jumped 33.5%. In your position as Director of Digital Media at a public broadcasting service, how have you found combining the two? Has the digital component been a crucial aspect of maintaining and increasing viewership?
Radio is unique. When people talk about media disruption, they often think about newspapers and magazines, but radio too is experiencing all this disruption- I just think it’s a little earlier in the process. So whereas, 2008 was a big event for the newspaper industry and magazine world, radio has been a little slower to be affected. This is a big opportunity if played right. Radio outlets need to leverage this advantage and engage with their audiences on digital platforms in a more serious way than ever. This means building out digital platforms and pushing audiences from broadcast to digital in a way that brings value to both.
As a director, how do you encourage creative thinking within WAMU?
I try to give everyone on the teams I work with enough latitude to come back with creative ideas. It is difficult because there is so much we have to do to catch up to where we think we should be. We have a very tight roadmap. However, I think it’s really good to have some flexibility in that roadmap so that we can stumble on cool things. It’s really just about making sure people have time, that their views are accepted and they are not afraid to fail. We would have never done Voter Guide if we were afraid to fail.
What led you to create Voter Guide and can you tell me a bit about how it works?
It seemed like there was a hole in that market, and there was not a good place to find who is going be on your ballot and at the same time learn about what these candidates think. We felt that the Voter Guide really served that purpose; it was very successful. When we first launched it, roughly 300,000 people used it 2 days prior to the 2012 elections.
The way it works is simple. You visit the site, tell it where you live or use its geo-location feature, and then you are able to see a list of the candidates for races in your area. We supplement that with questions created by our producers and the candidates’ responses, along with links to relevant WAMU content. Collecting all of this information is not easy and takes many months of work. When it’s done, visitors to the site can select the candidates they intend to vote for and the site produces a printable ballot that they can take with them to the polls. The idea is to help make the voting process as easy and informed as possible.
What constituency are you trying to focus on? Your listeners or people in the DMV area in general?
We want to grow our listenership of course- I think if we just tried to serve the constituency we have today then the audience would just keep shrinking. Our Senior Director of Content & News, Andi McDaniel, has been leading the charge to diversify our coverage. She has launched some really interesting user-centered projects with the help of the digital team, including ‘What’s With Washington?’.
How successful has it been? Has there been much greater engagement since it’s election season?
We have not started producing the next Voter Guide, but we are right on the edge of that, things have been busy. In general, our audience-driven efforts like What’s With Washington have seen incredible amounts of engagement.
Low youth voter turnout has always been an issue- are you aiming to build awareness around elections and local candidates to try and promote voting among this constituency?
There are a lot of people working on that. We have not made that our exclusive focus for this effort, primarily because it’s a big task for us to get Voter Guide done as it is. That said, we feel like the Guide would lend itself to younger voters, so the fact that it works well on a mobile device, the fact that we promote it on social media, we think that it will reach a younger audience that maybe doesn’t have that much experience voting. I think by the nature of what Voter Guide is, it helps- the more digital platforms you have, the more you can give younger voters the opportunity to know what’s going on in the election.
How have you worked to expand the reach of Voter Guide?
It is a digital effort and we do a lot of cross-promotion on air, and it has been very effective. It’s a great way for us to bring our on-air audience into some of our digital offerings. At the same time, social media is very important to it. In general, Facebook drives a lot of traffic for us, and we have the good fortune of being partnered with NPR so periodically, they will share stories that will expand our reach.
How instrumental has Voter Guide been throughout the production of WAMU’s various programs?
Right now, the Voter Guide is functioning in the opposite direction where we’re pulling content that we produce on our shows and tying it into the Guide. We imagined the case where a user might say ‘Alright you have this person on the ballot, what was WAMU’s coverage of that candidate?’. We are not actually collecting data about those who use the Guide; it would be really interesting to do, but that would need to be a separate effort and of course would have privacy implications.
Do you believe there is a great misunderstanding and ignorance surrounding how our political system functions?
I think that there is a lot of work to be done there, and I think that really depends on where you are in the country, and who you’re talking to. Some municipalities do a great job of making sure they are educating their youth about political process, however some don’t. It’s one of those areas where it feels like there is always more work to be done.
So, what’s on the horizon for 2016?
We have a lot of exciting stuff queued up, the biggest one of which is the complete re-design of our website. We’ve really doubled-down on audio for this new design of our website- it’s kind of a game changer for us. The web team is currently focused on curating textual content similar to what you might see on Washington Post or Washington City Paper. It’s about writing headlines and making sure that our trending stories are positioned in the right way. As we build a richer audio experience on our website, it’s going to be more about programming audio for digital platforms, which will be really interesting for us. The new site will be completely responsive of course. It will have a persistent audio player so that as you navigate from page to page, the audio experience won’t be interrupted. We will be doing a lot of playlists that will focus around beats that we cover.