September 08, 2014

A Public Radio Station Tunes In to a City’s Innermost Thoughts

Photograph by Bryan Tarnowski

At a hidden microphone in New Orleans at City Park, two residents offer their thoughts on violence.

Violence visits New Orleans with sobering regularity. The local paper keeps a grim roll call of the city’s annual murder count—95 and climbing this year—and the figure can be numbing. But that doesn’t mean coverage about it needs to be.

Take, for instance, a recent episode of the Listening Post, a weekly segment on WWNO, the local public radio station. Prompted by an August drive-by shooting that killed two and injured five, the piece features an array of voices addressing a charged question: "What’s your experience with violence in New Orleans?"

To gather answers, the program’s producers plant microphones across the city and encourage residents to record their thoughts. Instead of speaking with a reporter, people approach digital recorders embedded in statues made of recycled cardboard. The Listening Post also texts the question of the week to those who’ve signed up for its mobile service.

This novel, hands-off approach allows the station to incorporate diverse voices and tap into a sort of confessional honesty. It’s a classic fly-on-the-wall approach with a modern, audio twist—a way to drop in on the vital conversations happening all around us.

"People are talking about school. People are talking about violence. People are talking about housing and business," says Jesse Hardman, co-founder of the Listening Post. "As a reporter, I always hate when I take out my microphone. The reaction is often people saying what they think you want them to say."

Mr. Hardman says the Listening Post empowers people to say more.

In the episode on violence, listeners hear an impassioned plea for new civic priorities from one resident, while another tells of the time he encountered a dead body next door to his home. The voices are earnest, the opinions unfiltered.

"It’s a way to cover news that isn’t news, but is actually the most important news," says Eve Troeh, a fellow co-founder and the news director at WWNO. "It’s something that transcends a daily news peg and allows us to have conversations."

Started in 2013 and supported by a grant from Louisiana’s Pennington Foundation, the Listening Post is a partnership with Internews, a nonprofit that supports and trains journalists working in developing communities around the world. It is the first time Internews has created a project focused solely in the United States.

The Listening Post exists mostly as its own contained segment, but Ms. Troeh wants to broaden its use to become a resource for reporters and producers.

She envisions Listening Post tape popping up across WWNO’s coverage: "We want it to become part of the culture of the station."

Send an e-mail to Avi Wolfman-Arent.