The Multimedia Radio Newsroom, Part One

From the PRNDI conference session, “This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Newsroom!”

by M. Marcotte

Be Afraid – But Don’t Get Carried Away

Our radio world is getting rocked, like the newspaper world got rocked.

People with internet smart-phones are listening to audio streams from around the planet. People with tablets are bypassing the local station to get NPR news. Heck, even the former CEO of NPR famously predicted that terrestrial radio towers will be obsolete by 2020. (Though that’s unlikely.)

So, let’s approach what we have to do here with some urgency.

“We’ll have to make some choices about where and
how we devote our limited energies as we endeavor to build our non-broadcast platforms.”

Having said that, we have to temper our actions with the current reality. For example, most folks are still getting public radio via the radio.

Another reality — there are too few people doing local journalism at stations! (According to CPB and PRNDI data, two-thirds of public media stations have 3 or fewer full-time news employees.)

These are not bad times to be in public radio. Even the national dialogue about
the future of news is shining the spotlight on public radio, er, public media, because of our interwoven success with NPR… and because we’re now seen as a bulwark against the collapse of journalism at the local level.

But I digress. The point is that as much as I want to tout high aspirations on new digital platforms, I have to meet my fellow news directors right where they are. We’re still a radio-first system with local departments that are overworked and under-resourced. We’ll have to make some choices about where and how we devote our limited energies as we endeavor to build our non-broadcast platforms.


(Above: A 2010 survey of public radio news directors shows few doing any consistent multimedia journalism online — other than posting their audio and scripts. Fuerst/Marcotte, 2010. A repeat survey in 2012 showed only modest expansion of online local news efforts.)

Radio First but in a New Media Context

So we start with our radio platform as primary while we consider urgent calls for radical change.  How do we do this? Start by looking at how the “context” for our news has changed.

“Our technological platform is still predominantly radio, but our journalism is now part of the new media ecosystem…”

The 8 New Contexts for Public Radio News

  1. Think audio: Radio is becoming digital packets streaming over the internet.
  2. Think files. As in on-demand, archived content. Our audio is now commonly distributed as episodic podcasts or retreivable archives of clips, stories, newscasts or shows.
  3. Think cross-platform: Our radio messages drive people to websites or mobile apps where they can get more, do more, give more, see more, be more!
  4. Think community hub: Our non-profit, mission-oriented organization provides news as an educational and cultural service to citizens. We thrive when we position ourselves as a community institution like the school, the museum, the library, the arts center. We offer an actual physical place endowed with special technology, where people can gather in town meetings, attend trainings, produce special events, etc.
  5. Think leadership: Our staff is a committed group that initiates and presides over conversations of civic interest and importance. Our people are trusted to help make things go well in our town.
  6. Think wisdom of crowds, shared public insight: The people we aggregate by our service are individuals with expertise, facts, opinions, technology and leadership of their own. In the interactive world of today, they are now encouraged to share in the station’s programmatic mission.
  7. Think original, local content: We no longer serve as a mere terrestrial relay tower for NPR programming. We are valuable because we originate unique and relevant content.
  8. Think aggressive journalism: Our journalistic skills and resources are valued in new ways as commercial outlets suffer the ad-related revenue losses of internet disruption. We need to step up coverage of important local issues providing “accountability” coverage, curating essential facts and adding context.

In other words, the internet has changed us already.

Our technological platform is still predominantly radio, but our journalism is now part of the new media ecosystem: live, social, interactive and voracious.

(Above: The “Public Media Platform” as diagrammed by NPR planners in June 2010.)

What the web Wants

Let’s just be clear here about where we ultimately want to go. If we are going to sport an online news service, eventually we have to meet this new medium on its own terms. So even if my approach here is to hold onto audio as our primary service, I owe
you some advice on where I think we *really* need to get to soon.

As journalists converge on digital platforms, most arrive from their old traditional one or two dimensional mass medium. Print people were experts in the written word, using a visual layout. Radio people were experts in real-time episodic audio streams. Television people bring knowledge of time-rationed audio-visual experience.

And if you look at a lot of websites today, you can see the influences of the old media at play.  See how the looks like a newspaper? Go to a TV network site and
you’ll get gobs of colorful video and anchor people. Our radio sites are the worst: buttons to play audio streams or files, with radio scripts pasted in for good measure.

We’re awful at online news!

In web land, all must communicate in a multidimensional medium where the aesthetic imperatives compete according to message content and user experience.

The 5 Dimensions of Digital Content

In the web world, journalists face at least five dimensions at once:

  1. text-based information
  2. image-oriented experience
  3. audio-accompaniment
  4. networked (linked) opportunities
  5. interactive user control

In the workshop, I showed examples of the lame sites that try to do web in one or two dimensions. And examples of sites that provide a powerful multimedia experience simply by letting the web do what it does best.

Again, we want to aim for the five-dimensional approach. But we’re going to give people permission to approach those one step at a time.

Multimedia News is Just News Delivered Online

The working definition of “multimedia” was a bit tricky to distill as I checked what other people meant by it. Some used the label like special packaging to distinguish a project that took a lot of extra work and mustn’t get lost in the daily flow of news.

“Don’t label your online news ‘multimedia.’
That’s stupid.”

For us, perhaps it is simply adding visual context to our reversioned radio product. But I think it best to define true multimedia news as what you get when all five dimensions are present in your web journalism.

And, by the way, don’t label your online news “multimedia.” That’s stupid.

Just do stories in a way that exploits the power of the web and don’t worry about categorizing it. You will be doing multimedia but you will call it online news.

Let the Story Drive Presentation

You’ve heard this before and it is very important to understand. Different stories warrant different treatments. Just as you might say, “this story is a spot,” or “this story deserves a two-part series,” you may now need to consider the new
media dimensions of a story. 

Three New Questions for News Managers

Try some of these questions the next time you are playing with a story idea trying to make it into an actual reporter assignment with online potential:

  1. What are the visual opportunities in this story?
  2. Does it provide opportunity to aggregate or link to broader content?
  3. Should we engage the community before, during, after?

These questions begin to steer your assignment plan… which in turn steers the final presentation.

No longer can you assume this is all about radio with some tacked-on web
“extras”. You have to decide what proportion of effort ought to be spent on
the web dimension. It behooves you to spend as much as you can muster.

Downplaying Video?

Because we have big steps to take from audio to visual presentation, let’s make the first steps a bit easier. Let’s simplify by downplaying the importance of video.

Video complicates the work in the field and the work in the studio. It also complicates the user experience unless it is done very effectively — as in short, shareable, compelling clips or visually stellar production meant for longer sittings.

If you want to feature video as a prominent component of your online news, that’s great. Go for it. But I am not recommending that approach to people with limited budgets and limited staffs who must also deliver a daily radio product. Nor do I think it well serves a discerning public that has little patience for amateur video… or anything that takes too long to scan on the web.

There are times we will want video in our toolkit. It is great for observing unfolding action or conveying motion, but it is not necessary at this point as a staple of our multimedia news.

My big exception on video will be in breaking news situations. Even grainy video can be compelling if it captures a significant event.  And this is why your tool kit should feature a camera capable of capturing video.

So although my training is about adding effective visual dimensions to your radio news, it will do this primarily though photos, slideshows and text. We’ll also dwell somewhat on visual design, links, aggregation, and interactive opportunities. That’s a lot of content to add even without video.

Radio Folks Have a Head Start

I just want to point out something about radio people that you might under-appreciate. They already have a knack for one of the hardest parts of multimedia news: producing professional audio.

For people who have the knack for visual presentations — especially print people who are familiar with text and photos — one of the big challenges both out in the field and back at their desks is mastering the audio part of their stories.

We’re talking professional audio that adds crucial depth and dimension to multimedia storytelling. Visually-trained people don’t know how challenging it is until they actually have to operate a recorder, position a microphone, set a proper level, maintain steady presence, gather wild sound or conduct an effective interview — all while avoiding catastrophic mistakes.

You already have that skill!

Does that mean the visual part is easy?  No, similar challenges apply to professional photography, but isn’t it nice to know you have a leg up in the audio department?

Five Take-Aways from Part One

  1. It is important we acknowledge our existing resources and not overwhelm our team with extravagant demands. Rather we can take a strategic approach to web-based news that make incremental advances toward the ideal.
  2. The ideal we hope to reach someday will account for all five
    dimensions of web-based news:

    • text-based information
    • image-oriented experience
    • audio-accompaniment
    • networked (linked) opportunities
    • interactive user control
  3. Multimedia simply refers to any combination of the five web dimensions. By definition, all news online is multimedia news. There’s no need to put a special “multimedia” label on the more polished efforts.
  4. You must begin to consider multimedia dimensions in your
    assignment process.
  5. Finally, your existing audio production skills will come in very handy. Continue to develop your audio skills too!

Part Two: We get down to business