Why say storytelling rather than journalism? What’s the difference? I found myself asking PRX community manager Eric Dhan this when we talked about the public media organization’s Gateway Cities Audio Project.
He answered by telling me what he’d heard again and again from residents of Gateway Cities — two dozen urban centers that once served as anchors for regional economies and a “gateway” to financial stability for new Americans in Massachusetts — during the project’s research phase.
“There’s this sense that the dominant narrative that you see on the news from Boston or from the big news outlets is not covering these communities in a fair light,” Dhan said. “It’s always from the perspective of, ‘What is the crime?’ and ‘What can we improve?’ opposed to seeing what is already out there and celebrating these communities.”
The potential for podcasts and audio storytelling to counter news coverage that overemphasized crime and violence was appealing to many of the people he interviewed. “I think having these different ways of telling stories through a different medium and without this need to look at it from a journalistic lens is something that’s exciting to the community and that they find to be helpful,” Dhan said.
PRX launched the Gateway Cities Audio Project in late 2019 with funding from the Barr Foundation. (The Boston Globe and local public radio station WBUR have also received funding from the Boston-based fund.) The idea was to learn more about the people and organizations doing creative work in these communities — and to see if there might be an appetite for audio storytelling and podcasting.
After an initial phase that was half research, half community building, and wholly transformed by Covid-19 restrictions, PRX held five podcasting workshops that met residents of ten Gateway Cities — Springfield, Worcester, Lawrence, Brockton, Lowell, New Bedford, Holyoke, Fall River, Lynn, and Chelsea — where they were, in terms of audio knowledge and skills.
- “Podcast Listening Sessions” — “like a book club for your ears” — were an approachable way to get people familiar with audio storytelling and relatively simple to adapt to a virtual meeting.
- “Preserving Neighborhood Stories” was a skills-based workshop that served, basically, as Podcasting 101. PRX held workshops in both Spanish and English.
- “Local Media for All” was developed as a brainstorming session for residents to generate new ideas for encouraging local news and storytelling.
The programming was adapted from courses taught at the PRX Podcast Garage but influenced both by the pandemic (the sessions were held virtually) and the Black Lives Matter movement (PRX refocused its outreach on Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in the selected cities). About 30 people attended the sessions in total. PRX had a few takeaways from their experience:
Go where you are wanted. Go where you can be most useful. PRX took a community mapping approach to choosing which of the 26 Gateway Cities it would focus on, relying on one-on-one interviews and contacts at community institutions like libraries, local media, and arts organizations. The cultural sector has been hit hard by Covid-19 — an impact survey showed a collective loss of $47.8 billion and 5,225 people laid off, furloughed, or forced to work reduced hours between 184 cultural organizations in Gateway Cities — but they wanted to find community partners already interested in local history, creating connections within their communities, or raising awareness of local issues. If the partners were already interested in the podcast medium but felt they needed training to take the next step? Even better.
Podcasts don’t need to reach a huge audience — just the right one. “People may not quit their job and become a podcaster but the idea of a democratized media is that you can easily access and tell authentic stories — and there’s a lo-fi way that podcasting can exist in the world,” said PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman. “Podcasts can be successful even if they don’t have a massive audience. They can just reach the right audience.” Groups that PRX worked with included a mutual aid group that formed after a slow local response to providing resources to vulnerable communities and a collective that highlighted local, immigrant-owned businesses adapting to the pandemic’s challenges.
When you offer a workshop in another language, ensure everything — from the written resources to the confirmation email – is in that language. Gateway Cities count many new Americans among their residents, and offering a workshop in Spanish was a no-brainer for PRX. Hiring an instructor was just the first step in creating a workshop that truly catered to non-English speakers. “I think, for me, a takeaway is that you have these immigrant communities with people who came from another country with a lot of skills and knowledge that they can share but oftentimes it’s limited by the need to learn English in order to talk about something that you’re already really good at,” Dhan said. “We really tried to defer to the collaborators in terms of subject area expertise.”
PRX will continue to host podcasting workshops — now on both coasts. Dhan has since moved to San Francisco to launch a studio, classroom, and event space with KQED. The new space will be “a Bay Area home for audio storytellers of all experience levels.”