Prototype. Prototype. Prototype.It really saved us. Monday we had everyone sit in place for a talk-through drill and discovered issues that would have been problematic on election night. The only thing that didn't work (once) was a wireless microphone setup in the newsroom which, ahem, we hadn't tried before.One interesting tidbit: Virginia didn't prove to be the early key we thought it might be. In fact, with the earlier-than-expected call of Ohio for Obama, we knew he had won even before Virginia went his way. And in a departure from many networks, we actually took our newsroom conversation to the air as early as 10:20 p.m.: Our host was honest about how we expected Obama to be called as President at 11 p.m., straight up, when the California, Washington and Oregon were declared his. As it then happened.We're conducting a full internal critique Monday at Noon -- using the d.school's "I Wish, I Liked, How To" format.Details to follow.
Our newsroom works. Which is news.For three years, we tried to design, from scratch, the best radio and online news facility possible. We moved in this summer, and the recent debates and breaking financial news suggest we got pretty darn close.The key, I believe, was our central point of view:-- During the most confused, stressful, and destabilizing moments, everyone is grounded in the familiar -- logins, phone lists, audio systems, etc. This allows the staff to sort out the fast-moving story, not rarely-used protocols-- Routine, hourly news is produced with the benefit of communications and production systems robust enough for breaking news-- Training people in daily news production automatically prepares them to handle the unexpected-- On-air producers work amid the reporters and editors, not in a separate control room, so they are closer to the facts-- On-air hosts can look look left to see the producer (and the rest of the newsroom), and right to see the audio engineer-- Those sightlines allow for peripheral visual cues, such as concern on a reporter's face, or people intensely watching TV monitors-- The News Hub is a technical extension of the studio complex, and has the intercom system used to talk directly with hosts and engineers; conversely, the hosts can address the entire newsroom through the News Hub monitor speakers to request facts, pronouncers, even water.-- A web producer seated at the News Hub is integrated into the editorial system and instantly privy to all plans and decisionsIt's not perfect. We produce two news shows on two different frequencies in the morning, and have trouble monitoring both at the News Hub. And our beautiful sightlines become tough brightlines as the sun sets beyond our western windows.But those panes do provide an unexpected feature for hosts and the entire newsroom: ambient warning of approaching storms.
In a breaking news situation, nobody should need to move.A simple concept, with several implications:
Back when a dozen people were vying for the presidency, I watched one of the debates at home alone, wishing I was in the company of people I respect to hear their thoughts.Quick searches found the live blogging to be either slower or noisier than I wanted.So as the presidential debates approached, I asked a tiger team at the station to come up a "live debate companion" fed by our top thinkers.For the first McCain/Obama debate, we had John Hockenberry, Brooke Gladstone, Brian Lehrer and Andrea Bernstein tweet into their own accounts, which were presented in a self-updating Twitter/Web solution called Monittor. In a separate window, we fed a steady update of any tweet worldwide that included the word "debate" or the candidates' names -- offering a living, breathing experience, with a nice feel. It was also easy to share across our websites and other stations.It turns out that the Twitterverse gets reeeeeallly slow during the debates, and that made the end result less interesting than we had hoped. Also -- hard to provide the trademark public-radio context in 140 characters.For the Palen/Biden debate, we switched to CoverItLive, which provided a rockin', real-time experience. We hit some (yet unknown) room capacity, but for those able to join, it really flowed well. We copy-pasted some analysis into tweets, too.Two strong signs we're on the right track:1) The next day, the critiques at the station, including a chunk of a Takeaway planning meeting, centered on the content of the event, not the technology.2) This:
[Comment From Chris, NYC]"Company." Bingo.We'll do it again Tuesday.UPDATED OCTOBER 14: We learned today that there 1026 people participated in the Live Debate Companion for the 2nd presidential candidates' debate. That's exciting.
This was a great experience. Thanks for your company.
If we're collaborating on an art project, would you rather have access to my great paintings or my awesome set of paints?In public radio, the currency of collaboration is often the painting. Or the "piece," really. It's the 3- to 5-minute story that's carefully crafted, rich with texture and color, and takes the listener somewhere compelling.Trading in these paintings, though, is frought with problems. First, they have a high emotional investment. And very often, the painting looks (sounds) great on the walls (airwaves) of the local station, but doesn't quite fit the style of the station down the road. Or the national show.To solve this, there are many local, regional and national workshops geared toward getting everyone to paint more like each other ... or at least make sure they match the walls of one particular house.But maybe the answer is in collaborations centered around the tools of our trade, not the end result.Time to experiment with collaborating around:
[photo 3rd foundation]
- reporter knowledge
- shared experiences
- experts we trust
- techniques we use
- tools we buy
- investigations we undertake
- widgets we make
[photo 3rd foundation]
Example 1 -- Crisis Information Flow
At WNYC, we used Post-It notes to simulate how information flows through our newsroom to air during a breaking news situation. "Facts" were represented by shapes, and we watched how they moved (or didn't) through the process. We learned a ton, which you can see in our full case study, including a 15-mininute movie. What we learned improved our coverage of a big news story that broke the very next day.
Example 2 -- Full Scale Drill
We've also done a full-scale crisis drill, simulating a dirty-bomb attack. This involved the entire news and technical staff, who responded to information (wire stories, witness information, etc.) sent to them roughly once a minute for an hour. Due to the sensitive nature of this drill, I have not posted our case study. If you are interested in learning more about it, please contact me. Prototyping Station PreparednessExample -- Blackout Plans
To test our backup power, we regularly cut power to our facility (usually late at night) and make sure it still works. During the day, we actually relocate hosts to our backup room, as they'd do in a real outage.l Just three weeks ago, two of us got out of our chairs, walked to a key breaker box, and took a new look at which switches we'd have to throw in a blackout. In the process, we realized there were no backup lights in that room, so we wouldn't have been able to see the switches! We solved this with a $15 power-failure light.
Prototyping Operations Elsewhere in Your City/RegionExample -- Make Other Arrangements
Be ready to move somewhere else; we've had to do it twice (once on 9/11, once during the northeast blackout of 2003). We've arranged with another local studio to be our backup facility, and we have key equipment and supplies in place there now. Our full news and technical staff will be visiting the facility to see, touch and feel what it's like to set up there. We're also installing our own set of phone lines so we can do live call-in programs -- which have been essential components of our crisis coverage.TipsClick here for a 2-page PDF of helpful tips and tricks for public radio stations.