Summary: Minnesota Public Radio solved its need for state-wide but very local arts coverage by founding Art Hounds,a crowd-sourced group of local arts experts who provide opinions for the onair/online audio show. The concept led to 1,000 sign-ups, higher community engagement, and better arts coverage. The program could be used by any local media - large or small - to build the local arts franchise. Here's how the program works.
Media: Minnesota Public Radio, a 44-station public radio network, including MPR News, Classical MPR and The Current
Project: Art Hounds, crowd-sourced local arts criticism
Company: American Public Media
Audience: One million + listeners plus web traffic
Market: Minnesota and parts of surrounding states
Contributing executives: Chris Roberts, arts reporter and producer, Minnesota Public Radio; Molly Bloom, Public Insight journalist, Minnesota Public Radio; Jon McTaggart, CEO and President, Chris Worthington, managing director of MPR News
Challenge: In 2009 executives from the show Morning Edition of Minnesota Public radio had a a “programming gap”. The show used only one on-air commentator to provided regular arts coverage and discuss upcoming arts events for the weekend, injecting critical opinion.
However a lone critic could cover as much statewide territory as Morning Edition producers needed.
So they approached arts reporter and producer Chris Roberts and asked him find two or three more commentators for the show.
Strategy: Roberts was already working out a concept he thought could provide better way to cover the local arts scene: A program during which amateur arts critics from around the region wouid advise the public on interesting upcoming art exhibits and shows.
He had initially pitched the idea in the mid 2000s, when other staff were concerned about the amount of time and resources the program would require, and worried if this “rotating cast” of amateur theater critics, as Roberts calls it now, would be embraced by listeners.
This time, he resurrected with a few new adjustments: The program, called Art Hounds, relies on aggregating a large rotating cast of artists in the community which Morning Edition interviews onair, and post online.
Instead of amateur “art enthusiasts” to provide on-air commentary, the program uses local working artists and professionals in the art scene, including performers, artists, and people within arts groups or organizations.
Roberts describes these on-air artists now as “people with a much higher level of expertise and knowledge about the arts.”
By aggregating a large group of art experts, the news team is able to solicit and curate the best ideas every week.
"Crowd sourcing is tapping the wisdom and intelligence of a large number of people …You don’t have to put all those people on the radio,” said Linda Fantin, Director of Network Journalism and Innovation at Minnesota Public Radio. “It’s a way to sort of have many more eyes and ears and people informing your coverage.”
Crowd sourcing is also a way to find a diversity of voices. "It’s very interesting to hear what the lead guitarist for X band is going to listen to because he’s got a different perspective than the newspaper music critic.”
Recruiting the best Hounds
Public Insight Analyst at Minnesota Public Radio Molly Bloom joined Roberts in the creation of Art Hounds.
In the beginning, Bloom and Roberts had to heavily recruit Art Hounds by emailing arts organizations, getting the word out on message boards and relying on-air call outs. Potential new hounds were then included in the Public Insight Network (PIN)'s database, so that even if they were not used that week, they formed a growing pool of expert sources to tap into for the Art Hounds segment.
While the initial recruitment was difficult, Roberts still "kind of blew them away with how many people (he) came up with who had interesting things to say,” Fantin said.
Today, however, they no longer do much to recruit Hounds; since the program has become popular, new Art Hounds solicit them join the team, and "How do I become an Art Hound?" is a common question.
in fact, over the past four years since the program began, 1,000 people have signed up to be Art Hounds, Bloom says. (Please note: The original version of this case study confused the number of people who signed up to be news sources on PIn, which is 56,000, with the number who signed up to be Art Hounds, which is the subset of 1000 people).
The Art Hounds database is still part of the much larger PIN database of community members who act as sources for news coverage. PIN has tools to search potential sources by interest or job title type to create a list, then send email solicitations to the list.
Every two weeks, Bloom reaches out to the local arts experts via PIN’s tools asking them to suggest events they think are worth going to in the near future. People "in the arts" write back suggestions, such as great concert, recommendation for a play that is still running for a few more weeks, or even public art which is always available.
Bloom and Roberts select the three best ideas each week based on geographical and subject matter diversity, and organizations “we haven’t heard about," Bloom said. They welcome unusual art events in particular.
Bloom phones the three selected “Art Hounds” to vet them for conflicts of interest. From the start, Roberts and Bloom decided that every community member interested in becoming an Art Hound and applying for it would need to undergo a “vetting” process, to make sure they did not promote art events that they or someone close to them could benefit from financially.
If they pass the vetting process, Roberts schedules a time to meet them for an interview and produce the weekly segment, which airs on Thursdays.
Staff also posts Art Hounds commentary on a the Art Hounds website, a landing page on Minnesota Public Radio’s website, and promote via an Art Hounds Facebook page and Twitter feeds.
Differences in crowd-sourced content
Art Hounds commentary sounds “really different” than that of an art critic, Fantin said.
One Art Hound reported on an exhibit in a woman’s basement that was open from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.. and not advertised anywhere but Facebook.
Although these kinds of art events may sound unusual or even creepy, that it is often point: It makes for better programming.
“We think for audiences that’s one of the strengths of Art Hounds. It takes you places that aren’t easy to get to sometimes or aren’t easy to find out about,” Roberts said.
Another event an Art Hound profiled was about graffiti the city of St. Paul had tried to cover by painting over it and how the effect appeared like abstract art.
“It was fascinating,” Roberts said. And it was where I go all the time and I had never noticed it before and sure enough I went under it again and it was like a revelation. It was really true.”
Art Hounds also expand the coverage because the market is the entire state of Minnesota, while most reporters are based in the metro area of Minneapolis/ St. Paul.
To keep the Art Hounds engaged in the community, Roberts and Bloom hold periodic events such as an occasional tee shirt printing party, where Art Hounds can acquire the now-much coveted sign of their new role supporting the arts via their expertise.
“They have created the environment in which this community can form and come together,” Fantin said, “This is ... in some ways the holy grail of what news media organizations are trying to accomplish right now. You know the purpose of engagement isn’t simply to get things from people and then move on. It’s to create loyal audiences that will come back time and again and will talk to their friends about the connection they’ve made with you and support you.”
This is particularily important to public radio stations where developing the pool of donars can be an indirect process, based on developing one-by-one personal loyalties to the station. But the same concept applies for any local media covering the arts and developing a community service brand.
Show me the money
Art Hounds do not receive any payment for contributing their expertise and are able to more fully leverage the stations resources - in this case part of the job for two editorial people. `Bloom and Roberts do not need to independently attend the art exhibits and shows that Art Hounds suggest to see.
Bloom typically spends a few hours a week making calls to Art Hounds and vetting them, although she initially spent more time in the beginning recruiting people into the program
Roberts spends about six to eight hours a week conducting interviews with Art Hounds and producing the four-and-a-half minute segments.
The station has received funding to help offset the running costs of Art Hounds from The state of Minnesota Legacy Arts Fund. It is also an attractive part of the mix for other underwriters.
“We wouldn’t want to give your audience or anyone the impression that you have to have this really big budget … to be able to do Art Hounds.”
Vermont Public Radio has taken the Art Hounds concept and is doing it at a much smaller station.
The technology used to develop and sustain Art Hounds is the Public Insight Network plus basic audio recording equipment and editing and software.
• “First and foremost we do this for our audience,” Fantin says. “…they get diversity of voices… passion, we alert them to things that they never would have any idea existed.”
• “There’s a real value to the station because again we’re building a loyal audience. We’re getting underwriting around this, so real dollars.” Art Hounds is part of a mix of things that are sold to underwriters, Fantin said.
• The program helps enact the station’s mission to cover the vibrant Minnesota art scene. “You’re building a community, so you have to look at it as you’re building a long term relationship,” Bloom said.
• “The way I think about Art Hounds,” Roberts says, “is it’s a wonderful outcome if people hear something on Art Hounds being highlighted and they go and experience it, but Art Hounds is also for people who just want to know what’s going on in their own backyard and may not be able to check it out personally, but they want to know and support the art scene that exists here.”
• One of the greatest lessons learned was not one big “collective surprise” but rather individual stories.
One Art Hound has Asperger’s Syndrome alone with her husband and one of her sons. Her other son is autistic. She was recording an interview about a play she saw about autism with Roberts when her autistic son kept interrupting and demanding the limelight.
“The way she handled it like a saint was amazing to me, and we were able to include that in the broadcast and I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes to what, how parents contend with this issue much less hear about a play about autism," Roberts said.