The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri sparked the show, and now listeners around the country are finding the content of the podcasts also applies to their local communities
St. Louis Public Radio, dedicated to a local audience, has a hit show on its hands, and it is diverse — and national.
The station’s popular podcast series, “We live here” launched in February of 2015, six months after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. But what started out as a local show has gone viral nationally with more than 100,000 streams, and only about 20,000 from people living in the St. Louis-Ferguson area.
While the national attention is great, the show started out as a platform for community issues in the St. Louis metro market.
As it turns out, “We Live Here” appears to be another example of “all news is local news,” says Aly Colón, the Knight Professor of Media Ethics in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Washington and Lee University. Colón says it is not surprising to him that the St. Louis-based podcast enjoys popularity around the country.
“People are drawn to situations that are similar to their own, no matter where they are,” he says. “We live in a streaming-savvy, high-tech, digitally-diverse world. There are simply more of those people nationally than there are in St. Louis. They tend to seek out news that is of interest to them, no matter where they live.”
The St. Louis NPR affiliate, KWMU, started the show with $175,000 in funding, — the largest single grant in the station’s history. The effort started as an effort to talk about the metro area and other diverse communities in the wake of Brown’s death, and how the St. Louis region could move forward. The original host wanted to explore local issues in St. Louis and the 90 municipalities that make up St. Louis County while exploring many of the same issues happening all over the country. It was never intended to be exclusively be the “Ferguson Show.”
And it isn’t.
With topics ranging from books for kids to affordable housing opportunities, “We Live here” has firmly established a national footprint, says Shula Neuman, the executive editor of St. Louis Public Radio.
“We started out saying, ‘let’s look at problems in St. Louis with awareness not exclusive to
St. Louis.’ ”
That programming angle quickly caught on, especially as NPR stations in other markets began participating in the podcasts with their own reporters.
Analysts say that approach is a key reason why the show is more popular outside St. Louis than in the city itself.
“The shooting of Michael Brown attracted national attention, which may have kind of skewed the (podcast) numbers,” said Steve Buttry, the Director of Student Media at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Buttry, who said he isn’t familiar with the podcast, said Baton Rouge has been at the center of national news lately. He points out that big national stories can draw attention away from local podcasts.
In Baton Rouge, flooding, the fatal shooting of three Baton Rouge police officers in July and the shooting death of Alton Sterling are big stories that could affect why “We Live Here” might be getting a disproportionate amount of traffic from outside the community, Buttry said. “But that’s not to say that it should not also be getting lots of local traffic,” he added.
The national outreach isn’t making everyone happy. Some St. Louis residents complain that the show isn’t promoted locally, which might also be why relatively few locals listen to it. Neuman acknowledges that the show does not have a local marketing budget. But she adds that the the funding for the show does not stipulate that the show must build a big local audience. NPR sees the show as a win for all of its markets.
“We started engaging with so many stations around the country,” she said. Neuman added that “there are only so many listeners (locally) in the market” compared to the country as a whole.
Neuman said to combat that the station is trying to engage the St. Louis community with listening parties and other events. Although it is not a formal marketing plan, the original grant for the show mandates that type of outreach. Buttry, the analyst, says that’s a good idea because local radio stations don’t always do a good in promoting local programming, on social media or otherwise.
“Facebook’s algorithm also buries a lot of brand content,” he said. “But if the station posts the content on local community pages, pages that belong to a local affordable housing advocacy organization, for example, the advocates would share it with its networks, thus increasing engagement that way.”
Still, the show is demonstrating that it is not about just St. Louis. That assertion is demonstrated in one recent episode about housing, in which sources from Georgia and San Francisco were interviewed, but nobody from greater St. Louis. Those shows, because of the content, clearly are more attractive to a national audience than local.
“If people don’t feel that it’s ‘about us,’ it won’t get shared, no matter how good the podcast,” Buttry said.
Initially hosted by journalists Tim Lloyd and Emanuele Berry (and edited by Neuman), “We Live Here” was designed to give voice to the St. Louis-area community and to disentangle political, economic and social binds through the power of storytelling and investigative reporting.
When the uprising over Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson had subsided, the issues that faced the communities of St. Louis County, a “jigsaw puzzle” (in the words of the podcast’s producers) of 90 separate municipalities, were just beginning to come into focus. That led to the podcast.
Trained in print media, Kameel Stanley joined the podcast last year (replacing Berry who had accepted a teaching position in the Fulbright Program).
“At this point in our careers, we’re not rookies, but we’re still curious,” says Stanley. “We want to grow and to do something that is outside the lines. When we came back for season two, we were interested to know if our audience had grown. And it had.”
That growth included national reach, and the show’s producers were fine with that. Twenty-one percent of the listeners are from St. Louis — the largest concentration of listeners, ranking ahead of New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area.
“There’s a saying that content is king. In this realm, context is king,” Stanley says of the show. “These issues are not new, and they’re not just happening in St. Louis. We might have a piece of the story that is better told by someone in California. We can show a continuum.”
That sense of a continuum from local to national informs the topics “We Live Here” has explored. Incarceration dovetails into economics, gun violence into public health, school funding into segregation, race into class into politics and back again. These are the issues at the heart of a broader American life.
“We’ve heard from everyone from suburban, white mothers who are trying to figure out how to talk to their kids about race,” explains Lloyd, “to young black men who are dealing with challenges in their own lives in St. Louis, and all points in between. We’ve heard from people that the podcast is part of their self-care, their self-development.”
“We Live Here” may have hit on just the right formula. Josh Stearns, director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, told Digiday.com that the sweet spot for any local podcast is covering local issues but in a way that appeals to broader audiences. “All of these [podcasts] could find niches outside of local audience even if they have that local lens,” he said in 2015.
“We Live Here” has offered recent shows have allowing individuals to shape their own stories. In episode 29, Stanley and Lloyd offer a simple prompt — “My America is…” — and lets their listeners complete the sentence in sometimes profound, sometimes delightful ways. In another episode, “We Live Here” joins forces with the storytelling group Second Tuesdays and the nonprofit UrbArts in St. Louis for a public event that exceeded both expectations and the capacity of the venue.
For season three, the producers plan to increase collaborations, but also to increase its investigative work to target institutional accountability.
“In April 2016, we did an episode on out-of-school suspensions for K3 in Missouri,” Stanley says. “Coincidentally or not, the next day St. Louis public schools announced they were banning out-of-school suspensions for early grades.”
“It’s hard to know how much impact an individual show has,” adds Lloyd. “But we did an episode on race relations in the University of Missouri system. There was so much national attention on it. There were a lot of questions about Tim Wolfe, who was the president of the system. We asked a very simple question: Did anyone ask him about race during the job interview? The answer was no.”
While “We Live Here” has examined the ways institutional racism shapes everyday life, the potential for changing those institutions remains within the communities and the political system. For Tommie Pierson, pastor of Greater St. Mark Family Church (located near Ferguson) and recent Missouri state legislator, the media has helped expose entrenched problems. He has seen some progress, but he stresses that core issues, especially at the level of representative democracy, remain.
“Some progress has come from the Department of Justice and the Ferguson Commission set up by the governor,” he states. “But there are still so many meaningful steps that need to be taken. You still have the same people who are just doing the bare minimum, just to make you go away. There’s been a lot of window washing. We need to be in decision-making positions. We don’t have that yet. Until we tackle that, this problem will come back every four or five years. It won’t be solved until communities can determine their own destinies.”
That idea of self-determination is an unstated theme running through the stories revealed by “We Live Here.” Understanding poverty, educational disparities, gun violence, affordable housing, and the criminal justice system means understanding how to create the conditions necessary for people to make lasting change.
“There’s a wellspring of people who really care and want to make things better,” Lloyd says. “But they are bumping up against structural barriers to making scalable reforms. Looking at systems and at people, it’s fascinating and it’s sad.”
Stanley agrees but adds: “We don’t just want to veer into abject blackness. We want to do fun stories, happy stories. We’re challenging ourselves to not just talk to black people about blackness and white people about whiteness. Having a black woman and a white man producing these shows has been important – in a small way, because we talk about these issues with each other all the time. We can disagree with each other and push each other on these issues.”