making media, making change: a conversation with jesse hardman

making media, making change: a conversation with jesse hardman

In early September, we were excited to welcome our friend and newest collaborator Jesse Hardman when he visited our offices in Seattle. Jesse is a reporter and media developer currently working in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he manages and curates a community media engagement project called the Listening Post. Using text messages, public signs and roving recording stations equipped with microphones, the Listening Post provides the opportunity for people to capture and share information, opinions and news about the local issues they feel are most important.

Before starting the Listening Post, Jesse and his voice recorder travelled around the globe experimenting with different ways of gathering and delivering information in local communities. He shared stories about teaching radio classes at an all-girls Catholic school in South Chicago, building an information exchange in war-torn Sri Lanka, working with tribal radio stations in the Southwest United States, and establishing a two-way conversation about important issues with community members in New Orleans. He understands how to listen, how to get important information to people who need it the most and how that information is a lifeline for communities to thrive.

He sat down with us to share stories about his travels and his work, and to talk about the transformative experiences that changed the way he looked at media, information and social change—and how it led him to where he is today. I decided to take a page from Jesse’s playbook and experiment with audio recordings from his visit. Be sure to click through and listen! Here are some highlights from our conversation:

  • Media can be a powerful tool in catalyzing community development. While teaching radio classes in South Chicago, Jesse saw that his young students responded intuitively to their assignments and used the power of narrative to create change messages that reflected their personal experiences and environment. “What they did was intuitive.”
  • Having a clear understanding of what people want to know drastically influences the process of gathering news. Jesse traveled to Sri Lanka in 2007 to join a humanitarian information initiative funded by Internews. While there, he trained and worked with a team of local reporters to create a newspaper and radio show that shared information with the country’s war-displaced population. “We asked people, ‘What do you need to know?'”
  • To adapt the way we communicate in different situations, we need to first consider the factors that influence the effectiveness of our messaging. For example, to adapt your communication style effectively, you need to understand who you are talking to, how they listen, where they are located, and what their point of view may be. Messaging needs to be impactful, clear and relatable to your audience. Whether it’s engaging a classroom of young students or appealing to a group of people who have survived a war, the way you communicate information can drastically influence an audience’s response and the overall outcome. In Sri Lanka, Jesse discovered quickly that the framework he was used to, having worked in public radio in the U.S., did not work well and he had to adapt. “Couldn’t play more than three minutes of informational radio without a Bollywood song in between.”

Lifeline

  • Media not only offers new opportunities to engage directly with people and communities, but it also transforms the ways in which people can take part in the process of information sharing. People should feel empowered to assess the information needs of their communities and think creatively about solutions for their own environment. Jesse visited with about 40 tribal radio stations across Arizona, New Mexico and California to learn more about how they share their information and the support role they play in Native American communities. Here and elsewhere in the U.S., media, storytelling and the sharing of information are tools for transformation and progress—an everyone should have a voice. “These community radio stations [. . .] are the lifeline.”
  • Public radio needs more diverse voices and perspectives if they are to facilitate important conversations in cities and communities. For example, 78 percent of the audience for public radio is white and upper middle class while New Orleans is more than 60 percent black and middle to working class. “78% of audience for public radio is white, upper middle class.”
  • Don’t be afraid to get creative and experiment with information, especially when there is a lack of funding and manpower. Jesse applied the concept of citizen journalism to focus on the capacity of community members in New Orleans to create narratives, share perspectives, and start a discussion about public concerns, visions and plans. “I was down in New Orleans [. . .] and seeing things that you see in developing countries.”
  • To engage an audience, you have to think about what would get their attention and why they would want to participate. Understanding your audience has profound implications for any strategy. It is an important step in the process to discover what will reach an audience most effectively and what will appeal to them. The Listening Post uses text messages and funky microphones designed by a local artist to attract the attention of passersby who are likely to be interested in what it is and how they can participate. “In New Orleans, [. . .] people are used to being weird and creative.”

listening post fish

  • The challenge in having a meaningful conversation lies in crafting the right question. That is, thinking about the words you use, how you phrase it, the sentiment behind it, and the way it is delivered. Sometimes changing a single word can alter the way people view your approach and their decision to engage with it. For example, the Listening Post endeavored to have a conversation with New Orleans residents about their feelings towards gentrification. To do so, they decided to present questions as real life situations or scenarios—such as what they would do with a blighted property if they had an opportunity to buy it—rather than use the word “gentrification.” “How do you ask a question that gets you stories and experiences?”

To learn more about Jesse, visit his website at jessehardman.com or find him on Twitter @jesseahardman. To hear what people are talking about on the Listening Post in NOLA, visit listeningpostnola.com and follow them on Twitter @lp_nola.

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