Why you should care
Ever feel like the media has left you out? The Listening Post project in New Orleans is showing how you can become part of the local news conversation, steps away from your front door.
If you came across a microphone just planted in the middle of your neighborhood, what would you say into it? What if the microphone was tucked into a hanging cardboard tree and had a series of questions taped next to it, begging to be answered?
An innovative project in New Orleans is testing out this unusual way to make news into a two-sided conversation, with a little bit of help from public art and not-so-secret recording devices.
We wanted to take the scariness away from the microphone.
Internews and local radio station WWNO have paired up to produce the ”Listening Post.” The project consists of a handful of digital recording sculptures placed in strategic locations around the city, along with a text messaging response system that disseminates neighborhood news. Coordinators pose a group of questions on one topic every week and cull the answers they get via text and recordings. They publish the responses online and on a weekly WWNO radio show (an NPR affiliate station), and share the information with community groups and city departments.
The microphones are housed in art sculptures made from recycled cardboard, designed by local artist Jacques Duffourc. “We wanted to take the scariness away from the microphone,” says Duffourc, adding that people often find microphones intimidating. So these recording systems are tucked into sculptures shaped like a lamppost, a tree, a fish and a totem pole.
Jesse Hardman is a journalist and consultant for Internews, an international non-profit organization that puts media in hard-to-reach places. He says he felt “underwhelmed with the outreach” of media outlets he’s worked for in the past and wanted to create a “citywide conversation,” including people who might not otherwise get information, but also listening and getting their feedback.
Local news shouldn’t only focus on shootings or other acts of violence…
Hardman says throwing a question out to a community is a “powerful thing” and he particularly likes texting back and forth with people because it feels “more special and more personal” than using the Internet. Plus, in New Orleans, he point outs, a lot of people aren’t going home to a computer but the majority can participate using their cell phones.
He came up with the idea with WWNO news director Eve Troeh. “Jesse said, ‘It’d be really cool if you could drop a microphone into a neighborhood,’” Troeh recalls. She explains that local news shouldn’t only focus on shootings or other acts of violence — there are many other reasons to report from a community.
When you walk into a location and first spot the post, it looks like a big art project made out of scraps of cardboard. The artist says the scraps are similar to the stories the recording devices collect. The lamppost is large and has a big arc, and the lamp housing the microphone bends down as if it is leaning in to listen to you. It’s intentional, and Duffourc says all four posts have a similar arc, including his totem pole with a giant bird on top and the traveling fish. His tree structure has multiple leaning branches with the microphone disguised under an owl with bottle caps for eyes.
The project chose spots where people tend to spend time and can engage with the listening devices at their leisure. There are posts at two libraries and a barbershop, as well as a mobile unit they take to events around the city. Interns are stationed at the posts at times, to help people use the device.
The responses people leave, via texts and audio, are thoughtful and poignant. Sometimes the Listening Post asks residents what topics they would like to see covered in the news. The project has covered subjects like increased rental housing prices and the role of arts in the city, both topics requested by residents.
Former schoolteacher Maria Vibandor recorded an answer about gun violence, revealing she had lost six students to shootings. Afterwards, she told OZY she really enjoyed the Listening Post because she liked promoting civic responsibility and engaging in conversations about the city. Other topics have included a discussion about emergency response time — one person waited 5 minutes for 911, another 6–7 hours — and a debate about whether tourism was good for the city.
While the Listening Post project is currently active only in New Orleans, it is easy to see how this idea could spread to places around the U.S. and abroad. Before you know it, you could be speaking to a cardboard totem pole in your local barbershop, and making news yourself.