Making Radio Work on the Web... and Back Again: Michigan Radio’s Voter Guide

Nov 19, 2012

We’ve been fairly generous in our shout-outs about the Michigan Radio Guide to Ballot Proposals. It’s a simple story: voters faced six different proposals to make changes to the Michigan Constitution, the largest number in any single Michigan election in about 35 years. Michigan Radio produced a number of radio reports about the ballot questions, but in the days leading up to the election, online editor Mark Brush and his colleagues decided a simple voter guide was the right solution for the website.

Credit Michigan Radio screenshot

From its creation through election day, the guide got 84,581 pageviews, and on election day, it was the single most accessed piece of local station content across all Core Publisher websites.

Did you just sit up and take notice? We did, and so did Michigan Radio.

I reached out (as they say) to Brush and Program Director Tamar Charney for some of the thinking that drove this successful effort.

Charney: "It was a real reminder that some of the biggest success online are web first (or even web only) presentations. And that pulling content together in a way that creates something 'useful' to an audience is also powerful. The proposal guide [...] came about because we were thinking from the perspective of our audience ... ‘these ballot questions are really confusing and where can I get information about them in one place?’"

Brush: "We looked to the web to supplement what we were planning to do on-air. Feature reports on each ballot proposal had been assigned to the newsroom staff. We could have simply waited for those features to be completed and then posted a build out of them. But we knew we could get useful material up sooner online. And we also knew we could go into more depth online. You can convey a lot of detail with the written word - detail that just doesn't translate well on-air."

Brush, online intern Jordan Wyant and the reporters created posts about each of the ballot proposals, drawing heavily on analysis provided by a non-partisan think tank. They focused on creating useful, actionable posts: the exact wording of the question and how it would appear on the ballot; focused pieces about the proposal (Four Things to Know About Proposal 6) as well as additional stories to provide context (Three Things to Know About Emergency Managers).

Brush says that as the radio features rolled in, those were posted to the guide, using tags and topic pages. He adds, “And there was no hand wringing from the radio reporters that the web team was posting about stories they were researching. In fact, they appreciated our research and they provided us with their research as well.”

Charney made sure that the guide got the right promotion, with on-air promos, readers at the end of election features, through social media, and in the website skyboxes.

I want to draw a bright line around one aspect of Michigan Radio’s strategy: it was focused on meeting audience needs and expectations on different platforms.

On radio, long explainer pieces aren’t going to be successful. Reporters crafted thoughtful four-minute feature stories about various aspects of the proposals, and these pieces were woven into the fabric of the daily newsmagazines. Michigan Radio’s talk show Stateside dug a little more deeply into the topics with guests and conversations. 

Online, there was room for more detail, and there was a compelling reason to aggregate all of the information rather than letting it exist in an unconnected state. Voters found the page, explored the issues and sampled the audio stories on their own time and to the level of depth that they desired.

These are two different mediums, with different audiences and different needs and expectations. Michigan Radio tried to choose the optimum packaging of its quality content for each medium.

And this brings me to a second point: this wasn’t wasted or duplicative effort. Charney says, “The reporting we do for on air creates all of this knowledge that can then be 're-engineered' into something quite unique from the radio content, but it still builds on the same information."

Michigan Radio wasn’t the only station to see success with voter guides, by the way. KQED’s Ian Hill tweeted that KQED’s California Proposition Guide, which was more elaborate and even embeddable, got 500,000 pageviews. (Here's more about KQED's guide.)

The big takeaway from this election coverage success story: audiences on different platforms have different needs and expectations, and this means we need to think about how we package content so it's most successful. Simply throwing the radio stories up on the site doesn’t maximize our return on effort. But we also needn’t get lost in a massive duplication of effort. The key is how we package and present the information we gather.