Jim Colgan – WNYC Radio

Posted on 01. Oct, 2007 by in Broadcast, Citizen Network, Uncategorized

Introduction and Narrative: This August WNYC Radio’s “Brian Lehrer Show” in New York experimented in their first crowdsourced investigation. The popular public affairs show asked more of their listeners than the pithy comments, but hard data on how many SUV’s were parked on their New York City block. “It was very organic and a logical progression in that as a call-in show, we already have the structure for our listeners to play a big role. Crowdsourcing was a way to advance our relationship with listeners by asking them in advance and engaging them in the same question over a period of time,” and commit an act of journalism for the station, said Colgan. WNYC was very upfront — the results didn’t represent an academic or scientific experiment — it didn’t have a margin of error — but it was a lot more powerful than anecdotal reporting, said Colgan.

Main Goal: To experiment with crowdsourcing as a new way to report on local stories and trends . The station is taking it one step at a time, starting with a simple question, but eventually wants to apply the model to larger issues. For now, it is still testing the model.

Notable Achievements: The investigation lasted only a week but received 450 comments, far above the average call-in segment. “We took that as the biggest sign of success. A big segment for us usually gets around 100 comments,” said Colgan.

A Surprising Realization: “The level to which people really want to take part. They want to be part of the news,” said Colgan. Not only did listeners participate, their comments showed that the results hit close to home. People were curious about their surroundings and many people wrote in that they felt ashamed that their car was one of the SUV’s they counted. This also surprised Colgan, because it wasn’t just activists or hybrid drivers – people with a particular POV — who were taking part, but SUV owners as well.

The time that was involved was significant : “I had no idea it would take that much time and resources. We had to pull out all the stops at the last minute,” said Colgan. The show’s producers had to do a lot of number crunching and spreadsheets, all while producing a daily show. “We didn’t know we’d get that many responses,” says Colgan.

Biggest Practical Lesson/Mistake: Very early on people began asking for clarification in the investigation. “People asked if they should include minivans mini-SUV’s — they asked ‘what is an SUV,’ I found myself having to comment and clarify along the way,” says Colgan. People began leaving information that WNYC never asked for such as the time of day they did the count, even the temperature outside.

The lesson is specificity. The more specific you can be the more you can preempt people’s questions. “Anticipating the questions someone could ask would cut down no the time involved .- maybe even involve more people in that stage ??

Money: WNYC, the nation’s largest public radio station, is a nonprofit, so while making money is not an issue, resources are. Luckily the show didn’t have to spend a lot of money to institute the experiment. “We just used our comments page,” said Colgan. It was an experiment that only required careful monitoring of the comment thread. With the low overhang WNYC definitely went right back on the air to do another investigation.

Future Goals: Colgan himself initiated the first project, and Brian Lehrer and the show’s other producers were enthusiastic. For the next crowdsourcing project, the Brian Lehrer team asked listeners for ideas. One suggestion – doing a price comparison of specific grocery items across New York City neighborhoods – is currently underway.

What do you hope to get from people attending this conference?

I would love to see how we can take our crowdsourcing projects to the next level. I’m excited to hear from others – perhaps somebody from another news organization or even individuals or blogs has good ideas but doesn’t have the reach to implement them. I might walk out of the conference with a partner for our next project.


  1. Automotive Blog » Jim Colgan - WNYC Radio - October 1, 2007

    […] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThe popular public affairs show asked more of their listeners than the pithy comments, but hard data on how many SUV’s were parked on their New York City block. “It was very organic and a logical progression in that as a call-in show, … […]

  2. Interesting crowdsourcing experiment on radio « Hoi Polloi: marketing + social media + public relations - October 2, 2007

    […] Tags: crowdsourcing, radio I am working on an article on citizen journalism, and came across this experiment being conducted on the Brian Lehrer show on […]