How WNIN built the foundation for an innovative podcast

¿QPM? host/producer Paola Marizan and co-producer Mareea Thomas complete census forms on air

Multiple languages. Multiple platforms. Multiple contributors.

A unique approach more than four years in the making earned WNIN-FM in Evansville, Indiana, a 2020 National Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation.

Season four of the station’s bilingual podcast ¿Qué Pasa, Midwest? used a distributed reporting model to dive deep into the 2020 census and election and how these two crucial topics affect a growing Latinx population in the Midwest.

Its two key innovations – and the newsroom culture that made them possible – all offer insights for newsrooms.

The ¿Qué Pasa, Midwest? team including host/producer Paola Marizan, co-producer Mareea Thomas and WNIN news director Steve Burger shared a little about how the Murrow-winning show has changed the station and the community.

One podcast, two languages
For ¿QPM, bilingual does not mean simply translated versions in different languages for different audiences. Starting with its title, ¿QPM seamlessly blends English and Spanish throughout. Burger described the approach:
The podcast was developed as bilingual rather than Spanish-only for two reasons. First, a native Spanish speaker who came to the Midwest as an adult from Puerto Rico, Paola is a singular talent in her ability to seamlessly flip between the languages. Paola intuitively paraphrases guest responses at key intervals and precise moments within the podcast to make the presentation enjoyable and easily understood by Spanish-only and English-only audiences. We were astounded during our user research by how well the presentation was understood and how even listeners from the industry would underestimate the total running time of the segments, indicating a high level of engagement.

Secondly, we determined from the outset that the deepest feelings and heartfelt thoughts often do not translate directly into the other language. Therefore, we don't try, preferring to let the guests speak their authentic truth and rely on Paola's skill as a host to communicate their message.  It is a style that is now being copied by other Latinx producers.

Audiences – and the Murrow Award judges – appreciated the authentic approach to storytelling and the accessibility to both Spanish and English speakers. Listeners from any language background hear the true emotion behind every word, glimpse the shortcomings of being monolingual and still come away understanding the content and message of every piece. The fluid weaving of Spanish and English in one product has the added benefit of bringing audiences from different language backgrounds together into one conversation. As the face and voice of the nation change, particularly in the previously more homogenous Midwest, more newsrooms should consider taking such a multilingual approach.

At WNIN and ¿Qué Pasa, Midwest?, we gain control by giving up control, motivating and trusting our contributors as partners in the work. It can be difficult, but our strength comes from our diversity.

One podcast, many contributors
In addition to trying to reach more diverse audiences, newsrooms today are facing the huge challenge of telling big stories with small teams. Telling deep, contextual stories with small teams requires innovation and collaboration. To tell its biggest stories yet, ¿QPM took a different approach with its fourth season, tapping a wide network of contributors to submit reporting. The team described the motivation for the approach, saying, “The Latinx diaspora is not monolithic. We realized that in order to ensure authentic reporting for the census and election, we needed to get more voices involved.”

Providing a diverse group of contributors with best practices, topic ideas and fact checking allowed the small team to provide in-depth context and reporting on two of the year’s biggest stories and, “Because our contributors live in the areas in which they report, we gain from the strength of knowledgeable and nuanced coverage.”

It was a risk that through careful vetting and building a shared understanding of the podcast’s goals paid off for the team. Had they known how well received the collaborative episodes would be received, they say they might have pursued the model sooner.

¿Qué Pasa, Midwest? is an example of what is possible when we give up some of our control to create authentic content, engagement and actually let diverse journalists serve their own communities.

Building the foundation
The creative ideas that earned ¿QPM the Murrow Award would not have been possible without the newsroom culture in place at WNIN to foster them, a foundation built well before the podcast was conceived. Six years ago, WNIN set out to build a pathway to leadership in the newsroom and to invest time and resources in members of the team at each stage of growth. Burger says, “Beginning in 2014, we began a deliberate campaign to mentor and equip promising journalists of color from our local universities so that as full-time positions came open, we had journalists who were knowledgeable and committed to our community.” The program involved internships and other early-career positions, understanding the career goals of up-and-coming talent, and working together to advance in responsibilities and leadership opportunities.     

“All the talent and motivation in the world won't guarantee success for diverse employees without the champions and mentors that, if we're honest, have historically been reserved for white candidates,” Burger says. “It is hard work, but as senior managers, we are essential to creating a more equitable future in our industry.”

This culture of trust and championing newer employees has also had positive impacts for WNIN on audience, revenue and engagement.

Marizan and Thomas, who both came to WNIN from local colleges, got the internal backing to pitch the podcast to PRX and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Project Catapult in 2016. As the smallest station by far accepted into the podcast accelerator, the show was able to access resources including intensive training. An early fundraising effort from the WNIN community also exceeded its goal.

In the four years since, it’s been an ongoing challenge as a small, community licensee to cultivate funders and find opportunities to hire. But WNIN has a small grant to produce another season of the podcast and plans to expand its distributed reporting model to create a bilingual reporting network
The feedback from a growing audience make the hard work and dedication worth it, as Thomas says, “our community, in the reddest of states, embraces [the] bilingual content and has shown strong support with their money. It may be in a small way, but ¿QPM? has been transformational in creating a product of which the entire community is proud.”
¿QPM’s tips for trying creative ideas in your newsroom:
1. The organization must have complete support at the top levels
2. There must be a champion among management who can work closely with all sides so resources are available for a quality, sustained effort.
3. It is not a quick solution and the outcome is not assured. It takes patience, support and constant attention to detail and to stakeholders.