Listening posts set up to get residents talking
The city’s local public radio station is trying a new approach to get New Orleanians talking: It’s placing microphones in different parts of the city so residents can sound off on the news of the day — unfiltered and reporter-free.
WWNO’s new “Listening Post Project” aims to put recording equipment in neighborhood gathering spots, such as a library, porch, school or barber shop. To attract the attention of those who pass by, the station has embedded the microphones in recycled-cardboard sculptures created by local artist Jacques Duffourc.
They offer “an important way to change the way people relate to their local news,” said WWNO production assistant Kate Richardson, the station’s point-person on the project.
Currently, there are listening posts at Norman Mayer library in Gentilly and the Headquarters Barber & Beauty Salon on North Broad. Designed and built by Duffourc, they feature, respectively, an “owl-mic” and a “nutria-mic.” A third post is a roving lamppost that was “interviewing” students at the Bard Early College on Friday for an upcoming radio feature on New Orleans schools.
WWNO news director Eve Troeh brainstormed the idea for the project with Jesse Hardman, a journalist, professor and project leader for the Internews public-media project. Internews aims to put media in hard-to-reach or war-torn places such as Sri Lanka and Libya, said Hardman, who has worked in both countries.
Troeh said she wanted to “find a way to drop in on places around the city where people talk about the news anyway.”
Hardman came to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and said the posts are needed in a town where “people are really open about sharing information and news,” yet “have felt burned” by some media outlets that have largely migrated to the Internet.
“The city is not online in the way that a lot of cities might be,” Hardman said. “A lot of people don’t go home to a computer.”
“This is a good tool to get opinions from the community,” said barbershop owner Jamal McCoy as he gave a tapered-wave cut to a customer last week.
McCoy said a handful of people had spoken to the totem outside his shop, and he planned to address it himself, along with his staff.
“People can spill their guts without being critiqued face to face,” he said.
Branch manager Shelley Masog said the recently rebuilt Norman Mayer Library was already a big draw when the faux bonsai tree arrived this month.
With eyes of Abita bottle caps, the owl-mic peers out at the midday library bustle in Gentilly, perched on a ruffled cardboard tree inspired by a bonsai garden in Duffourc’s neighborhood.
The questions: What are you worried or excited about in the new school year? What are the best or worst aspects of New Orleans schools?
“We wanted to make something that didn’t feel childish, that doesn’t feel silly and that appeals to lots of age groups,” Troeh said.
Troeh contrasted the Listening Post to StoryCorps, a national oral-history project that runs in segments on public radio and was in New Orleans interviewing residents a few years ago.
“They revolutionized the idea of the mobile recording booth,” Troeh said with admiration, adding with a laugh that she didn’t have the budget for a soundproof Airstream trailer like the ones used by StoryCorps.
Earlier this month, WWNO deployed the lamppost to a Central City porch. The station put together a radio piece from the visit, where residents were asked general questions about the neighborhood.
When the segment was broadcast earlier this month, the producers had to bring a radio to the homeowner so she could listen.
“As great as public media is, it really does not catch a representational sample of who lives in a city,” Hardman said.
Troeh said this approach to newsgathering is less aggressive than traditional reporter interactions and more likely to yield the truth.
“When you’re holding a mic, you might feel like you need to give the right answer,” Troeh said. “This is your place to come say what you need to say.”
Duffourc said his designs were intended to create a sculptural mood that would take the focus away from the recording. “Walking up to a microphone can be kind of intimidating,” he said. “Here, it’s like you’re talking to the Great Spirit, the Thunderbird on top of a totem pole.”
“Originally, the idea was to put out a more straightforward device, but this is a city that likes to dress up and create things,” Hardman said. “It would be a missed opportunity if you didn’t work with that. This is the first time I’ve wrapped it in artwork.”
Troeh said WWNO will air a school-related segment in early September and plans to broadcast Listening Post features every couple of weeks.