How do you build community when you serve an audience that is spread across five states? That’s a question High Plains Public Radio, which broadcasts to Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and Nebraska has been thinking about for decades.
And one of the latest ways it’s trying to bridge the broad distances of its listening area is through a book club.
Each spring and fall, the station picks a theme and then airs segments discussing books on that theme. Topics have ranged from the legacy of World War I, death and dying, and what it means to create a sense of place.
This week in Solution Set, we’re looking at High Plains Public Radio’s Radio Readers Book Club. The Kansas-based public radio station created a book club to connect the communities it serves. We’ll dig into the thinking behind the club, how it is run, and how it is responsive to its members.
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one cool thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.
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Here’s the TLDR:
• The Challenge: High Plains Public Radio covers a massive area across five plains states, and it wanted to find a way to build community among its listeners.
• The Strategy: In 2016, the station launched the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club, which focuses on reading books around a certain theme over the course of a few months.
• The Numbers: The club was able to start with a grant of about $3,500, and it has about 40 people serving on a steering committee which now helps pick the books.
• The Lessons: By working with community members who have helped shape the book club, HPPR has been able to shape the project to their needs. It also has been flexible to allow as many people to participate as possible.
• The Future: The book club steering committee is meeting this month to plan out discussion topics for the next two years.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn more from outlets such as The LA Times, which also has book groups.
• Anything to add?: Speaking of book clubs…you should join the Solution Set News Book Club! We’re currently reading “Palaces for the People” by Eric Klinenberg. Scroll down to learn how you can join us.
High Plains Public Radio covers a huge swath of the country. The station has studios in Garden City, Kansas — which is located in the state’s southwest corner — and in Amarillo, Texas, located in the panhandle and it serves listeners in 78 counties across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and Nebraska.
HPPR was founded in 1977, and over the past four decades it has worked to build community and live up to its tag line of “In touch with the world … at home on the High Plains,” Kathleen Holt, one of the station’s founders told me. Holt has held numbers of roles at the station over the years, including interim executive director. She’s now retired and serves as strategic projects coordinator on a volunteer basis.
“What we have here is an infrastructure for community, but we had to learn how to use it and how to inform it,” Holt said. “I don’t think we’ve captured the full capacity of it yet, but I think some of us, including myself, who have been involved from the very beginning have come to understand what a powerful tool it can be if you can figure out how to use it.”
She continued: “Despite our obvious rural versus urban environment, our issues are the same: How do you create content that expresses the voice of the community and provides the vehicle for that in a cost-effective and meaningful way?”
One way the station decided to try to build that community across the region is through its Radio Readers Book Club in which the station highlights books around a certain theme.
“The connections are the most important part of what we do,” Holt said. “It’s about people and it’s about creating and giving life to this invisible community that we have. It seemed to me that a book club would be a good idea, so I decided that what I was going to do was try to figure out how to do a book club that would involve as many people as possible and not be a traditional book club it would be a place where we could create a space for people to talk about books and more so to talk about the themes.”
Holt started developing the book club in 2015, and it launched in spring 2016. HPPR runs two book club cycles each year, one in the spring and one in the fall.
Each cycle has a theme, and community members read and discuss books around that theme. The first cycle in spring 2016 focused on “A Sense of Place.” The spring 2019 reading cycle theme, which it just completed, is “It’s a Mystery to Me!,” which is centered on mystery books ranging from thrillers to true crime. Last fall, the group read books about death and dying.
Holt created a steering committee of local residents that meets and chooses the themes. The committee meets for an annual luncheon to pick themes for upcoming years. However, Holt makes it as easy as possible for people to participate, and she invites people to contribute thoughts via email or other methods if they can’t attend the meeting.
The steering committee then chooses three books for each theme. (They did it a little bit differently for the most recent mystery cycle and chose more books.)
Once the books are selected, Holt then begins recruiting Book Leaders who are assigned to at least one of the books. Each Book Leader is responsible for recording a Book Byte, which is a four-minute essay that they write and read on-air about the themes in the book they’re reading. (I’ll talk more about this in The Lessons.)
HPPR broadcasts 12 Book Byte segments over the course of four weeks. Four of those segments are produced by the Book Leaders and the rest come from other community members. Listeners are invited to record their essays on their phones and submit them via Dropbox, though some people do come into the studio to record their segments.
Each cycle then ends with all the book leaders gathering in HPPR’s Garden City, Kansas studios for a two-hour broadcast discussing the books and the overall theme.
“It’s community building,” Holt said. “People come in at 3:30 in the afternoon and have a late lunch or early supper. And we just talk and talk and get to know one another…We have this time to get together and just start talking, and because they’re book lovers it’s just amazing how they form a sense of community, and you’re fulfilling that need to connect with others who share geographic similarity with you”
In addition to all of this coverage airing on HPPR, it’s also posted on its website for people to read and also listen to digitally.
There’s also a Facebook page, and some of the discussions are live-streamed on the page there as well.
HPPR received a $3,494 grant from the Kansas Humanities Council to start the book club. It has also received ongoing support from other funders and Holt has a budget of about $2,500 to support the program.
She pays $200 stipends to the book leaders who produce the Book Bytes segments “because I wanted to be able to make them send me things in a timely fashion,” she said. The station will also cover mileage for the leaders to drive into the studio for the final book discussion, and it provides a meal as well. Holt lives in a historic 17-room hotel, and she said she will host any of the participants who need to stay overnight.
“We have to feed people here if they are coming from a long distance to get together,” she said. “And it’s not just our hospitality, it’s a recognition of the importance of the time that they’re donating. I always have a budget for food. That’s also community building.
There are about 40 people or so on the book club steering committee. For the most recent Mystery cycle, there were nine book leaders who each produced four Book Byte segments.
The Radio Readers club also has a Facebook page, which has about 200 followers.
Holt, who retired from the station and leads the club as a volunteer, said she didn’t know whether the book club had any specific impact on membership, but she said that she has been able to build support for the program.
Earlier this month, HPPR had its most recent book leaders in the studio for their roundtable discussion. And Holt said it was surely a membership opportunity for the station.
“We had seven in the studio, and I guarantee you that if they weren’t members of the station during the member drive, they will join after this,” she said. “That’s how you build long-term connections with the station.”
• Make it easy to participate: Holt has made it a priority to get a wide variety of people participating in the project. As a result, she’s made it exceedingly easy to submit a Book Byte.
At the start of the project, the station held a workshop about recording best practices, but they “found that people were just too intimidated by that.”
Now, Holt and the station will provide guidelines about how to write for the radio and reminders to talk in the first person, for example. But beyond that, they’re willing to work with what they get from the participants.
“I have people with squeaky chairs, people get nervous and tap their pencil,” she said. “I’ve had popping P’s and hissing S’s. I do my darndest to edit those things out…but I only know how to do the most basic things…If you listen to any of the Book Bytes, you’ll see a real difference in the quality. But my goal in this is to have people participate from wherever you are. So if a smartphone is the best you can do, so be it. Some people out here don’t’ have smartphones, so they’re having to figure it out.”
HPPR’s priority with this project is community connections and compelling stories, so it’s willing to make some compromises on other fronts, such as the technical requirements, in order to make it as accessible as possible.
• Look at the big picture: Holt knows that not everybody is going to read the books featured as part of the Radio Readers Club.
As a result, she tries to make sure that the broader conversations and on-air segments touch on the broader themes in the books and are interesting to those who have read the book and those who haven’t.
“The thing about radio is you listen to it while you’re doing something else… you’re [listening as you’re] driving down the highway, and it intrigues you,” Holt said. “Maybe you read the book, maybe you don’t. It’s a way for you to have a conversation, and it requires some trust in the universe to let that happen.”
It is critical for news organizations to think about the audiences that are reading or viewing their coverage so they can ensure that the reporting is accessible.
• Respond to community demands: Last spring, to correspond with the 100th anniversary of World War I, the book club turned its attention to the war.
Holt was especially excited because there was a compelling local angle that they could dig into: The 1918 flu pandemic began in western Kansas.
But the steering committee decided to take it in a different direction.
“I thought for sure that would be it,” Holt said. “But instead the steering committee picked ‘Burning Beethoven,’ a book on the eradication of German culture in the United States around World War I…Sometimes the themes override the regionalism. In the beginning, my original thought was that it would be an original author but then we realized it’s ‘In touch with the world’ and so what isn’t in the interest of the people of the high plains? Everything is.“
Newsrooms shouldn’t always think that they know best. Especially as outlets are moving to a reader-supported business model, it’s hugely important that newsrooms listen to the audiences they’re serving. Obviously, news judgment still matters, but you should prioritize what your audience wants and values.
The steering committee is scheduled to meet later this month to pick out the themes for 2020 and 2021. Holt said she purposefully like to plan as far ahead as possible.
“Then that way I can recruit the book leaders. It can take a long time to read the book,” she said.
Beyond choosing the topics, the station is also thinking about other ways it can reach new audiences through formats such as podcasts.
No matter the format though, Holt and the station plan to continue to use the book club to connect listeners with one another and build a sense of place.
“How do we create that space today? We’re all busy. We’re all tied up with our devices all the time,” she said. “How do we capture that space to have those discussions. You can be isolated with your schedule as much as you can be isolated by geography. If you’re working long hours, you don’t have time to talk with others or the space to do that. We have possibilities with technology, but how do we create it and fill it with local voices?”
Want to know more?
• You can catch up on past Book Byte segments from the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club here.
• Last month, the Los Angeles Times hired an editor to lead up a new book club effort the paper is launching. Here’s her introductory column about why the Times is starting a book club.
• Book clubs are hot right now. Of course, Oprah created one of the most famous celebrity book clubs. But other big names are starting their own also. Here’s an overview.
• If you want more examples of really awesome public media engagement projects, check out this fantastic database from Current. It’s where I learned about HPPR’s book club, and there are a lot of other outstanding resources here.
Anything to add?
Join the News Book Club. We’re currently reading “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life” by Eric Klinenberg.
We’ll be meeting to discuss the book on Monday June 17 at 3:30 p.m. EDT on a Zoom call. You can add the event to your Google calendar here.
We also have a vibrant Slack community and I create a separate newsletter for book club highlights. You can learn more and sign up for the newsletter here.
Please feel to reach out with any questions or concerns. I’m at [email protected]
See you next Thursday!