In its Get My Vote experiment, NPR asks voters to set the terms for vote-seekers. Pictured: Kinky Friedman's online video shows how it's done in Texas.

For election ’08, voters invited onto the stage

Originally published in Current, April 7, 2008
By Jeremy Egner

From the everyday storytellers of StoryCorps to the amateur pitchmen and women currently being recruited for CPB’s My Source campaign, public broadcasters increasingly rely on their audience to contribute content as well as funding.

Likewise, new election 2008 projects will tap average Joes and Janes to outline their hopes and concerns for the nation as the big November contest draws ever closer:

“The electoral process means different things for different people,” says Sheryl Flowers, e.p. for The Tavis Smiley Show, distributed by Public Radio International. “We want to show how people are connecting what elected leaders are saying to their own lives.”

Even before new tech simplified the process, pubcasting embraced audience contributions in projects such as SoundClips, the “found sound” segment on All Things Considered, says Andy Carvin, NPR senior product manager for community.

But Web 2.0 gives a global audience to anyone who aspires to be heard, he says, and such people will take advantage of the platform with or without traditional news outlets.

“The public naturally embraced the Internet as a platform for sharing their thoughts and ideas,” says Carvin, a longtime advocate of using technology to invigorate public discourse. “So it’s only natural that media entities should want to tap into this.”

Save the children, embrace the war

In Get My Vote, the people are the ones making the connections in their own words and, in many cases, from within their own living rooms.

The online interface, also available as a widget for station sites, allows users to upload video, audio or text commentaries about how their personal values guide their political actions.

“We’re looking for stories about the moment that the personal became the political, the moment that inspired you to act politically,” Neal Conan, host of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, explains in an introductory video.

Politicos can “get the vote” of commenters, the theory goes, by addressing these concerns in a satisfactory way. Users tag their contributions to reflect their general themes; a tag cloud on the right side of the page tracks which issues are most popular.

“Every person has their own reasons for selecting a particular candidate, their own litmus tests, and we’re asking the public to articulate this in the form of open letters to the candidates,” Carvin wrote on his blog at

NPR has been working on the project for much of the past year. It seeded the project with some sample videos such as a half-sung, half-spoken plea for the end of the death penalty by Texas writer, country singer and occasional gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman.

“There’s a sign over death row that says ‘Do the right thing,’” he riffs between verses. “Well, doing the right thing means not to trust the people — who can’t run a post office and can’t build a fence — to execute people in our name.”

Since the launch, hundreds of contributors, anonymous as well as well-known, have uploaded commentaries. Author ZZ Packer [video] wants politicians to be more proactive about helping neglected children. Richard Perle, noted neocon and former Bush Administration defense strategist [video], urges Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to admit that immediate withdrawal from Iraq isn’t possible.

Other videos evince a cynical fatigue with the entire process. One commentator wearily acknowledges that “someone will get my vote” but wonders if any candidate will care about average Americans’ concerns after they get into office [video].

“I’ll get over my cold,” he says, sniffling. “But I don’t know if the country will get over its feeling of powerlessness.”

So far, the project has offered an evocative, kaleidoscopic picture of the American voter base and its concerns. Perhaps surprisingly to some, nobody has debased the site by contributing pornography or excessive vitriol, Carvin says. But “we’re following the comment threads very carefully and are prepared to jump in and say, ‘Take a deep breath, count to 10 and dial it down a notch,’” he says.

Get My Vote officially remains in public beta to allow NPR to fine-tune its operations as necessary, but Carvin anticipates no major changes. NPR shows will soon begin routinely incorporating the best commentaries, or themes from them, and producers hope that will lead to more online submissions to spark more on-air discussion and so on, he says.

“It becomes this virtual cycle of public discourse,” he says.

Local stations can use the widget to gather commentaries from listeners for local talk shows or gather pieces about regional issues — immigration in Arizona, for example. Some stations have set up local Get My Vote pages but have yet to incorporate the tool into their news coverage, Carvin says.

The commentaries are also embeddable on other websites, “a first for an NPR project,” Carvin wrote.

Online submissions, on-air results

In another first, the WGBH Lab and P.O.V. announced an open call for election shorts that melds the resources of both parties into one multiplatform project.

The collaboration is the sort of thing the pubcasters envisioned when they forged a content partnership last summer (Current, July 9). WGBH’s online workshop, with its rights-cleared archival footage repository, the Sandbox, will serve as the entry point and incubator for the videos, and P.O.V. will offer editorial oversight.

“It’s a great way to work with up-and-coming filmmakers on short-form content,” says Simon Kilburry, executive director of the series.

This season’s election-related P.O.V. episodes, which will explore issues including border security and health care, will serve as “the starting point” for the shorts, Kilburry says.

WGBH will accept pitches through May 5 and will post selected ideas online for comment and refinement. The five to 10 submissions accepted for production, up to three minutes in length, will earn $2,000 each for their producers and will be featured on P.O.V.’s website and perhaps on PBS.

The Boston station plans to promote the contest in viral style, hoping that viewers and stations will spread the word and pull in submissions from all over the country, says Christopher Hastings, Lab supervisor.

The partners hope to have finished shorts by the end of June, just ahead of this summer’s party conventions, Hastings says.

Smiley’s “My America 2008” episodes debut May 2. After that, the latest of the 26 total episodes will roll out each week until Election Day, Flowers says.

The hour-long specials will replace the second hour of the ubiquitous host’s PRI show, she says. Stations that don’t carry The Tavis Smiley Show can still pick up the election specials.

Over the past few months, Smiley’s team has recruited plenty of participants across demographic and regional lines, Flowers says. As with Get My Vote, users can submit their own stories through the project’s website at, which will also host the episodes.

Each of Smiley’s shows will toss around a weighty public issue—health care, housing foreclosures, education—and profile average voters who are particularly affected by pertinent federal policies. Each show will also include a panel discussion on the given topic, moderated by Smiley, and close with a commentary offered by a young voter preparing to participate in his or her first presidential election.

“We want people to get a chance to explore how different voters make their decisions,” Flowers says. “The candidates talk about all these things, but what does it ever really mean in the lives of everyday people?”

Web page posted April 17, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC


Public Media Election Collaboration: Will it leave lasting payoff, or is it another one-off? Jan. 22, 2008.

Widgets 'n things: Site to offer stations interactive web tools for campaign season. March 3, 2008.


NPR's Get My Vote site.

Tavis Smiley's My America 2008.

May 2, 2008, is the proposal deadline for the WGBH Lab/P.O.V. open call.

Public Radio Exchange's





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