By Simran Kumar and Kelsey Pospisil
Do you ever question certain things about Washington, D.C.? Like why does Washington have such high childcare costs? WAMU, the D.C.-area’s NPR station, recently started a new initiative aimed at finding an answer to such questions. Called What’s With Washington, listeners have the opportunity to submit and vote on questions about the region. If a listener’s question wins a voting round, they get to join a WAMU reporter and work on the story with them.
The first What’s With Washington aimed to find an explanation to the question of why we as Washingtonians like to ask each other what we do for a living. Starting with a local church on Capitol Hill, the article explores the origins of the question and compares it to common questions asked in other states. For example, “Where do you go to church?” in Greenville, SC, or people in St. Louis, MO asking “Where did you go to high school?” The article also explains how Washington’s reputation as a professionally and politically ambitious city may account for why the ‘WDYD’ question gets asked so frequently.
The second What’s With Washington explores the answer to a D.C. resident’s question of why there are so many sirens in the city. The article researches different factors such as the city’s physical layout, the amount of times fire departments and EMS used sirens, and the acoustic environment of the city. Apparently, D.C.’s wide avenues, traffic circles and triangular layout allows siren sounds to reach people faster compared to a densely populated city with higher building like New York City.
To delve even deeper into What’s With Washington, we interviewed Brendan Sweeney, Managing Producer at WAMU and The Kojo Nnamdi Show. The origins of What’s With Washington stem from a podcast series out of WBEZ in Chicago called Curious City, funded by a Localore grant. The mastermind of that series left to form her own company – a platform called Hearken – to help enable other radio stations across the country to engage their audiences in their journalistic process. KQED’s “Bay Curious” and KUOW’s “Local Wonder” are examples of other public radio stations utilizing this method of reporting. “What’s With Washington was built on that foundation,” says Sweeney. “We knew that we wanted to use this as a tool to leverage the insights, questions and curiosity of WAMU listeners.”
WAMU has already received almost 400 questions from listeners, and every two weeks or so, they put three questions up for vote on the website. Sweeney says it’s interesting to get insight into the collective consciousness of WAMU listeners. “It’s a step forward from some of the original ideas from crowd sourcing. It is an interesting template for asking for feedback.” Sweeney says this series gives the news team at WAMU the chance to be a little bit playful, and that it shows what the audience is really interested in. “The hope is that we’re using it as a fun sandbox for experimenting among the people who are involved.”
Sweeney sees the series continuing into the future as an outlet for the WAMU audience and the news team. “Our newsroom is excited about it,” he says. “I think that this is one of the most educated and curious listenerships on the planet…It’s been an opportunity for us to play around and to try things that we’ve wanted to try, but maybe in the day-to-day grind of having short deadlines that maybe we don’t have the ability to do as much.”
Stay tuned for WAMU’s next installment of What’s With Washington: Why do Washington audiences seem so subdued?