WSHU News Director Selected to Attend London’s BBC Academy Conference

News Story: October 1, 2011
Naomi Starobin at BBC TV
studios in White City

Enhancing reporting tools and reaching a wider audience were the goals of WSHU Public Radio News Director Naomi Starobin’s participation in a weeklong course this past summer at the BBC Academy in London.

In late June, Naomi attended the course “Social Media and Digital Journalism” at the academy’s training venue, White City. She was chosen by Public Radio International/BBC London, which also covered all of her expenses, through her board membership on PRNDI, Public Radio News Directors Inc.

The course focused on how to use social media tools, such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs and smartphone applications, for public radio stations. “I learned very quickly that this isn’t about some fun, gamey kind of thing you can spend too much time on. That is always the worry with social media. It is really about doing a better job reporting,” said Naomi, who has been with WSHU since 2000. “There is really a vibrant social media community out there and it is so important to include them when you’re trying to reach people.”

WSHU, a National Public Radio member station based on the campus of Sacred Heart University, reaches an audience in Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut and Suffolk County in New York, and is the 34th most-listened-to public radio station in the United States. WSHU offers news and talk programs, entertainment and music. The award-winning news staff under Naomi includes four full-time reporters and a part-timer, not to mention a host of freelancers.

“Radio is by far our biggest way of reaching people. When you look at how many people are looking at our Facebook page or how many are following our Twitter account, absolutely. On a weekly basely, our cumulative listening base is roughly about 300,000 people,” she said. WSHU also has a website, www.wshu.org, which is being revamped. “There is a lot more that can be done with a website and we are looking forward to that.”

Smartphone applications, she added, are “quite incredible.” All the WSHU reporters will be getting smartphones, she said, and will be taught how to use them. “Not to just report but to reach people whether it is during reporting or after the reporting because you want to use these tools to find stories.  You also want to use these tools to get more people to see your story.” WSHU listeners use their smartphones to tune into a program or stream it any time they want. Other people will bookmark a WSHU feature and even share it with others by sending a link.

Twitter, said Naomi is “very powerful and becoming more and more powerful as more people participate.” WSHU uses Twitter now to mostly disseminate stories to draw people back to the website. “But now we are learning about news faster because for some people the first thing they do is tweet, long before you are going to see it on websites or in the newspaper or hear it on the radio.”

For the news staff, she added, “We also find sources. We can ask questions on Twitter and our listeners will answer them. We are just starting to do it.”

As an example of the power of Twitter, she said, is the “re-tweet,” which is similar to forwarding an e-mail but the reach can be greater. “For us, it allows us to receive a lot more exposure and for the person re-tweeting it, it allows them to inform people they know” - easily and quickly around the world. Naomi tweeted from London from her personal account as well as WSHU’s, some of it as practice for her course lessons.

One of the news stories she tweeted from across the pond was a video report of “The Wimbledon Guy,” which also can be seen on www.youtube.com. Considering she was in London during the Wimbledon tennis tournament, she went one evening in hopes of getting in.  She discovered that one has to have a ticket to go inside the gates of the premier tennis campus, but before long a companion had secured them both entrance. That’s when she came upon the American she dubbed “The Wimbledon Guy,” stopped him, took out her smartphone, which is equipped with video and audio recording software, and interviewed him. He was the man responsible for making sure the radar, which tracks the speed of a tennis serve, is operating properly. “It couldn’t have been easier. It was a great moment,” she said.

Back in the classroom, which she called intense, Naomi learned more vital tools, but the best day of the week was Friday - and not because the weeklong course was over, but because it gave her and her classmates the most important information. “They made us think, ‘What’s going to happen when you go back to work? Who are the people you work with who are going to be accepting and curious about this and who are the people who are curmudgeons and will poo-poo it because they’ve been in the business a long time and it just fine the way it is.’ They made us have a mock conversation with somebody. We played the roles.”

“In other words, they’re not just dropping this stuff on our lap and then we go back and it’s another world. How are you going to integrate this? What are the first steps, what are the second steps?”

And when she returned? “Everyone was curious.”

Without learning how to design a successful social media strategy and how to manage change in the newsroom, she said, “it just doesn’t work. You can be as excited as you want at a conference or a workshop, but if you go back and don’t have a strategy. Luckily, I have reporters, some of whom are ahead of me on this, but others who are curious and just want to catch up.  My boss, Tom Kuser, is great about it and willing to incorporate this stuff.” Tom is the WSHU program director and Morning Edition host.

Calling her job at WSHU “a dream,” Naomi had earlier careers in environmental consulting and teaching. She wanted to combine her science background with journalism so she enrolled in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She intended to get into print journalism, but “a couple of radio classes later,” she said, “I was sort of addicted.”

She always was an NPR enthusiast, but added, “There’s no greater thrill than to go from being a listener to being somebody who works at a station. We are all total NPR enthusiasts, so it is just great to be on the inside.”

Radio, she said, is a wonderful medium. “People say, ‘you hear somebody’s voice and you hear the sound of cars or birds,’ and so part of your brain is using its imagination to think about what it might look like and what people look like. People like the part that is up to their imagination.”