Saturday, November 9, 2013

Lab Attendees Get the Scoop on WBEZ's Curious City

CIW Lab attendees go behind the scenes at CIW sponsor WBEZ's radio station.

            The stage was set Oct. 17 for WBEZ’s Jennifer Brandel to make the memorable entrance she planned for the WEBZ 91.5 FM Curious City: A Collaborative Journalism Project Lab. About 25 Chicago Ideas Week (CIW) Lab attendees were sitting in a semi-circle at the Navy Pier station around the projector screen. Brandel lurked in the shadows behind the glass window of a spare studio to the right. A pre-taped video played of WBEZ executive producer Justin Kaufmann looking to the windowless left side of the room to tell Brandel she might as well come out, since everyone could see her through the glass. Like a sports announcer, he stretched out the vowel sounds in her name as she entered the room to a round of applause.
“Clearly we thought we’d be set up over there,” Brandel said, pointing toward the spare studio and drawing laughs from the crowd. Brandel and her Curious City team clearly like to have fun, but they’re on an important mission, too.
“We’re trying to give the power of radio and journalism back to the public,” Brandel said about the radio program.
People submit questions on Chicagoland topics through the Curious City website, and Brandel and her staff sift through them and post the best submissions for the public to vote on what they want answered. Whoever asks the winning question is paired with a reporter and their investigation is tracked on Curious City’s website, its social media platforms and through weekly updates broadcast during CIW sponsor WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift, which airs every Wednesday from 2 p.m to 4 p.m.
The WBEZ Lab was one of almost 100 hands-on, behind-the-scenes experiences that occurred throughout CIW’s annual innovation festival Oct. 14-20. At the radio event, Brandel and her team led attendees through a mock story assignment where guests voted by a show of hands on what story they would like WBEZ to report on – and “What’s the highest geographical point in Chicago?” beat out “When’s the next skyscraper coming?”
Brandel said her favorite type of story to run is a quirky human interest piece, like one that ran about a year ago about where the unmistakable Chicago accent comes from. The person who posed that question – Sarahlynn Pablo - happened to attend Thursday’s Lab, and unknowingly started one of the project’s most popular stories. For the piece, WBEZ had a linguist at George Mason University create a script to showcase the Chicago accent, and more than 360 people left voicemails of themselves reading it to participate in Curious City’s “Chicago, what do you really sound like?” 
It is precisely that possibility – where a citizen can turn one question into a full-blown story – that intrigued attendee Marton Harsanyi. The 27-year-old Leo Burnett strategic planner said he was only able to attend one Lab event during last year’s CIW – the 2012 WBEZ Lab - and he was excited to return.
“I think public radio is not only funded by people, but it should also be edited and programmed by people,” Harsanyi said. “Curious City is basically outsourcing – looking for topics and looking for interesting stuff in the city – so that just resonated with me really well.”
            Nancy Graham, 49, said WBEZ is one of her favorite stations and she attended the Lab to learn more about Curious City and the chance to have input on the stories it covers. Graham said she studied journalism in college and is now in digital marketing, but that CIW allowed her to experience things she might otherwise never have the chance to do.
“I like coming to Ideas Week because it sparks so many ideas and thoughts,” Graham said. “There’s always something that I can hear or learn in a Talk to take away either to benefit myself or what I do day-to-day.”
Brandel said she was glad Curious City was featured as a CIW Lab because Ideas Week highlights the excitement that runs throughout Chicago every day.
She said she hoped people had fun, yet left the Lab thinking critically about media.
“Maybe they’ll start looking at the media that they are consuming a little bit different, and think ‘How can I go from being just a consumer to a contributor or participant?’” she said. “Everyone else doesn’t have to decide the news. You can be part of that, too.

*Click here to visit WBEZ's Curious City website and submit your questions to be considered for a show!*
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Written by: Doug Pitorak
Photography by: Doug Pitorak

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