On Our Radar: empowering and engaging unheard communities

Innovation often comes from the outliers. From the people who are far enough outside the accepted norms to be able to offer a different perspective. Libby Powell is the CEO of On Our Radar, a communications agency for unheard communities and the approach Radar has taken to tackle the problems of engagement is largely informed from her experience working in the humanitarian sector. The resultant work at Radar is fascinating, partly because it’s such a seemingly simple idea, but also because it is clearly something that resonates with readers and participants. We were pleased to be able to catch up with Libby shortly before the airing of their latest documentary on the BBC, to find out more.

So, first things first, Libby. How did Radar come about?

I started Radar about six years ago and was predominately an act of frustration, really. I had moved into the journalism from the development sector, where I’d worked in community development in the Middle East. There I’d seen the enormous capacities of communities who were viewed as vulnerable, but who were in fact coming up with these incredible self-solving, powerful solutions themselves. As I moved into the world of multimedia journalism, I was excited by the concept of news and storytelling and public service, but the idea that it was me who should be a conduit for these stories was something which didn’t sit quite right.

I was working in Sri Lanka and I felt like I was flying in, catching a few stories, and flying out again. I felt that there had to be a better way for these people – who had endured thirty years of repression – to communicate their experiences rather than waiting for me to turn up and tell their stories. I realised that if I could do some community capacity building and give some of my training back to them, that would be a better solution – for everyone.

What kind of communities have you been working with?

There’s quite a cross section. We have other projects across the globe, from Sierra Leone to Malaysia to the UK. Here in the UK [where On Our Radar is based] we’ve done quite a lot of work with young, homeless people, and our work with older people who are experiencing early-stage dementia has been really successful too. 

Why those two groups in particular?

While both of those groups are talked about in the press, there are still a lot of assumptions about them rather than with them or for them, so we wanted to offer their perspective. We imparted a few basic journalistic skills, set up a mentoring program and looked at ways to develop connectivity tools which would allow them to speak in their own time.

So how do you go about doing that?

The dementia community illustrates the potential challenges quite clearly: the issues we’d be reporting on can be the same issues which prevent people from being able to report. Key skills like sequencing or typing can be very difficult with the disease, so in that case we used a simplified mobile device so they were able to ring through to a phone line and record a message – much like a diary entry. We’re solutions-orientated and much of what we do is about breaking down the communication barriers that these groups face and also helping them build the skills and confidence to deliver a story.

It sounds very much like creating a solution is at the very heart of Radar. When do you use a technological solution as opposed to a training-based one?

It can be completely different with each project and it has to be intuitive and appropriate. We start each project with a co-design phase alongside a particular community so we can understand what the barrier to communication actually is. It may be a technology issue like I mentioned with the dementia community, or we do find in countries we work in – like Sierra Leone – there’s sufficient understanding but it’s the provision of data which is prohibitively expensive.

Other times though there are literacy issues, so in those cases we know we have to adapt the form appropriately.

By far, though, the biggest challenge is around confidence. It doesn’t matter what the locale is, if we find a community who has been told they have no voice, or what they say has been laughed at, or mocked, or stigmatized, then they retreat. It can take a long time to undo that damage and all we can do is plant the seed that their voice is valuable.

How important do you think self-representation is in journalism?

That’s interesting you ask because we’re always talking about this: we’re not trying to replace traditional journalism. There’s absolutely no doubt that a huge strata of public information is best told by professionals and by people with power. The press pass is a crucial pillar of democracy, but there is a big chunk of public information which is around human stories, which are designed to help people understand one another and hold a mirror up to public life. These are the stories which we feel are best told by those most affected by the issues.

Surely it’s more valuable to get the story of early-onset dementia from someone going through it? From someone who knows the exact moments that they lose the ability to read or write, the exact feelings that go with that? Why would we then try to ghostwrite that, when the sheer power and knowledge that’s being held by that person is much, much richer?

So in practice, Libby how would these voices appear in articles? Are they solely authored by these communities? A contributing voice to a piece authored by a ‘professional’ journalist? Somewhere in between?

It really depends. There are a very wide range of ways that we interact with the press and the media and in fact sometimes this work isn’t even for the press – it could equally form a key part of a social policy document or campaign.

We set things up so that they play to the strengths of that community. If the community has a very low level of literacy, they’re not going to be able to express themselves in longform, but getting them to record a daily diary can be very engaging indeed. This audio format is something which we could then transcribe and in fact when we’ve collaborated with Buzzfeed before we’ve had the transcripts sit alongside the MP3 files, so you can listen to the voice as you read the text. Where we work with people to produce video we act as curator and editor.

Do you think reader engagement is better if people perceive voices to be more authentic?

I’m really glad you asked that because it’s one of the big black holes in the media at the moment: trying to trace the impact of these media pieces.

Last year Leeds Beckett University undertook an evaluation of our dementia diaries series which started to give a really interesting analysis of how people reacted to the content that was put out by that community. We looked at the kinds of comments which were posted  underneath generic, traditional journalism pieces about people with dementia and then compared them to the comments which were posted underneath the pieces which were developed by those with dementia and they were able to see a marked difference in tone and reaction between those two pieces.

Those are things which require a nuanced approach to viewing engagement, aren’t they?

They are more difficult to track, yes, but when you find content which provokes a higher level of empathy, that’s got to be something worth taking notice of, hasn’t it? A higher level of trust goes back to the big issue in the media at the moment: the erosion of trust between public audiences and media houses. We’re presenting a win-win situation. We know that readers engage more with content written or produced by these communities, but by being given a better platform from which to shout, those communities feel empowered too. It’s absolutely not a substitute for professional journalism: it’s about providing authenticity. Pieces produced by our various communities have won, hands down, in various sector awards, not as a ‘community’ category – as if that were substandard – but in their own right, and against top level media agencies. This approach works.

We hear a lot about the demise of local media, but there’s important work which needs to done on a local level. Could this approach work there?

That’s a slightly tricky one. In theory, absolutely. In practice, there are issues – and they’re unsurprisingly financial ones.

If you have a community that been told their whole life that they have no voice, it’s our belief that that’s where the human investment should go. The best efforts at the moment are preempting where the risk is and investing there. It’s not about embedding a journalist from London up in Hull to see what’s happening post-Brexit. That’s not going to work. You need to do the quiet work, but there’s always the danger that you’ll find you’ve invested in a community that does not yield anything, which is hard these days when media budgets are already so thinly stretched. That’s why partnerships with the media – the kind of things we do – are so great. We fundraise to pay for that time, that investment in working with communities and then when we’ve done the work we approach those media outlets and ask if they will be our platform and – usually – they will.

Is that how your work gets seen? By using these established media players? You mentioned Buzzfeed earlier…

Yes. We decided very early on that we weren’t going to create our own media platform, because to begin that set up would sap our resources. Our real value is in providing a specific service to the media, and those established platforms are already better placed to reach a much wider audience, much more quickly.

Our first documentary aired recently via the BBC and has reached numbers we could never have hoped to reach, had we done it via our own platform.

What we have been able to do is create microsites, which are standalone and have their own interactive features which are then embedded in the European press, which is what we did with our work on Ebola.

For us this combination is brilliant. We are in the position to be able to work closely and over a longer period of time with these various communities, but we’re also able to rely on the distribution channels of those larger platforms. We’re maximizing engagement at both ends of the process, and that’s something worth shouting about.

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