Wikis at CBC Radio (CBC Spark)

On Tuesday October 13, 2009, I attended the regular monthly Toronto Wiki Tuesdays Meetup.   The presentation on this night was “Wikis at CBC Radio (CBC Spark)”.  It was organized by Martin Cleaver, a leading expert on Wiki and Enterprise 2.0 in Toronto.  The event took place in the basement of the Groundhog Pub in front of a very knowledgeable audience.

The Spark team of Nora Young, Elizabeth Bowie, and Dan Misener, presented their findings on using online collaboration with their engaged audience.  Through the use of Wikis and other social techniques, the Spark team crowdsourced an entire episode of their show (Episode 23 – February 6 & 9, 2008).

The presentation allowed us to learn valuable insight from their experience.  The nature of the event also allowed us to pass on our collective insight to the Spark team.  All in all it was a great evening of knowledge sharing.

My Thoughts Enclosed…Rb

Wikis at CBC Radio (CBC Spark)

Per their website, Spark is a “blog, radio show, podcast and an ongoing conversation about technology and culture.”  It is hosted by Nora Young, who has been a long time technology columnist for CBC Radio.  Spark tends to focus on how technology affects us and the world we live in.  Spark airs on CBC Radio One on Sundays at 13:00.  The show is also available via their Blog and Podcasts.  Nora and her team can also be followed via Twitter @SparkCBC.

For the last three years, the Spark Team has been reporting on technology trends.  The team “walks the walk” by utilizing these emerging trends to produce their show.  They believe in an open and transparent production environment whenever possible.  Dan Misener compared this to a premium chocolate store, where you get to see how the chocolate is being made.  By letting people into the process, they were enhancing the engagement factor of their audience.

One of the defining traits of CBC Spark is the pattern of activities that occur prior to the broadcast.  They post their entire interviews on their blog before the show even airs.  By using Twitter and engaging their audience, they are able to generate calls to action far in advance of their broadcast.  By soliciting questions and posting the interview online before the show, the Spark Team is able to incorporate the feedback into the actual broadcast.  Audience interaction does not need to be limited only to live broadcasts.

Back in 2008, CBC Spark decided to further experiment with crowdsourcing.  The Spark team had long made us of their blog to collect ideas and contributions for their show. Their public radio broadcast was a digest with their blog providing enhanced content. Audience members were already posting ideas for the show, questions for their guests, as well as calling in via their toll-free number.  With this experiment however, they would attempt to crowdsource the script itself.

Traditionally, the team would make use of a product called iNEWS for their collaborative script writing.  The team opted instead to make use of a public Wiki to allow their listeners to actually compose the basis for the script of the show.  The use of a publicly accessible Wiki opened up new doors that iNEWS could not.  The team could now work remotely with limited infrastructure support.  More importantly, the team could work with contributors outside of the CBC silos.

Collaboration is a trend that has long struggled to take ground (e.g. 1990’s GroupWare boom and fizzle).  It has been hampered by technical infrastructure and community-engagement limitations.  Wikis have made content collaboration far easier than past technical attempts.  Spark’s engaged audience would hopefully compliment their efforts to collaborate further.

The biggest question the team needed to decide upon was what to make public and what to keep private. In the Radio industry, the Green Sheet is used to collect all the information required to perform the interview.  In the past, it was actually printed on a green sheet of paper, thus its name.  Much of the content on the Green Sheet is typically kept private.  For the purpose of this experiment, the Spark Team opted to avoid refactoring the Green Sheet.  This settled the issue of confidential information by keeping it distinct from the Wiki.

The degree of editorial control was also high among their concerns.  Although, the audience would contribute to the script, the final edit would remain with the Spark Team.  The intent was to avoid a design by committee output, while maximizing audience involvement.  This would allow for a degree of idiocentricity in their programming, while maintaining creative control of the broadcast.  Crowdsourcing is a very powerful business tool when a clear vision and goal is outlined.  In this experiment, things would be more freestyle and some oversight would be required to keep focus.

While reviewing the content being generated, the Spark Team often needed to decide whether an entry warranted its own story or was simply a tag for the end of the show.  Being a radio show, they also struggled with how to present the graphical material often required to pitch the entire story.  Submitters often submitted MP3s of themselves reading their script providing for additional tone and character.  This was a noticeable improvement over their called-in questions and comments.

In their experiment, the Spark Team’s Wiki saw 145 revisions during the development process.  In due part to the nature of their audience, there was very little conflict on the part of the participants.  The engaged nature of the crowd precluded much of the conflict due to their respectful nature.  The nature of the topics were also not politically or culturally charged.  This reduced the chances for extremist views and spam.  Elizabeth Bowie believes that seeing the audience knew there was someone living in the house, rocks were not haphazardly thrown at the figurative windows.

Dan Misener outlined that he felt that Wikis worked best for list-based and factual-based content.  He felt that opinions and creative writing are not entirely scalable on a Wiki platform.  Martin countered that view with a belief that a long term trajectory is required to keep the creative process in line.  Martin Cleaver brought up the interesting notion that Wikis work best for “Blended like Coffee” versus “Blended like Whisky” projects.

Wikis provide for a breath of knowledge and engagement that often brings out the best of the diverse flavours.  Wiki’s however may not work as well in an environment where the purity of the content is paramount.  Blogs may be the better choice for such content generations efforts.  Dan Misener compared this to what Mozart may sound like had his work been the work of a committee.  While design by committee projects tend to lead to bland deliverables, the creative vision must be sustained during the creative process.  The Spark Team would provide that necessary guidance.

They summarized their experiment as a success lined with fear of the unknown.  Initially, they felt they were pulling teeth to get people to interact.   At the onset, they were putting in more work than they were getting out of it.  This is very common in any mass collaboration exercise.  However, once critical mass was reached, the tide turned in their favour.  Their staff of three was now crowdsourced to a much larger staff size than the CBC budget could accommodate.

The key to any successful collaborative project is to not delude yourself into thinking everyone will adapt to it.  By targeting engaged members initially, you are less likely wasting your time administrating and more time collaborating.  Once critical mass and acceptance is achieved, you can start rolling out to a larger community.

In the case of CBC Spark, they opted to decommission their Wiki after the broadcast.  It was the view of the majority of the audience, that they missed out on leveraging their momentum.  Keeping the Wiki alive would have allowed the community to keep on crowdsourcing with minimal oversight.  In many ways, a Wiki is like a fermentation process.  Once all the ingredients are in play, the benefits often take time to generate into valuable content.  By allowing a volunteer-based team to continue to ferment their ideas, CBC Spark would be able to tap into a much larger pool of content and talent.

Engaged Audience Metrics

In our digital world, the Radio and Television industry is far behind in measuring downloadable content and audience engagement.  This was a topic that was referenced highly during the presentation.  The Spark Team knows far less about their engaged community than they should.  Yet, their engaged community was more than willing to help crowdsource the production of their favourite show.  Given the nature of Sparks enhanced content via their blog and podcast, they have very little information about what happens to their content once downloaded.  By gathering demographics from that engaged audience, they could radically improve their knowledge of their key demographic.  For only by knowing your audience can you appropriately target your revenue model.

Most modern audience measurement systems are based on a very small sample of the population.  The measurement is significantly biased to the sample that have “volunteered” to take part in the diary or panel.  Recent advents such as the Portable People Meter has improved the accuracy of audience measurement.  In essence, these devices remove the human element from the data collection process.  Numerous audience diaries over the years have been known to be suspect due to inaccurate reporting or pre-filled schedules on the part of the sample population.  In many ways, the advent of PPM has actually boosted the radio audience metrics for many shows.  PPM is able to now collect micro-tunings which diaries tended to ignore.  By polling on a minute basis, the PPM device is now able to collect the true browsing behaviour of the audience (i.e. channel surfing).  However, these metrics are still based on a very limited panel size once again leading to skewed results for fringe content.

Audience metrics are the keystone to program sustainability.  I worked for two years producing the very numbers that CBC Spark uses to evaluate their shows performance.  Most metrics focus on key demographics and are based on a sampling of the perceived audience.  In the age of Social Web and Downloadable Content, we must now contend with a larger metric.  The need to measure the engaged audience behaviour is almost as important as measuring the classic audience level.  It is the engaged audience that is likely to act to sustain their programming.  It is the engaged audience that is likely to engage in product placement and promotional endeavours.

Engaged Audience Metrics are becoming far more valuable at measuring the real value of a broadcast.  Shows that are not faring well with obsolete metrics (i.e. ratings) often have the most engaged following.

Family Guy went from being canceled to having its producers now dominating the Sunday night lineup with three shows.  All of this was due to ratings failing to accurately measure the engaged behaviour of their fan base.  The DVD aftermarket showed the real metrics of audience engagement that the classic metrics failed to catch when the show was airing.

It is sad that the industry still had not learned from their experience such as canceling the original Star Trek.  After its cancellation, Star Trek went on to dominate TV and Theaters with numerous sequels and prequels generating Billions in revenue for a once defunct show.  The rating systems clearly had no real indication of the fringe audience.

In many ways that industry is still being run by the same mindset that led to those decisions back in the 60’s.  The current ratings structure is poorly equipped to measure the social engagement of the audience.  There needs to be a substantial shift from quantity-based metrics to quality-based metrics when measuring the broadcast audience.

Current shows such as True Blood have made expansive use of the social web to engage their audience.  The viral word of mouth for that show has made it one of HBOs most successful programs to date.

The barriers to entry are still relatively high for normal broadcasting (Radio and Television).  However, these barriers are micro-cosmic when you look at the advent of social media and the rise of the Prosumer.  By investing in your audience and collaborating with them, we are now able to gather metrics and demographic information that is actually useful.  The time has come to fully crowdsource audience metrics and bring to term valuable metrics on audience engagement.  By investing and engaging the audience, we will be able to not only learn about them, but learn from them.


One thought on “Wikis at CBC Radio (CBC Spark)

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