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11/14/2010 / Francesca Lyn

Crowdsourcing Public Radio: The Brian Lehrer Show and the SUV Map

Written in response to Karthika Muthukumaraswamy’s “WHEN THE MEDIA MEET CROWDS OF WISDOM: How journalists are tapping into audience expertise and manpower for the processes of newsgathering” and Anand Giridharadas’s “Africa’s Gift to Silicon Valley: How to Track a Crisis”.
Brian Lehrer is a popular public radio host on WNYC. On July 26, 2007 he asked listeners of his radio show to count all of the SUVs on their block.
I love that I could listen to the original radio broadcast of this case. I found the whole project really interesting and Brian Lehrer is a very engaging speaker. I really liked the way Brian Lehrer introduced the term “crowdsourcing” to his audience. Terms like this are often thrown around in the media to sound cutting-edge but not explained in easy terms. While we are on the subject of terms, I found the blog post “Network Journalism Versus Citizen Journalism Versus the Myriad of Other Names for Social Media in the News World” really helpful for defining these sometimes nebulous seeming roles. Since I am one of the few non-journalists in our class I found it particularly interesting to think about where I could possibly fit in.
Jeff Howe helped explain how crowdsourcing worked on the air. Getting Howe to talk about crowdsourcing seems to have brought a lot of attention to it, as he originated the term. Howe is a contributing editor for Wired magazine and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He literally wrote the book on crowdsourcing, entitled Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. Just about every blog having to do with New York City, environmentalism, crowd sourcing, or citizen journalism covered the SUV map case. I can see why Muthukumaraswamy included it. I wonder why she did not mention Howe? It seems like a very important person to overlook.
While I was reading about this case I wondered why Brian Lehrer would engage his readers with this type of crowdsourcing? Prior to reading this I had never heard of Lehrer. Lehrer focuses on local issues. It makes sense that he would ask listeners to contribute to a case. Muthukumaraswamy’s heading of this case in her article “Wisdom of Crowds in General-interest Reporting by Recruiting
a General Audience” is an apt title. Public radio is all about listener support and involvement to it is perhaps uniquely aligned to the “wisdom of crowds”. I also think that this is a good example of crowdsourcing but I think the fact that it’s goals were different from something like Ushahidi. Ushahidi collects information that would be hard to get and aggregates it in a useful way. The information that Lehrer asked for was not something he could not have looked up himself. We have records for how many SUVs inhabit New York City. The point was awareness. Lehrer found a way to introduce the concept of crowdsourcing to his audience in a compelling way while also bringing in the problem of conspicuous consumption.
In searching for more information on this case in particular and crowdsourcing in general I found “Crowdsourcing: Enlisted Legmen, Formerly Known as the Audience”. I strongly suggest taking a look at it in it’s entirety. It focuses on a few public radio crowdsourcing projects and then closes with some tips for stations that would like to have their own successful crowdsourced projects.



Leave a Comment
  1. Shine Lyui / Nov 15 2010 10:10 PM

    “We have records for how many SUVs inhabit New York City,” that’s exactly what i was wondering about. And that reminded me of something that I overlooked in my post. Apparently the show initiated this crowdsourcing project for the purpose of getting the listeners to participate in the subsequent discussion about the SUVs in New York, instead of being really serious about and dependent on the data they collected. So I wouldn’t say this is a good example of crowdsourcing.

  2. aflaten / Nov 18 2010 12:07 AM

    I’m more inclined to agree with Francesca than Shine on whether this was a good example of crowdsourcing. Yes, the information wasn’t necessarily put to some grand purpose, but it covers all the benefits of utilizing crowdsourcing by showcasing how a large amount of information could be gathered in a short period of time through the use of “an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call” (p. 49).

    And ultimately, even a small experiment such as the one Lehrer performed may have had a stronger effect than our first impressions may suggest. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that, at least in the case of those who participated in the crowdsourcing, more people became aware of the issues that were touched upon. Maybe I’m being a bit optimistic here, but I can imagine a few people going, “Hey, there are a ton of SUVs cluttered together here. Maybe that’s not such a good thing…” or “Man, I’ve been spending way too much on my milk. I should pay a little more attention to prices when I shop.” And isn’t the ultimate goal of journalism to inform and make us aware of things?

  3. fanninchen / Nov 18 2010 6:33 PM

    I think you made a great point that “Public radio is all about listener support and involvement to it is perhaps uniquely aligned to the “wisdom of crowds”.” I agree with your argument that not only public radio but also the whole media market is seeking for more audience. I think the crowdsourcing can certainly give the media market a helpful hand. Gathering public attentions, creating topics for the audience to discuss, and the most important is, making the audience feel they are special, helpful, and crucial. These are all going to benefit the media industry.

  4. morganyang / Nov 19 2010 3:59 PM

    Actually, we have the similar program of Radio crowdsourcing in Taiwan. The radio encourage drivers or passangers to call into the information center and report the traffic condition of high way or city roads. Sometime I think it is useful bet in another hand, that is the crowdsourcing need a monitor or should be limited in the certain basic level.

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