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WFMU audience engagement

Keeping your listeners with you: inside WFMU’s Audience Engine

Community radio station WFMU-FM in New Jersey has won another grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to further its brainchild-in-the-works: Audience Engine. This additional $100k brings the Dodge Foundation’s support for the project up to half a million dollars. WMFU has partnered with Boston software developer Bocoup to create the system, and will distribute it as an open source digital platform through its subsidiary Congera.

Making my way through the press release that WFMU sent us earlier this week, I found myself asking what you are doubtless wondering as well: what the heck is Audience Engine anyway? The key to the platform’s philosophy can be found in this quote from the release from Molly deAguiar, Director of the Dodge Media Program. The main point of Audience Engine is that “media organizations have to stop building platforms for specific content, and start building platforms that put community first.”

What that means is that community based radio stations have to start thinking about online platforms that don’t effectively abandon discussion and networking to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or LinkedIn, and the rest of the usual suspects. The reason for that is that once your listeners and/or website readers are off to Twitter/Facebook-land, they’re all but gone. They’re not commenting on your podcast or stream or blog post in your house. They’re far far away, helping Mark Zuckerberg bring in that advertisement and audience data cash. They are nowhere where you can cultivate, or, to use AE’s term, “marshall” dialogue on your content and effectively generate support in exchange for your efforts.

Audience Engine’s answer to this dilemma is called the “interactive second screen,” a kind of in-house online town square designed to keep listeners and readers around to converse about a broadcast or news report. “The problem for the content producer,” WFMU says, “is that when they send their audiences to off-site destinations, these giant data mining operations skim off critical information that should be the lifeblood of the digital producer – information that should be sustaining the artist or producer, not the big data enterprises.”

So Audience Engine’s philosophy can be summarized in one of its own slogans: “Be your audience’s first and second screen.” You can see that strategy manifest itself in this sample AE page, presumably from WFMU’s own website:

WFMU audience engagement

The visual strategy is pretty self-evident. Get the comments on top of the page rather than on the bottom, so that readers become immediate content producers rather than just reactors to it. This encourages more comments, ideally generating a kind of community dialogue chain reaction. The same philosophy applies to a website’s radio page:


Once again, the idea is to get that live discussion right next to a radio stream, where it effectively becomes part of the program. Now that the audience is intensely marshaled on the station’s web, mobile, and tablet sites, the next task is to appeal for support:


No surprise that WFMU is taking a vanguard role in this approach. Half of the station’s listeners tune in online. 70 percent of its donations come from its website and related applications.

But Audience Engine is also an implicit critique of and opposition to the direction in which the Internet is moving, a landscape in which one percent of aggregators profit from the ninety-nine percent’s global digital conversation. I doubt that WFMU’s project can turn that situation around alone, but it’s a start.

“Audience Engine’s fundraising tool Mynte will be released at a launch event in New York City in October,” the WFMU release says, “where content makers and coders worldwide will be invited to customize and create on the Audience Engine platform.”

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