© 2024 Wyoming Public Media
800-729-5897 | 307-766-4240
Wyoming Public Media is a service of the University of Wyoming
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Transmission & Streaming Disruptions

Wyoming Public Radio wants to hear your election questions. Here’s how to ask them

Wyoming Public Radio wants to hear from you, our listeners, about the upcoming election. We’ve partnered with the team at America Amplified to ensure that you have the information you need to participate in the general election in November. As part of that partnership, we will be launching a tool on our website to answer your questions. Wyoming Public Radio’s Ivy Engel spoke with Alisa Barba, America Amplified’s managing director, about the project and the new tool.

The Hearken tool will be live on our website’s homepage the week of Feb. 12.

Editor’s Note: This interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

Alisa Barba: Well, there's kind of two goals. One, American Amplified has been around since 2019. And we are a Corporation for Public Broadcasting-funded initiative to support community engagement journalism in public media. And so that means we are helping public media stations, many spread around the country, to better engage with their communities, to have a better sense of who their communities are, and what their information needs are, to be a public service journalism operation. So that's number one.

We just launched an Election 2024 Initiative, which is more directly focused on the upcoming election. We have some 57 stations across the country, reaching audiences in all 50 states, to ensure that their communities have the information they need to confidently participate in the upcoming election. So in a very narrow focus, ‘What do you need to know about how to cast your vote?’ Not who to cast your vote for, but how to cast your vote, how to actually go through the process of casting a ballot.

Ivy Engel: And as part of that election initiative, there's the Hearken embed, or Hearken tool, that public radio stations are able to use. Can you kind of tell me a little bit about how it works?

AB:Hearken, again, is just an engagement tool. It's a way to basically prompt questions from your audience and your community. It is a web based embed, or a call out that goes on your website, at its bare minimum, that basically has a prompt in it, ‘What questions do you have about participating in the upcoming election?’ And you as an audience member can say, ‘Where can I get my absentee ballot?’ You put that question in, you give us your name, your email and your zip code, and then we will work to answer that question.

IE: I know it uses AI for part of the information gathering. Can you kind of speak to why you chose to use AI and kind of how that factors in everything?

AB: Hearken doesn't use AI. Hearken just receives the questions. But we're working, as I said, with stations all around the country. We’re not just giving them the question prompt, we're also helping them in answering the questions. So if we're going to be answering questions about elections in 50-some states, we're going to need a little bit of help. And that's where AI comes in. So most of the information that you're going to need to figure out how to vote is available, usually, on your Secretary of State's website, or whoever in your state regulates the election process. So what we did is, working with a database and analysis company, we set up a database where we used generative AI to scrape those Secretary of State websites for all the information, officially verified information, we may need to answer questions in all 50 states. We have a full time staff of five and then we have two other people that we are calling our engagement support staff and they are the people who are kind of behind the curtains as it were.

As questions come in from Wyoming or wherever in the country about the voting process. It gets fed into this Hearken engagement management system and then is sent over to that database that I just talked about. So the database will scrape the information from the Wyoming Secretary of State's website and will spit out an answer. And then we have a human being who will be looking at that answer. And then that answer will go back to the person who sent in the question. So the AI is what helps us gather the information for the database to answer the questions.

IE: Okay, that makes sense. So, I mean, it seems like there's quite a bit of human involvement in it.

AB: Oh, absolutely, yeah. So our engagement staff will verify the source, translate the language, and then also send it to the news director or the reporter at the station that we're working with in that state to say, ‘Here's the answer we came up with, does that look okay?’ And that needs a thumbs up from that station as well. Eventually, after you've received three or four or five really good, relevant questions, we will create an FAQ that you can produce for your website and for your audience.

IE: How does this benefit the public and our listeners? What are they getting out of it?

AB: Well, they're getting an easy way to get the information that they need about the election. I mean, many of us, especially in the journalism world, we know, like, ‘What's the deadline for sending in my absentee ballot?’ and we may sit down and talk to Google about that. This is a way they know they can come to you for those answers. You'll do the work and make it easy for them.

IE: I know there was a pilot program of the project. Can you speak a little bit about that and what you've learned or changed since then to benefit this iteration of the project?

AB: So we did a pilot project for the midterm elections in 2022. We were working with 30 stations across 25 states. Similar project, we provided them with a Hearken embed. One of the big differences is that that project began in May and the election was in November. This project began a year earlier, a year before the election, because to really build trust with your audience and your community, you have to start earlier, and you really have to go out and be there and be in front of them. It's not just an election project, it's really about a long term relationship that you're developing with your audience.

What we learned was that a lot of public radio listeners don't have a lot of questions about how to vote. They're there. It's a voting population. For the most part, they pretty much have that down. They did have questions about judicial candidates in many places, you know, like, ‘How do I decide which judges to vote for?’ because there's usually not a lot of information about that. And we also just recognize that we need to be available to answer all kinds of questions that come in, whether they be about voting processes or about issues. If a question comes in, something that was very particular to Wyoming, or maybe even very particular to a community in Wyoming, like Cheyenne or someplace like that, that you all would be able to step in and provide an answer to that question. So that listener, that audience member, recognizes that he or she is being heard and they're not just sending this question off into the void.

IE: That kind of leads to my other question of, if someone submits a question that is not just factual, you know, ‘What dates do I need to get this in for?’ That's okay and we will still work to answer that. And the team with Hearken will work with Wyoming Public Radio to answer that, correct?

AB: Absolutely. That is definitely our goal. This year, we're really trying to step it up a little bit and be much more responsive. But it's also on stations like you all to do that, too. We want to take a lot of the work away from you, but in the end, to answer those questions, it's going to come back to you all.

Ivy started as a science news intern in the summer of 2019 and has been hooked on broadcast ever since. Her internship was supported by the Wyoming EPSCoR Summer Science Journalism Internship program. In the spring of 2020, she virtually graduated from the University of Wyoming with a B.S. in biology with minors in journalism and business. When she’s not writing for WPR, she enjoys baking, reading, playing with her dog, and caring for her many plants.

Enjoying stories like this?

Donate to help keep public radio strong across Wyoming.

Related Content