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How WGCU in Florida expanded its audience by boosting its news (and hurricane) coverage

Hurricane damage on the Sanibel Causeway is pictured, with the middle washed away

Hurricane Ian washed away portions of the Sanibel Causeway in Southwest Florida. WGCU, which serves Southwest Florida, worked to present as much life-saving information before and recovery content afterwards to its audience. With post-hurricane coverage and more reporters, wgcu.org traffic increased by 150% in 15 months. (Photo by Tom James)

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: As a public media organization, don’t be satisfied by serving as a pass-through for PBS and NPR national programming. Expand your news reporting team and go beyond radio, creating a more robust website and digital app where people can access the latest news and information, as well as engage with your journalists.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Amy Shumaker, associate general manager of content, and Pamela James, executive producer of content, both of WGCU Public Media, which participated in the Poynter Table Stakes program in 2022.

Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?

Answer: WGCU’s broadcast area in Southwest Florida reaches 12 counties, from rural farming communities to coastal tourist attractions. The Fort Myers/Naples market is a popular retirement community with seasonal residents, serving a population of about 1.4 million during the height of the winter season. WGCU is celebrating 40 years of service this year. Once a regional station for the University of South Florida based in Tampa, WGCU became a member-supported service of Florida Gulf Coast University 25 years ago.

Q: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization? 

A: Our mission statement during Table Stakes was for WGCU to become a vital and trusted digital news source for Southwest Florida. We wanted to reach deeper into our broadcast area to report for new, diverse and inclusive audiences that are underserved by the region’s growing news deserts – and convert increased audience numbers into members.

As the local PBS and NPR affiliate in Southwest Florida, we were looking at how to be more relevant in our local communities.

Otherwise, we’re just a pass-through for PBS and NPR national programming. We had a small news team that hosted Morning Edition, All Things Considered and a flagship daily talk show, Gulf Coast Live. One general assignment reporter was charged with covering our entire broadcast area.

As a member of the Florida Public Media, WGCU aired news stories from public radio stations statewide. We did limited enterprise reporting and relied heavily on daily newspapers to inform our local newscasts. As newspapers have declined, we knew we needed to expand our local news service.

An additional challenge was reaching our audiences where they get their news. Beyond our terrestrial radio station, we needed to create a more robust website and digital app where people could access the latest news and information, as well as engage with our journalists.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: This work is related to Table Stake No. 1 (Serve targeted audiences with targeted content), Table Stake No. 2 (Publish on the platforms that used by your targeted audiences) and Table Stake No. 3 (Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs).

Specifically, we focused on the first three Table Stakes based on where we were as a news service. Before we could begin to target audiences with targeted content, we needed to increase the amount of news content we were reporting and publishing.

We first hired a managing editor who was the digital breaking news reporter for the local daily newspaper. We went from publishing digital news sporadically throughout the week to timely, multiple stories daily. Additional reporters, also with newspaper and TV news backgrounds, joined the team at a critical time: Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September 2022. WGCU’s award-winning coverage boosted visitors to wgcu.org three-fold.

Our original Table Stakes goal was to increase visitors by 50% in 15 months. But with post-hurricane coverage and more reporters, wgcu.org traffic increased by 150% in that period.

Increasing a diverse staff also gave us entry into some neighborhoods that were often closed to us before. One primary example was a post-hurricane story by Bryant Monteilh about the lack of aid to Fort Myers’ local historic Black neighborhood, which won an award from the Florida Association of Broadcast Journalists.

WGCU partnered with the Florida Weekly newspaper to publish environmental and investigative stories in print and digital, reaching new audiences. We also experimented with an engagement tool much like Hearken that we built in-house and created a multiplatform campaign around it.

Q: What digital workflows have you implemented?


“TV News Minutes”

One of our first attempts to engage our audience using different platforms was with “TV News Minutes,” which were not only featured in TV broadcasts between WGCU’s PBS programming but on social media, as well.

Radio host reporters took news content from newscasts, or found stories with a more visual component, and turned them into 60 seconds for TV interstitials, which were then turned into  Instagram reels. You can find examples here and here.

Initially, these were very successful, but over time, views waned to the point where we made this workflow a “stop do” and no longer produced them for Instagram. However, our reporters are interested in revisiting this concept with a new format by expanding them into LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube.

“WGCU Asks You”

Our second idea to engage with our audience was to ask what they were interested in hearing or learning about with regard to our environment.

We consider Southwest Florida ground zero when it comes to climate and environmental issues. As a result, one of our new hires was an environmental reporter. We asked our audience what they wanted to know in broad terms about the local environment.

We used TV and radio promos, social media posts and our weekly digital newsletter to encourage that engagement. You can find some Facebook video examples here and here.

We received more than 70 responses with many of the same issues and then whittled the comments down to three topics. We then asked our audience to vote on one issue.

The audience members were also enticed to engage with a drawing for a gift certificate from a local tourist company. The winner allowed us to use her name in announcements on social media.

The goal was to select a topic that the environmental reporter would write and publish a couple of weeks later. “WGCU Asks You” resulted in an article about the issue with the most votes written by our environmental reporter:

WGCU tried the Hearken social listening tool about five years prior, but the team was too small to manage it effectively. “WGCU Asks You” was created in-house by our webmaster and proved to be effective with minimal cost.

Debris from Hurricane Ian, including a downed light pole, are seen in a town

Matlacha, Florida, was one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Ian. (Photo by Tom James)

Hurricane Ian coverage
Two journalists, seen from the back, on a tarmac

New WGCU investigative reporter Eileen Kelley and photographer Tom James got the first look at Hurricane Ian devastation for NPR audiences during a flyover. (Photo by Michael Braun)

Our third and most successful attempt at digital engagement was forced upon us by Hurricane Ian. We did everything we could to present as much life-saving information before and recovery content afterwards to our audience through every platform available.

You can find our coverage on this landing page.

We had people dedicated to updating blog posts with food, lodging, medical and business information for those without, and the news was constantly fresh on our website and social media, as well as through radio.

There was no new workflow implemented other than the race to provide as much and as soon as possible. Reporters are no longer producing content for FM radio first, which resulted in more digital-first content post-Hurricane Ian.

WGCU News is sustaining higher numbers of visitors to wgcu.org monthly even in the off-season in Southwest Florida.

Q: How do you use social media?

A:  We used IG Reels with our “TV News Minutes” and continue to experiment with various kinds of content to see what our audience most responds to.

We regularly publish stories through Facebook and Twitter. Hurricane recovery has played a big role in people responding to our social media postings. The most successful posts, however, lean toward stories on the environment.

“WGCU Asks You” will be implemented on our new website (soon to be launched). We will use social media to engage audiences. But what we learned in our first experiments is that users don’t necessarily cross platforms to interact. While news posts may drive users to the website, we will provide a way for users to respond to “WGCU Asks You” questions and voting on each individual platform.

Q: What teams have played a major role in your success?

A: Without a doubt, increasing the number of reporters was integral in making WGCU News more relevant in Southwest Florida.

We continue to publish throughout the weekdays, and we are hiring a host/reporter to host and publish digital news on the weekends.

Building out WGCU departments focused on membership and corporate support are critical to sustain a larger news operation. The communications team plays a major role in promoting the news team and our work.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: WGCU’s plan to expand news on digital platforms has been critical in helping us continue to reach our Table Stakes goals.

More reporters meant more people on the ground producing news that matters most to our audience. With the decline of local newspapers, there is a space for public media to help fill that void. WGCU continues to seek partnerships with our local media. Our belief is that we are better together.

Another piece of advice? Stay away from hurricane (or other disaster) prone areas.

If that is not an option, then make sure you have enough people to help disseminate the information that is critical and to find the audience where they are engaging. Terrestrial radio remains the one constant that can be counted on in the midst of an emergency.

But once power is restored, the website and social media played a tremendous role in helping convey public safety information and continue to report on stories of recovery.

Once you’ve secured the audience, continue providing up-to-date information that matters to the audience. As the entire region recovers from the storm, WGCU is working to shine the light on injustices when it comes to evictions related to the storm, insurance inconsistencies, redevelopment in critical environmental zones and how best to protect the community from future storms.