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What's Left? An Interview With Jennifer Nedeau, Former Director of Digital Strategy, Air America Media

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Editor's Note:

For scheduling reasons and maybe as the result of awkwardly shaped serendipity I interviewed Jen Nedeau, Director of Digital Strategy at Air America Media, the week before Air America announced that it was filing for bankruptcy. The majority of this article therefore was written in advance and without knowledge of Air America's last live broadcast.

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Jennifer Nedeau, former Director of Digital Strategy, Air America Media

I mention this because it's important to note that the majority of what Jen and I discussed had to do with radio as an organizing tool in the Web 2.0 world. Those discussion points are not only still relevant, but perhaps more so because the left has lost an important social platform. Air America's end reveals a great opportunity that the left needs to find a way to fill and fill fast. As Jen explains below, it's important for the left to be "loud" and arguably more so because of Scott Brown's surprise election based largely on a better online, app-driven, and much louder campaign.

Radio as an organizing tool in 2010? Indeed. Radio has not only changed alongside of technology, but it's continued to develop in popularity. People like to listen. People like conversation. People need something to do while they drive, exercise, and work. Audio has an important place in the media tool set.

During the 2008 Obama campaign, the left took credit for innovating in online advocacy and leveraging the Web 2.0 world where "you" are the media. The election of Scott Brown then, and to another degree the loss of a major voice, Air America, comes as a warning that progressives need to take seriously. The right is surpassing the left in both its simple use of existing tools as well as innovation of new tools. These aren't sneak attacks, rather they're evidence of how the right continues to employ "Mad Men-like" persuasion tactics to technology to organize successfully, generating more buzz online, creating and cultivating louder and more conversation, closing in on the lead once boasted by the left.

1. In the world of online organizing and mobilization towards both online and offline goals (petitions, rallies, house parties, protests, etc.) where can radio fit in as a part of a larger set of community organizing tools that includes some online social tools like Twitter, Facebook, etc.

While political talk radio has always been a community-organizing tool for its ability to connect with audiences on specific issues, online technology is opening a lot of doors for the expansion of online audio tools. For example, with the advent of mobile podcasting through services such as Utterli, it is possible for activists, journalists and everyday citizens to record what is going on around them by simply talking into a cell phone. This creates an online podcast that also connects with audiences on Twitter and Facebook with just a click of a button.

Traditional talk radio has a loyal market -- the morning drive and the afternoon rush hour -- where people are committed to listening to certain personalities. While online tools require you to be on a phone or a computer, radio can be pretty hands free and present live coverage to a different audience that is not always plugged in to the social media landscape. Therefore, it is a good idea to leverage on-air, online and offline tools in order to get a message across.

2. There's a lot going on in the world of online collaboration (workspaces, social gaming, etc.) and radio, unlike the web, has always been interactive, so as you contemplate the future of radio do you think there will be a time when radio becomes able to manage a larger conversation than just a few voices? Or is the curation of audio too tenuous?

Instead of a one-way broadcast, it is important for those in radio to think about how to integrate the conversation across several mediums at the same time, constantly contribute to the conversation and go beyond the broadcast.

At Air America, I worked with the hosts and producers to make sure they not only responded to direct calls into the show, but also to what people were saying on Facebook and Twitter. This allows the show to be part of a larger conversation outside of the market where the show is on air. With the help of online streaming, the audience can literally be anywhere. Just as it is important for brands to meet the consumer where they live, it is also important for radio shows to be relevant and engaging across multiple platforms. With the help of live chat, Twitter, Facebook, and user-generated content, radio can expand it's microphone into the collaborative, two-way conversation model.

3. How do you see advertisers leveraging radio in the future? Do you see radio confronting the challenges that are being felt by newspapers, monthlies, and weeklies? Is the traditional ad model changing?

A recent survey said that while "daily newspaper usage dropped 4.1 percent and television usage dropped 3.6 percent, radio usage increased 2.9 percent and online usage increased 1.9 percent."

These types of statistics led me to believe that if radio can continue to grow even despite the challenges facing other media that the advertising dollars would follow.

When it comes to the traditional ad model changing, I do think that radio shows should consider online engagement when selling ad space on air. For instance, if a show host, such as Ana Marie Cox, has 1.4 million Twitter followers, her show could reach a lot more people than the listening statistics recorded by Arbitron.

4. Is there the possibility that radio might fail in a world where the web has come to be the dominant medium?

Is it possible that radio might fail? Well, anything is possible. But talk radio really began the "two-way" conversation in broadcast and it is now expanding into other forms online. We will not lose radio; it will likely just take on a different form as most media does in order to stay relevant, informative and entertaining.

5. How do you see citizen participation and user contributed content playing into how radio journalism works? Do you find that it's harder to mobilize a force like CNN's "iReporters" or verify the credibility of the reporting itself?

We hadn't dived into user-contributed content at Air America yet. But in terms of my personal observations about platforms such as CNN's iReporters, I think they are great. If we can hire citizens who are on the scene, the information would not only be more relevant, but also save news bureaus from sending a dozen different staffers to the same place especially for breaking news type of stories. I think it is important that every news organization verifies it's reporting and gets multiple sources to confirm a fact, but citizen journalists can be a huge help, particularly as we have seen with the Haiti earthquake, where they have been used to report breaking news from the ground, share insight and deliver raw footage before journalists can ever get to the scene.

7. What are the biggest issues that Air America is trying to spread the word about right now?

Air America aimed to provide informative, relevant, entertaining news and commentary. It was a progressive media company that worked to create a place online where liberals came to find out the most important issues of the day.

Air America also helped to push back against conservative media outlets such as FOX News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and other right wing noise machines that tried to get in the way of progressive policy. Air America worked to hold decision makers accountable on progressive issues such as health care, women's rights, the economy and foreign affairs, to name a few.

8. Can you pick a particular issue and share the strategy of what tools you are using to spread the word? (both online social tools and offline tools) How are you measuring success?

When it came to the Air America, we measured our success through weekly statistics that gauged how many people were talking about the brand. We looked at several online platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and Video to see if our content was attracting the right audience and then tried to react accordingly to consumer feedback like any other responsible company would.

9. How do you market those issues in a compelling way that can engage people online to become part of the conversation? Is uptake a large challenge based on your demographics?

As a news organization, good content is the best marketing tool one can offer. By investing in smart writers, radio hosts and producers, Air America tried to break through the noise by offering a unique perspective on the daily news. Air America had a loyal audience that appreciated the stand it took on issues and they engaged with the brand everyday via email, article comments, as well as on Twitter and Facebook Fan Page posts.

10. Over on Daily Kos a blogger wrote that the left is in big trouble, stating, if you want to win, you will ORGANIZE. You will organize in the same way the Right has done for the last 40 years, and you will spend money on persuasion, where it really matters." Whether or not you agree/disagree can you think of a way in which the Left can leverage radio successfully in a move towards truly developing and becoming a part of the persuasion industry to reach their goals, in ways where the Right has proven successful?

Organizing on the left is much more difficult than organizing on the right for one reason: liberals like to think for themselves.

In seeing first hand how the right reacts online and on the radio, I find that the "dittohead" concept is definitely true. Those who listen to right-wing radio, watch FOX News, or read conservative blogs are great at taking the message from the messenger and sharing it over and over again without contradiction. Additionally, if you think about it, the conservative movement is meant to conserve what has been for the past 10, 20, 50, 100 years on gun control, abortion, taxes, etc. The Left is more about creating change and adapting to current problems and social issues. It is much harder to get a handle on the moving target that are liberal talking points compared with memorizing a conservative creed.

When it comes to using radio as an organizing tool, I think you have to look at where the liberals are and speak to them in their medium. Whether that is through radio on, social networks, blogs or the mainstream press - if you want to reach your audience, you have to find them first. A democracy only works if its citizens are informed to make the best decisions about policy and politicians.

That is what we tried to do at Air America every day while also standing up for core progressive beliefs.

11. Radio has the challenge of not being text-based or visual, which seems to put it at a disadvantage in the competition for attention against print and video, how do you see radio and online radio developing more tools to increase the trend of easy social sharing? How do you see online organizers for the left developing a larger and more engaged audience?

I think that as technology advances and we have more voice-to-text options, it will be easier for radio to optimize the web. Text based mediums such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs have often been slower to utilize audio, and therefore the link sharing can be limited. But with how popular video has become online, it seems natural that radio could learn a lot -- and with the new mechanisms to podcast from anywhere - there will be a place for radio on the web, it is just a matter of how to revolutionize the format of it.

Air America's absence from the airwaves leaves a large void that the left needs to move to fill, otherwise politicians will only be able to talk to the right. Talk radio is a staple medium, a valuable organizing and advocacy tool, and has the opportunity to continue to transform alongside advances in technology, especially as we move towards more mobile and streaming. There's an audience primed to listen, a clear place for radio on the web, entrepreneurs innovating in streaming technology, and nothing short of a wide-open opportunity for the left to get loud.

(More about Chrissie Brodigan at www.chrissiebrodigan.com & work with her at jjomedia.com)

Bio: Jen Nedeau is a new media professional, writer, progressive activist and feminist speaker based in New York City. From June 2009 - January 2010, she worked as the Director of Digital Strategy at Air America Media. From August 2008 - December 2009, Jen pursued her passion for writing and activism by serving as Editor of the Women's Rights Blog for Change.org where she facilitated daily discussion about the feminist movement as it related to politics, technology and social norms. In her free time, Jen volunteers for New Leaders Council, a non-profit that offers exclusive training for young progressive leaders, where she serves as the Chief Technology Officer and participates as a member of local advisory boards. Jen first began her career as a political journalist after studying at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. She is originally from San Francisco, CA. You can follow her on Twitter @HumanFolly and learn more www.jennedeau.com