Local Public Radio Tosses Rolodex to Get Real

They call it the Public Insight Network, but it ought to be called real-people journalism.

For months, Colorado Public Radio has been using the Internet to construct a database of thousands of regular folks to find out what they think about everything from the environment to the Rockies in the World Series.These days, my old friend and former colleague Dan Meyers calls himself “the head PINhead.” He runs the Public Insight Network and is starting to focus on politics. In the run-up to the 2008 elections, he’ll be looking for trends.

For instance, early results of Public Insight’s political networking show some people switching parties. If enough people in the network seem to be doing that, Meyers and company will check their anecdotes against the Secretary of State’s records to measure the actual impact.

Ditto for matters and public records in areas such as health care, schools and mass transit.

“We’re neutral politically and in all other areas,” Meyers promised in an interview. “We ask what issues are important to you and why. When we do that, we ask if you have any stories to tell.”

Those stories could get you on the air, like the lady who revealed her creation of “the rally skirt.” It is a variation of rally hats — ball caps worn inside out or upside down by baseball fans when their team needs a superstitious boost.

Alas, the woman’s habit of turning her skirt backwards offered too little mojo to help the hapless Rockies in the Series.

Perhaps a skirtless “rally streak” along the base paths at Coors Field would have worked.

Meanwhile, the Public Insight Network is doing just fine. Its database now boasts 1,882 names, including political leaders, business leaders and plenty of plain old Coloradans. In the coming years Meyers expects it to grow to well over 10,000 people.

All bring personal stories and individual specialties.

“People know a lot,” said Meyers. “And they’re interesting.

“In asking about health care, we heard from dozens of people, but two got our attention. They had gone overseas to get medical attention. Then, we discovered a bill in the legislature to deal with that. We ended up doing a story about a guy who went to India for a heart procedure.”

Here’s your chance to audition for reality radio. While sharing personal experiences, PIN members may suggest stories for the station to cover. The database is secure, Meyers said. Only he and his boss have access. They promise not to sell your information or use it in fundraising. The single restriction seems to be that you must be at least 13 years old to join.

You must also understand that one day you could be called for comment on a matter on which you seem to have insight.

Don’t worry, Meyers said, you don’t have to talk.

It is likely many will. So the breadth and depth of the Public Insight database will carry the concept of citizen media to another plateau.

The program in Colorado is one of only five being piloted around the country. It is based on a model perfected by Minnesota Public Radio. It gives new meaning to vox populi – the voice of the people – and is innovative enough that The Denver Foundation just awarded PIN a $20,000 grant. The money will help move journalism in a new direction.

“What we found,” said Meyers, “was a way to get past the usual suspects in the Rolodex and get to the public for expertise and experience.”