Introduce Yourself to Stephanie Kuo

Through her work with PRX, Stephanie Kuo helps podcasters, broadcasters and journalists create impactful audio stories, find the right audience for their projects, and lead humility and empathy. Stephanie has traveled around the world to work with communities who are telling their own stories through audio, and her ability to guide students, rather than prescribe a ‘successful’ approach or format, is truly inspiring. We spoke with Stephanie about her experience as a trainer, how design thinking intersects with audio storytelling, and what exactly happens during a media hackathon.

Hi Stephanie! Please could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi. My name is Stephanie Kuo. I’m the director of training at PRX, which is a nonprofit organization that’s focused on audio storytelling, podcasting, and journalism.

‘Hi. My name is Stephanie Kuo…’

And prior to that, you worked at Next Generation Radio with NPR. What were some of the main things you learned during your time there? 

Actually, Next Generation Radio is a bit of a freelance contract side gig that I do year-round. So Next Generation Radio is an NPR popup for journalists, young journalists and student journalists. It’s a week-long intensive that trains new journalists on digital storytelling and multi-platform storytelling. For one week students and early career journalists come together. They get assigned a mentor, and there’s also a managing editor, digital editors and photo editors etc.

We create a micro newsroom so that young journalists get a feel of what it’s like to work with others and do things on a pretty quick turnaround. I started at NextGen in 2017 as a member of the program. So I was a fellow. I went to Seattle and produced a multi-platform story on homelessness in Seattle at the time, and the year after I was invited back to be a mentor. In 2019 I was invited back to be a managing editor, which is the person who basically runs the show and I’ve been that ever since. 

I should also say that Next Generation Radio is specifically focused on journalists from underrepresented backgrounds or journalists with underrepresented voices. And so it strives to be an extremely diverse program, and it drives to be the kind of newsroom environment that we wish existed, and not the one that currently does. It is a place for journalists of color, young journalists and young women to really kind of feel safe while they’re growing and developing skills, experimenting, failing and all those things.

‘Next Generation Radio is specifically focused on….’

I think providing a safe place to do those things is super important. Does that also influence how you approach your work with PRX? 

Yes, I think diversity, inclusion, equity and accessibility are among the highest values across my team. I firmly believe that I am of a generation of leaders and managers that believe that a person’s happiness and their well-being (both psychological and physical), are important to their work. And so I value checking ins. I value flexibility and adaptability and above all, believe that each person comes with their own backgrounds, their experiences, and their perspectives. And those are all valid in their workplace. I think that Next Gen Radio and my work at PRX exemplify what it means to approach staff as people and not just as workers. And if me declining meetings with you or not answering your questions, or not even helping you or lending you a hand is going to prevent you from being the best version of yourself – that is a work environment that needs to be reevaluated. 

‘I value empathy, I value checking in…’

There’s the ideology of managers as people who simply keep people in line and keep people productive and then the managers who support, nurture and build workforces. I think we are clearly seeing a shift between generations and between ideologies.

Moving over to your work with Project Catapult. I was reading through your work with them and how you also used design thinking. I was curious about how you blend those two things, production and podcasting, and design thinking. 

I’ll mention that the type of training that PRX does is very different from technical training that you might hear that NPR does for example. Audio production and storytelling aren’t our main focuses. Especially going into Project Catapult because we’re working with public radio stations, journalists and media makers and audio storytelling is their strength. It was important for us to identify where the gaps were. And there are gaps of course. Sound design for example. You can’t really sound design for the radio as much as you’d like to, but what we saw as a bigger problem is whether public radio stations actually have an understanding of what podcasts are versus what on-demand audio is, versus what broadcast audio is. And do they have the skills to develop content that’s actually innovative and not just content that falls into line with what needs to be done?

PRX Project Catapult 2019
via @stephanieskuo on Twitter

I think Project Catapult really tries to shift a podcast from being a bit of a passion project into an actual part of a system and a part of a station. For those who aren’t familiar, design thinking is a tool, a process, a mindset – it’s a way of doing things that originated in tech and in product development. And the idea is that all products need to have a clear understanding of who is going to use them, why they’re using them, and what it takes for them to select or choose the thing. 

Public radio stations know what ‘audience’ means very generally. They know who their audience is, they see that percentage of them come from here, they spend this much time listening etc. But with design thinking and how we apply that to podcasting is if we assume that podcasts are not just news, that people aren’t just turning their radio on – people actually have to go into their apps, pick it, listen to an episode, download it, subscribe to it, keep listening. We then rather say, if you can understand who your end listener of a podcast is, you understand who they are, what their choices are, and what they care about – that’s when you develop content that’s innovative.

And how has your work with PRX changed or shifted since you started working there? How does your team continue improving? 

My team is staffed with people who have various experiences in different media backgrounds. And so we not only apply design thinking to our curriculums and to the people we train, but we apply design thinking internally as well.

We’re subscribed to every possible newsletter under the sun, and we read them all. We go to as many of these talks and webinars as we can. So we are researching constantly. And we are trying to create personas and understand who they are? Who are the different types of personas who come to us and can we speak to them? Can we learn from them? Can we chart their journey through our programs?

‘We’re subscribed to every possible newsletter…’

I think what is super interesting as well, coming from Berlin, is that it seems like so much of what people are trying to do here is just copy America. Sure, most of the podcasting comes from the States and it’s in English, but that seems like a better opportunity for you to really forge your own path in your native language with your community. I think native language podcasting is one of the biggest growing groups of podcasting in Europe. You’ve done some workshops and training abroad as well. Have you seen that a lot of people want to emulate these things from the States or have you seen any interesting formats come out from different communities around the world?

Project Catapult in Boston
via @stephanieskuo on Twitter

I’ve seen just about every possible idea that exists in the world. But I have noticed that there are podcast companies in the West that go into other countries and say – this is how things are done, because it’s what’s successful for us. But even the conditions of how the US came up with podcasts is very different from how Nigerians or Kenyans are going to do it. Their markets are just different. Their cultures are different. I just got back from Nairobi where we did a very long residency and I said to them, and was very clear; “I’m not Kenyan. I’m not from Kenya. PRX is not Kenyan. We’re not even African. I’m here as an example of how the largest industry, the largest market has done it. If you want to emulate it, you can, but what I really hope it does more than anything is provide some kind of guardrails of what you don’t need to do. It just provides you context, not the path forward.” 

‘I just got back from Nairobi…’

Sticking with that, you recently ran a podcast hackathon at the Africa Media Festival. Could you share what your team did and what some of the outcomes were?

Baraza Media Lab came to us and asked if we could plan a hackathon for them. And we said absolutely! We weren’t coming into the Africa Media Week saying, this is podcasting. This is how you solve podcasting in Africa. We are podcast experts, but we’re also design experts… I think we are design experts who happen to work in podcasting. Design experts can work across any field. We could easily be making toys, we could be making kitchenware if we wanted to, but we decided to work in podcasting because of our backgrounds.

Africa Media Fest Hackathon
via @stephanieskuo on Twitter

And a hackathon, if you strip it down, is just design thinking. You’re understanding a problem you’re working with, you’re working in a multidisciplinary group to define that problem, solve that problem, prototype that problem, and present that problem. 

And so with that being said, we were able to go into this hackathon and say we’re just the experts in creating the process for you to get from point A to point B. We put an application out for people who worked in media and digital marketing and tech, and we brought them all together. We had about 45 people across the continent: Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Zambia. And we ran them through a design thinking process, also known as a hackathon. Podcasting, you know, is really the intersection of digital media storytelling and technology because of distribution, ads, privacy, all those things like metrics and data. That’s all tech. Podcasts are consumed primarily on your mobile phone. So what kind of app development needs to happen? What types of mobile data needs to be available? We kind put all of that out there. So if we can bring all your minds together and help move your minds from point A to B, what can you come up with? There were some great, great, great solutions. We had a lot of interest in how to take podcasting outside of urban centers.

Podcast listening is centralized in major metropolitan areas and that’s true to like the 10th degree in Africa, where you’ve got people who are hyper-involved in places like Lagos or in Nairobi. And then you go out even just 20 miles and it’s not a thing yet. And so the interest was huge but the problem was “how”. And it was not just a marketing and a discoverability problem, but also a technological problem. A lot of these countries don’t have access to high speed wifi or mobile data. You have to purchase mobile data. If you live in a rural area outside of Nairobi, do you have a smartphone? If you had a smartphone, do you have enough data to download episodes of a podcast? No. And so there’s a lot of actual technical and technological barriers in place. So one team asked: How can we capture the success of ESSA for podcasts? How can we leverage the technology of sms to distribute audio? And the thing is, I don’t have a current tech solution for that. No one does, but they prototyped what it might look like to create a business that distributed audio in a lo-fi way.

‘So there’s a lot of actual technical and technological barriers…’
Stephanie Kuo via PRX

The best part about working on my team and us using design as an approach is that we get to see what your brains come up with as people who live and breathe these experiences. And in the process we get to learn about you. 

That sounds so interesting! To close, do you have a favorite sound?

I love the sound of cooking. I grew up in a house where my mom cooked dinner every night, and I could always count on something happening around six o’clock: dishes, clanking, cabinets opening, pans hitting the stove. I always think that when something’s happening in the kitchen, that’s when a home is at its liveliest.

interview by Jill Beytin, for Bear Radio.