How WCHL is bringing listeners into conversations with Orange County mayors

As you likely know, it’s a big election year. Through our Elections Funnel Training Series, we’re helping 11 news organizations across the Southeast drive audiences to high-quality election coverage and convert them for the long haul. Our trainings emphasize audience experience and performance, ensuring our teams create pathways to news they can use and where they’re looking for it. But it’s made us wonder: In what ways are other news organizations connecting new and returning audiences to their elected officials?

WCHL is a long-time radio station founded in 1953, publishing alongside Chapelboro, a community news and feature website that was created in 2011. Together, both serve primarily the neighboring towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Aaron Keck with his 2022 NCAB Award (photo courtesy of Keck)

Conversations With the Mayors is an ongoing radio series on “News on the Hill” radio program where host Andrew Stuckey visits with the local government leaders who help shape our communities. Each Tuesday he visits with Hillsborough Mayor Mark Bell; Wednesdays feature a conversation with Chair of the Orange County Commissioners Jamezetta Bedford; Thursdays feature Chapel Hill Mayor Jess Anderson and Fridays include a conversation with Carrboro Mayor Barbara Foushee.

CISLM Project Manager Sarah Vassello spoke via phone with Aaron Keck, host of This Morning with Aaron Keck and Live & Local and 2021 & 2022 North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Radio Personality of the Year, about this series. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media: This is such a great idea — How did it come to fruition?

Aaron Keck: The station’s been around forever, but we’ve always been primarily focused on the morning show for years and years and years. I finally got a chance to take over the afternoon show in 2011, 2012.

The syndicated host that we were airing in the afternoon dropped an F-bomb on the air, and then abruptly decided he was gonna start doing Sirius (Radio) instead. All of a sudden, we had three hours to fill, so we took our one-hour afternoon news show and made it a four-hour afternoon radio show. We had no idea what to do with it, and there was not a whole lot of brainstorming or prioritization. What do we do with this space? Like, let’s just read the news for 4 hours, it’s fine.

That wasn’t really tenable long term so we were trying to come up with different things we (could) do to make the show more substantive and flesh it out a little bit more now that we had all of this time.

At that same time — this was now 2013 — the Orange County Solid Waste Management Department (came out with) the big roll carts for trash and recycling, as opposed to just carrying bags out or having little bins. They were trying to get the word out about that to deal with people’s concerns and questions and gripes and things like that.

They came up with the brilliant idea of getting the three Mayors in Orange County — Hillsborough, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, who at the time were Tom Stevens, Mark Kleinschmidt and Lydia Lavelle — to go record a spot on the radio of the 3 of them together singing, ‘Roll, roll, roll your cart.’


(Video from Weaver Street Market)

I’m sitting in the studio getting ready for my show, and where we were at the time there was a little window that you could look through between the studio and the production room where we record commercials. I’m sitting there trying to prepare for my show, but I keep looking into this production room where the 3 mayors are. You can’t hear, so all you can see is the visual of the 3 of them, up against one microphone, clearly singing badly at the top of their lungs but having a really good time doing it.

Afterward, it occurred to me, ‘Oh, it’s really cool that the 3 mayors are all here at the same time. We don’t usually get that opportunity. I wonder if they might be interested in doing a spot on the air with us on the regular?’

After they were done recording, we were all chatting outside, and I said, How about this? And they all immediately went for it. So that was the dawn of Conversations with Mayors.

CISLM: I’m surprised by that. I wasn’t expecting such a human answer. That’s very cool.

AK: Most of the things that we do at the station come about because of little things like that. We did a live remote (broadcast) at the Chapel Hill Library when they did their summer reading program, and I talked with the new library director for 2 minutes and we just really, really hit it off on the air. That led to a 9-year-long weekly feature where we recommended books to each other. That’s kind of the way it happens.

CISLM: Did you reference any audience data or feedback when making this a series? Have you heard from your audience about the series?

AK: We definitely have heard from the audience about the series. They really like it. In terms of looking at audience data and trying to figure out, no, none of that.

It was just a random idea that I had one afternoon and the 3 mayors went for it and said it was and said it was a really good idea, and they wanted to do it. There was no more to it than that. Just in general, based on listener feedback, we know that people who tune in to us (do so) to get information about local news and local government, so we figured this was a great way to keep up with that.

It also helps us kind of indirectly (with) news coverage. Our news department is very, very small. We’ve only got 2 full-time people back there, and one of them focuses on three-quarters sports, one-quarter news.

So the difficulty — I mean, we have to keep up with local news and the work of local government, and that means keeping up with all of the local government board meetings, of which there are, like, 6 every single week.

For one person who’s also trying to keep up with all of the other news in town, to also be monitoring all of those meetings is just overwhelming. This (series) is also a really good way for us to keep up with what happened at each individual board meeting without necessarily having to sit there on Wednesday evening and listen to a 5-hour meeting, or try to decide on Tuesday, Do I listen to Orange County Commissioners or Carrboro Town Council, because they always meet at the same time.

CISLM: Do you have any advice on how other organizations may be able to implement similar programs?

AK: Ask. That’s literally all there is to it.

(There are) two possibilities: Number one, local government officials, like the Mayor, are constantly seeking out more coverage of their activities and the work of local government, and they want to get the word out about it more. They’re actively seeking engagement from residents and townsfolk and they will super jump at the idea.

Or there’s something shady going on, and they don’t want people to know about it. In which case, ask — you’ll find out one way or the other.

CISLM: Y’all are kind of unique, from what I’m seeing, in that you have a large digital presence in addition to radio — How does being a community radio station with this web presence make your content different?

AK: I don’t think it makes the content different, especially out of our newsroom. I’m mostly focused on the radio, and what I do on the web is basically take the radio content and put it on the web so people who come to us on Chapelboro as opposed to the radio can still get that content, even if they’re not listening to us in the car.

Our news team and content folks have to always be thinking about, how do we cover this in a way that’s interesting on the radio and also on Chapelboro, on the website? I don’t know if that really shapes the way we cover it.

But you write differently when you’re writing a script to read on the air versus writing an article to be read in print — the writing style is a little bit different. So that’s it’s a little bit interesting when you’re trying to write something that’s going to be both listened to and read simultaneously. That’s a whole other skill that I had to learn. But in terms of how it affects what we cover, I don’t think it really does.

CISLM: Instead of grabbing lunch or coffee privately to get these questions answered, why do you think it’s important for the public to hear conversations with their elected officials?

AK: Because the people are the government and the government is the people and what happens in government should be known. That’s more of a political theory answer than anything else.

We live in a democracy so the work of government should all be out in the open as much as possible.

CISLM: Is there anything else that you’d like to share about this series or about the work you all are doing at WCHL/Chapelboro?

AK: ​​I’ll say what we did discover in doing Conversations with the Mayors — and just a little bit of a downside — as we have the mayors on every single week, that disincentivizes us from reaching out to other town council members and getting them on because it ends up being kind of redundant. So we’ve got the mayors on every single week, and it’s great, but those are like the only voices that we have.

We’ve always thought about ways of getting the other members of the Town Council into the circulation as well, and we’ve got we’ve had varying degrees of success with that. But that’s just the one little downside to the feature.

The other fun thing that I’ll mention is — I have no idea if this is a consequence or just a coincidence, probably just a coincidence. But I think the gut instinct is to think that the mayor getting a weekly spot on the local radio station is beneficial for the mayor when it comes to re-election. But we went several decades without
an incumbent mayor be defeated for reelection in any of the towns in Orange County.

And sure enough, the first major election after we started doing Conversations with the Mayors, that was when the mayor was defeated. So it does not necessarily help their reelection chances, as it turns out.

What other news organizations are connecting you to your local government officials? How do you want to have your civic questions answered? Let us know at cislm@unc.edu