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May 25, 2023, 2:23 p.m.
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Last Night at School Committee distills hours-long public meetings into half-hour podcast episodes

“We have created this podcast as an easy way for any parent, citizen, or interested party to get the highlights, and our take, on what happened last night at School Committee.”

Jill Shah has attended a lot of Boston School Committee meetings. As president of the Shah Family Foundation — a Boston-based nonprofit focused on food access, health and wellness, and education — she has collaborated with the school district on a range of philanthropic initiatives, and watched meetings to get a sense of opportunities for the foundation to meaningfully support the BPS community.

But the dense meetings, which can stretch as long as seven hours, often left Shah with questions. She posed many of them to her colleague Ross Wilson because, prior to becoming the foundation’s executive director, he had spent 17 years working in the school district. “I asked him questions all the time — about how school systems work, and how the district worked and what that meant, what was the backstory — and that conversation, particularly his answers, seemed so compelling to me,” Shah told me recently. “It felt like something that lots of people would want access to.”

In January 2020, the idea became reality in the form of Last Night @ School Committee, a podcast that’s been going strong for more than three years now. Its success has led to a partnership with WBUR that began in late 2021 and attracted attention from The Boston Globe. Co-hosted by Shah and Wilson and funded by the foundation, the podcast consists of roughly half-hour, fact-checked recaps of Boston School Committee meetings, often interspersed with commentary and context from previous meetings. Episodes are recorded and posted the day after each of the late-night, lengthy meetings. (Meetings take place approximately every two weeks, though their frequency varies.) Episodes end with an invitation for listeners to share their questions, thoughts, and concerns about the school system, and a statement embodying the podcast’s ethos: “We all have a stake in the future success of Boston’s students.”

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In the podcast’s first episode summarizing the January 15, 2020 School Committee meeting, Shah explained to listeners, “We have created this podcast as an easy way for any parent, citizen, or interested party to get the highlights, and our take, on what happened last night at School Committee.”

“School Committee meetings are long and dense, and the crowd in the room tends to thin as the hours inch towards 11 p.m.,” she added. “And yet extremely important things happen at all hours of School Committee meetings — this is where decisions are made, policy is shaped, and operational plans are approved, all of which result in the quality and efficacy of our schools.”

Just this week, the American Journalism Project released a report based on input from 5,000 people laying out a clear desire for more local coverage — including for journalists “to show up to meetings, to scrutinize public statements…to force transparency through their work,” and to inform community members of decisions before they are made, while there is still an opportunity for public participation. As a nonprofit-funded effort to disseminate civic information in an accessible format, the Last Night at School Committee podcast is a model worth understanding at a time when, in many places, coverage of public meetings by traditional news outlets is disappearing.

The intersection of advocacy and reporting

Shah and Wilson settled on audio as the format for their school committee recaps in part because they felt a conversational approach would make the dense topics discussed at meetings more accessible. “The conversation is more fun for this topic than the written word,” Shah said.

What’s more, “there’s a lot of irony” in School Committee meetings, she added, that audio could better capture. In an episode recapping the March 22 School Committee meeting, for instance, co-hosts Wilson and Josh Block (the foundation’s communications director, who was sitting in for Shah that week) describe a surreal exchange prior to a vote on the superintendent’s proposed fiscal year budget where committee members questioned what would happen if they were to reject the budget by voting against it.

During the meeting and in a clip played on the podcast, School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson seemed to suggest that if the budget were not approved by the School Committee, it would still advance to a vote by the Boston City Council, a key next step in the typical budget approval process.

“If you vote yes on the budget, this budget goes to City Council for a vote, and if you vote no, the same budget goes to City Council for a vote,” Wilson summarized, underscoring the absurdity of that explanation.

One School Committee member, Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, immediately questioned that explanation in another quote played on the podcast: “If you vote tonight and it doesn’t go through, it still goes through? Then why are we voting — what is our governing power as a body around the budget?”

Block compared the implication that the School Committee’s vote doesn’t actually matter in the budget process to a theory that Indiana Jones’ role in Raiders of the Lost Ark “served no purpose” because all of the key plot points of the movie would have occurred without his actions. Under Robinson’s explanation, the School Committee seemed to serve the same inconsequential role, Block said.

Robinson then suggested she get clarity from the Committee’s legal counsel after the vote. But another School Committee member, Quoc Tran, who planned to vote in support of the budget, spoke up as a lawyer to ask for clarity on the meaning of the vote before members voted.

In a clip played on the episode, attorney Lisa Maki said she had “not had an opportunity to fully dive into what would happen if the School Committee were to take definitive action in the sense of a rejection of the budget this evening.”

“Josh, how do we not know?” Wilson exclaimed in exasperation during the podcast episode. “We vote on the budget every year!”

He and Block clarified that there is, in fact, a process if the committee votes down a budget — members can continue amending a budget to something they are willing to approve over several weeks before the City Council reviews the budget.

This combination of explanation, summary, commentary, and emphasis on why dense procedural discussions matter to school community members is characteristic of the podcast’s effort to boil down long meetings into a digestible format that they hope can galvanize listeners to react and engage with public process.

Podcast episodes almost always include audio excerpts of a mix of School Committee member, administrator, and community member comments from the meetings. “We really try hard to use the voices of those on the committee and in the school department to tell the story,” Wilson said. “We do so with great respect and regard for what they say, and make sure we don’t misrepresent…but we figure out how to weave all of their comments…and all their presentations together into something that makes sense of what is happening.”

City Bureau’s Documenters program, which trains citizens to cover public meetings, is among the most prominent and successful examples of contemporary citizen journalism. The Shah Foundation’s podcast takes a different approach that folds more advocacy and opinion into its careful summaries of meetings. Although neither Shah nor Wilson are trained as reporters, they both consider their work a kind of citizen journalism. “To some extent we view [our work] as reporting, to some degree we view it as advocacy,” Shah said. “I think at certain times, some of us wish it were sparking a revolution.”

In Shah’s view, the podcast also provides unique value to its listeners because it takes a slower approach to unpacking meeting highlights, waiting to publish until the day after the meeting. Mainstream news outlets’ rush to break news, by contrast, can sometimes mean that organizations publish a story before an issue has even been fully discussed, she said. “The nuance — the good questions that school committee members ask, the public comment that is made about a particular issue — never gets into that first story,” Shah said.

A notable example: In the summer of 2021, the Boston School Committee unanimously approved consequential changes to the city’s high-profile exam school admissions process in an effort to make that policy more equitable. Those changes were covered the same night of that meeting in two separate articles in The Boston Globe.

One story, focused on explaining the new process, characterized the changes as “the biggest permanent changes to the exam school admission process in more than two decades,” stating, “The new process was developed by a task force over the last five months.” The article also noted that the process approved by the committee “reflects the final recommendations released by Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius Wednesday afternoon.”

The other story focused on the School Committee meeting and vote to approve the admissions process changes. This article contextualized the changes with political and historical tensions stemming from and shaping newly approved process, and focused on one amendment Cassellius made to the task force recommendations to reject “a politically influenced measure reluctantly advanced by a task force.” This story mentioned that Cassellius’ recommendations “largely mirrored the original task force proposal” and, at the very bottom, described two other differences between her final recommendations and those made by the task force.

As usual, Last Night at School Committee recapped the meeting in an episode the following day, July 15. In that summary, they included additional context about the recommendations ultimately approved at the meeting: Shah explained that “the superintendent had made a presentation [that] was different, in many ways, from what the task force had recommended in the meeting prior.” Wilson specified that Cassellius had made five significant changes to the proposal approved by the School Committee without releasing data about those changes prior to the School Committee’s vote.

“Jill, the result of these changes, or simulations based on the new criteria, were not made public,” Wilson said in the episode. “We have no real idea about the changes the superintendent made just in the last few days to this proposal, or the impacts on schools or students in our city.”

“It’s really curious, right, that the School Committee didn’t insist on seeing simulations before calling for a vote, given that that was just normal process for the five months that the task force was meeting,” Shah agreed.

“There was a tremendous process, a very public process, a process that enabled all of us to pay close attention to what was happening and to have public debate around what should happen,” Wilson acknowledged. “And then at the very end here, in the last few days, a number of things shifted and the data wasn’t made public. And I think that’s a real concern.”

Shah told me she and Wilson had listened to all of the subcommittee meetings leading up to the recommendation, which was why they caught the 11th-hour changes by the superintendent, and the lack of public data describing their effects, right away.

Shah and Wilson’s immediate concerns would later be echoed in mainstream news stories as the unclear effects of the superintendent’s late-hour admission process changes sparked lawsuits, becoming a major debacle and news story. When the school department finally released data detailing the potential effects of the policy on exam school diversity a couple of months later, the Globe noted that “such an analysis was absent when Cassellius presented the committee with last-minute revisions she made to the policy prior to the July vote, raising questions if it had been properly vetted.”

In general, “I hope that our podcast also helps those who are in the more mainstream media listen and figure out what are the future stories that should be dug into,” Wilson said.

Who is the podcast’s audience?

Shah and Wilson created the podcast with the goal of helping Boston Public Schools community members follow and engage with decision-making that directly affects them — including parents, teachers, students, and Boston residents interested in the school system.

But the podcast first caught the attention of “the people who were really involved in the execution of the system,” Shah said — the superintendent; her staff; the most active parents, teachers and students; and School Committee members themselves. This was a surprise, Shah added, because “we thought they would be utterly dismissive of the podcast.”

Jeri Robinson, the Boston School Committee’s current chair and a School Committee member since 2014, told me she is glad the podcast exists, though she doesn’t listen to it very often because she knows what happens at the meetings from chairing them. “I think the questions they pose are the right ones; they’re the same ones that we’re asking ourselves,” she said of Shah and Wilson.

Robinson said that in her view, disseminating key information to stakeholders — and other advocates — is an important service to the community. “Boston is running over with advocates, for everybody and his brother,” Robinson said. “My issue is that the advocates themselves need to be well informed, and so if the individual clients can’t access [the information] on their own, that’s the role of the advocate…If there’s information you feel your constituents need to know, you need to know how to find it.”

Partnering with WBUR

The Shah Family Foundation partnered with WBUR in late 2021 to make the podcast sponsored content — meaning the foundation entirely funds the podcast, but it has access to some editing, production, and advertising resources through CitySpace Productions at WBUR. CitySpace Productions, the news outlet’s studio for partner projects with corporations and nonprofits, also partners with the foundation on a second podcast.

Through the WBUR collaboration, an audio editor from the news organization works on the podcast (though the Shah Foundation has full editorial control, and as sponsored content, the podcast is firewalled from WBUR’s editorial content). The editor contributes to fact-checking as well as professional mixing and engineering that elevate the quality of the podcast.

“It would be very hard to get that person to come work full time at the foundation,” Shah said, “but that person as a part of an institution like NPR and BUR, it’s super high-caliber, and…his attention’s focused on us. So it’s a real win-win.”

According to the Shah Foundation’s 2022 year in review, Last Night at School Committee tripled its listenership last year.

“All of our most recent [Last Night at School Committee] episodes have more than 500 downloads,” Jay Feinstein, senior producer for podcasts and business partnerships at CitySpace Productions, told me in an email. He added that this translates to “thousands of listeners per month.”

“When you’re thinking about the very niche audience that we’re trying to reach,” Feinstein said, “this is a very devoted audience that keeps on coming back…[parents and administrators] might not have time for a five-hour School Committee meeting, but might have time to hear a summary [while they do whatever else] they’re doing anyway.”

Though the partnership with WBUR has helped the original podcast grow, one experimental offshoot did not achieve the same enduring success with listeners. Following the partnership, the foundation launched a shorter summary in Spanish of the podcast that was sunsetted after about six months because it didn’t gain traction. Feinstein called the Spanish summary a “wonderful experiment” but said it only developed a “fraction of the listenership” of the original podcast.

The podcast team does not have data breaking down audience demographics or listeners’ relationships to the school system, Feinstein said.

Try this at home

For anyone else interested in launching a similar project, Wilson thinks it requires a few key ingredients: People who care about what they’re reporting on, people who think analytically and ask good questions, and “people who are willing to pay very close attention to these things, even when it becomes, at times, very monotonous and tedious to do so.”

Shah said that specific to podcasts, keeping the length under 30 minutes is important to respect listeners’ time and keep them engaged. “The pacing is important,” she said. “The pithiness of the content is important — for folks to tune in and listen, it has to be to some degree entertaining and provocative.”

At a time when School Committees are under intense political pressure across the country, Wilson said more nonprofits should be looking at doing this kind of work to keep local government transparent. “We can’t leave it to local papers,” he added, “who are doing significant, amazing work, but are also really struggling for resources and reporters.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the American Journalism Project’s report was based on input from 500 people. The correct number is 5,000 people.

Last Night at School Committee logo courtesy of the Shah Family Foundation.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     May 25, 2023, 2:23 p.m.
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