PUBLIC SQUARE STORY, Part IV: Room setup, sound and transcripts

Fourth in a series.

You wouldn’t think arranging seats in a certain configuration would determine whether the public was civil or not.

But it does.

You wouldn’t think people would walk out if the sound system was less than perfect.

But they do.

And, you wouldn’t think people would read a transcript covering four broadsheet pages about comments made during a 90-minute program.

But they did.

There’s a technique and an architecture to setting up a room where civil engagement could flourish.

Hearing is the most important sense. Hear, hear.

And providing a transcript recognizes that not every connected reader can show up in person.

The Public Square left no one behind.

When the Richmond Times-Dispatch started the Public Square in 2005, the big room was arranged as if we were prepared for a company staff meeting:

Small stage in front with a screen behind it, podium to one side, seats in two sections, with aisles on the extreme left next to a wall, down the middle and on the extreme right next to another wall. Aisles also were in the front and back of the auditorium.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it for a big crowd,” I was told.


But after several Public Squares, it just didn’t work.

Involvement was uneven, some seats difficult to access, the moderator often was isolated, and the overall space felt uninviting.

People tended to fill up the section closest to the door and the seats along the back.

So, the room often was lopsided, almost creating an us (the back) against them (the front) atmosphere. You know, the Sharks vs. the Jets.

Also, in unfamiliar rooms, people tend to sit with colleagues, neighbors and other people they know or agree with.

That meant during a debate, each side had its own rooting sections. And when there’s a crowd of likeminded people, there’s more apt to be group think, yelling out, rumblings and grumblings, talking when someone else is speaking, and other disruptions, our experience showed.

During a Public Square on immigration, for example, a group on one side started to chant phrases. One woman in particular kept saying “illegal,” growing louder to the point that when one speaker from the audience started his comments at the microphone, he glared at her and growled: “Lady, will you please shut the (bleep) up.”

We concluded that if the issue’s “sides” were scattered throughout the room, the tone would be different. Civility had a better chance to dominate.

Also, with fewer aisles in the traditional setup, the important act of passing around a microphone was cumbersome. It also took people seated in the middle of the big section longer to walk to a microphone positioned in front of the room.
Overall, it just didn’t feel right.

So, we rearranged the room and set it up around an open square that jutted into the audience from the front. Why not? We were, after all, the Public SQUARE.

Featured speakers or the moderator were now surrounded by listeners when they walked into the square. That was an inviting visual.

We then created five seating sections: two in the front, a small one in the middle, and two toward the back. That gave us at least five aisles, plus the front and back paths.

Access to any seat was much better.

At first, we put a microphone on a stand in each of the four corners of the open square. We thought that would give us a more rapid-fire rhythm to welcoming comments from the audience.

But lines formed and blocked some seats. Standing more than 30 minutes became tiring for the participants and moderator who watched some participants stagger.
We shifted to two handheld mics. The moderator and another Richmond Times-Dispatch staffer roamed in the aisles, ready to hand the mic to people who now could talk from his or her seat.

That worked.

The open square allowed the moderator to reset the conversation when needed. Being inside the audience space also created better eye contact and personal accommodations.

As moderator, I could also hear side comments just in case further adjustments were necessary.

At one heated discussion I was able to signal to an upset person to give the conversation some time and that I would make sure he would get a chance to speak. He became an important contributor. It just took some encouragement on the fly.

Putting the physical square inside the audience was a key catalyst for keeping the discourse civil.

Imagine if we were the Public “Triangle” or Public “Octagon.” Scrap that.

Leave it to the debate about electric cars to be the Public Square where we had a debacle with electricity and a painful lesson about sound.

I was on stage with the four debaters. About 30 minutes into the program, I noticed that one side of the room was starting to empty.

I guessed it was a controversial comment from a flamethrower speaker that upset some people.

I was wrong.

Shockingly, it turned out the power to our amplifiers/speakers on that side of room had failed. They were off.

Apparently attendees got tired of reading lips.

To this day, it still baffles me that no one said a word.

From then on, we had sound checks. Over and over and over.

Newspaper readers tend to be a mature audience. They prefer we put the loud in loud speakers.

As the moderator, I started to look for anyone making a weird face or cuffing hands behind ears. “Can you hear OK?” I would ask whenever this occurred.

The lesson: You just can’t taking any chances with sound.

A few years ago, a minor miracle happened when the IT department of our new company put the RTD auditorium on the capital project list to upgrade the technology.

I lost track how many of my prior requests were rejected as “non-essential.” Tell that to the readers who can’t hear the comments when 180-plus people are in the room.

The result was an outstanding new sound system, new microphones and a new presentation screen.

We were crystal clear. Priceless. Ah, p rovided, of course, that someone made sure we had new batteries in the wireless mics. I was almost tempted to do another Public Square on electric cars to win back those readers who left.

Finally, a word on transcripts.

It cost us a couple of hundred dollars to hire a transcriber who would take the Public Square broadcast and turn it into a written record. It was a good investment in readers.

We published an edited version so it could fit the Sunday Commentary section. The full transcript was posted on the newspaper’s web site.

The editors thankfully were committed that this wrap-up would be the exclamation point on a particular Public Square, showing the many comments to document the importance of civil discourse.

Inside the Richmond Times-Dispatch, I was often questioned if that was a good use of newsprint.

The transcript, along with pictures of each speaker, often took four pages of the section.

Y es, it’s important, I would respond.

That’s because readers told me so.

I was amazed how many readers volunteered they read it all. They wanted to see what others were saying about an issue. They were curious.

It’s a big deal for some readers, especially those who lived in the outlying areas of Richmond or beyond, those dependent on public transportation, as well as those with physical limitations, to trek downtown to the newspaper building. Especially at night.

“I really wanted to be there but I couldn’t make it,” one reader told me. “I’m really interested in the issue nonetheless. So glad you did a Public Square on it. Thanks so much for printing the comments.”

Well, thank you for reading The Times-Dispatch.

The transcripts also demonstrated one other key feature of the Public Square.

Everything was on the record.


Next: The memories that most stick out

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