Journalist and Entrepreneur Jennifer Brandel stays curious

Jennifer Brandel was "an intensely curious kid," and that curiosity has been her guiding principle all her life. After a post-college internship with NPR, Jennifer says her 20s were "a total hodgepodge of trial and error," freelancing as a writer among other things, including pitching stories to WBEZ, Chicago's NPR station. That led to her developing a show "Curious City" that asked the public what stories from their communities they wanted told. Jennifer took that idea and founded Hearken, a company that "helps newsrooms listen to the public before they publish" through consultancy and a tech toolset.

Jenn with her SXSW Accelerator Award

FAST FACTS ABOUT Jennifer

Where she’s from: Suburban Chicago
Grew up with: mom, dad, and brothers
Education: Bachelor’s degree from University of Wisconsin-Madison
Where she lives now: Chicago, Illinois
Growing up she wanted to be: a journalist
Now she’s: CEO and Co-founder of Hearken

Tell us about yourself growing up!
I grew up in a suburb in Chicago with two brothers, and a mom and a dad who are still together. I was the youngest of three kids and had a ton of male cousins. I was the only girl in the family for many, many years.

I grew up in a culture of sports and academics. I think if I didn’t have so many male influences I probably would’ve gravitated more toward doing arts and theater, and music, but I just had older brothers. We all three played sports, and worked hard at school. I was an intensely curious kid so I would dabble a lot in things, but I wasn’t someone who wanted to learn by reading a book. I wanted to learn by trying stuff. I was always trying my hand at lots of different stuff. I did student council and was interested in a ton of different subjects, and played three sports, and was in the talent show to sing.

Then I went to University of Wisconsin-Madison because I didn’t know what I wanted to study, but I knew that they had everything there. I studied fine art for a little while when I got there, and then I realized that I couldn’t take a lot of the classes I wanted to if I stayed a fine arts major so I ended up switching to art history so I could study women’s studies and anthropology, and psychology, and anything that interested me. I ended up with a degree in art history and a certificate, which is like a minor, in this thing called integrated liberal studies, which is a way of saying, “No categories here. We’re going to talk about how things overlap instead of artificially confine ideas into one category.”

How did you spend your time outside of class?
I was a photographer for the Daily Cardinal for a little, which is a student paper. I managed a coffee shop in my not-so-spare time that helped me make some more money. I organized film festivals and a play. There were a lot of American Indians in the Madison area so I did some after school tutoring for Ho-Chunk kids and led a student alternative spring break trip to a reservation. 

Did you have any ideas of what you might want to do after college?
I didn’t have a lot of ideas. I knew I didn’t want to be an art historian. I thought maybe I’d go to grad school at some point, but not necessarily for art history. I was really interested in philosophy but I also knew that philosophers probably aren’t a job description that you’re going to see floating around.

In my senior year, I was on my way to an evening philosophy class, and a friend of mine cut me off when I was walking up the stairs and was like, “You’ve got to skip class. There’s this guy speaking at the student union tonight that you have to see.”

I’m not a class skipping type of gal and I really liked that class, but there was something about it where I thought, “I’m a good kid, I never skip class and do this kind of stuff. I’m going to do it.” I’m really glad I did, because it ended up being Ira Glass speaking. I’d never heard of public radio until then. My parents grew up listening to talk radio and oldies stations, and I just had no idea that that kind of storytelling could be found on the dial.

I saw [Ira Glass] speak and I just was completely blown away. I was like, “Oh my God, these are my people. What is this public radio situation and how do I get involved?” I got extremely inspired, and I ended up starting to volunteer at the community radio station in Madison called WORT pretty much immediately after. I volunteered there for a little bit and then I wrote a really insane cover letter to NPR for an internship. I calligraphied it on vellum paper and sent it off, and they ended up calling me.

Did you jump at the opportunity to work at NPR?
At the time I didn’t know what I was going to do but I had subscribed to this publication called the Caretaker Gazette, which was this thing where people who had houses around the world were going on a sabbatical, or going on a long term trip and they needed someone to take care of their house. I was applying feverishly to try and become a caretaker for someone’s house so I could have some time and write, and think, and figure out what I wanted to do.

I was all set, pretty much, to go to Italy when NPR called and they were like, “Hi. We’d like to offer you an internship.” I was like, “That’s too bad because I’m going to be in Italy. Could I do it in six months?” They were like, “No, sorry. It’s now or never.” I initially said, “Thank you, so much. I’ll just apply again next time.” I waited 24 hours and I was like, “What am I doing? I should totally take this internship.” I called them back and left a very sheepish voicemail, “I’m sorry. If the offer still stands I really would love to,” and they said yes. I moved to DC. Suddenly, I found myself at NPR headquarters with an intern class of Ivy League graduates who had been weaned on Nina Totenberg and I was like, “Whoa, where am I? I’m a public school kid from the suburbs surrounded by all these incredible people.” 

What was it like working at NPR?
It was amazing. It was full of incredibly bright, driven, caring people who were doing really cool, creative, and meaningful work, and I was really excited to be there. I didn’t get to make radio or anything because I was an intern, but I did get to sit in on pitch meetings and help do research, and contribute in different ways. I helped to produce Jazz Piano Christmas at the Kennedy Center, event stuff, and an intern program.

It was really, really great. It was actually good that I didn’t know who everybody was because I was less star-struck than my other intern peers, so I would just look at people’s bios on the site and then email them and ask them if they would have lunch with me. Everyone was very nice. It was kind of nice to be naïve and just get to know a lot of really incredible people there.

My guiding principles have more or less been: Can I do work that keeps me remaining curious about the world? Can I also do work that increases my ability to feel compassion for people?

You’ve spent a lot of time as a freelancer, doing a wide variety of work. How did you build your career as a freelancer? What kinds of work did you do?
I never had a title, or a position, or an industry in mind. I liked a lot of different things and I liked problem solving and doing creative work. My guiding principles have more or less been: Can I do work that keeps me remaining curious about the world? Can I also do work that increases my ability to feel compassion for people? If either of those two elements is missing from what I’m doing, I’m really miserable. I didn’t really care what format my life took, or what job I was doing, but if I was constantly learning and not closing myself off to other people’s experiences then I was like, “All right, I’m on the right path.”

My 20s were a total hodgepodge of trial and error of figuring out what I didn’t like to do and then what I did like, and what kind of people I liked working with. I did some writing and production on an independent film. I worked at a wine bar as a waitress. I organized a musical benefit for the Japanese earthquake of 2011. I ghost wrote for a burlesque dancer, and ghost wrote for John Hughes before he passed away, the movie director who made Say Anything, and Sixteen Candles.

You started the show Curious City on WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station. How did your relationship with WBEZ get started?
A friend of mine, who’s now my husband, and I were hanging out and he had interned at WBEZ. He was a finalist for a This American Life internship. I met him at a banjo class of all places, and he was like, “I interned at WBEZ. I can totally get you lunch with a producer there if you want to talk about freelancing.” I met up with this amazing lady named Jenny Lawton who’s now at WNYC and she was super kind. Even though I hadn’t really made any radio stories, she was willing to take a chance on me and help me through my first couple of stories. I pitched her a bunch of things. She then worked with me and helped me figure out how to do the work itself.

I would pitch WBEZ every so often. Then they started pitching me, and then suddenly they said, “Hey, we need a general assignment reporter part time. Would you be interested?” I was like, “Well, I’ve never really done news before,” because I was doing more feature things, “but I’ll figure it out.”

How did you come up with the idea for Curious City, and how did you get that off the ground?
I worked for the Baha’i Faith for a while. I read a lot about how they approached community building, how they approached religion and spirituality. There were a few concepts that really stuck out to me. I thought if we applied these to journalism it would be super transformative. One of them was this idea of a humble posture of service. When Baha’is go into communities they don’t say, “This is broken. I know how to fix it. Let me fix it and show you how and then you can keep doing it.” Instead what they do is they say, “Hey, you know what your problems are. I’ve got two hands; how can I help?”
Journalism is really this top down, patriarchal system in which it’s like, “We know what’s best for you,” instead of saying, “You probably have information that you’d like to get. How can we get that information for you?” It was that very simple idea of starting with people’s needs rather than your assumptions about what they should get.

[Curious City] was basically an experiment: how can we open up the processes of decision making so that the public has a say? What happens when we do? It’s been an ongoing experiment about how you can do that, and it’s manifested in lots of different forms. Curious City is one, but newsrooms use this model of public power journalism now. [It’s] not just stories that are idiosyncratic or quirky; they’ll use it for all different kinds of reporting.

Instead of the public being seen as consumers they’re being seen as partners

 Jennifer talking about her work

Jennifer talking about her work

You started your own media business, Hearken, to further explore those ideas. What does Hearken do and how does it contribute to the media landscape?
Essentially Hearken is a company that helps newsrooms listen to the public before they publish. We do so by offering consulting services to help them think a little bit differently about their social contract with the public. Instead of the public being seen as consumers they’re being seen as partners and they’re treated that way. We also created a customer tech toolset to help newsrooms really make this part of their workflow without having to invent and patch together existing tech that wasn’t built for this purpose.

We’re working with about 100 newsrooms in 18 languages in 14 countries right now to help them experiment with new processes. What we’ve found is that, like at Curious City, when you bring the public into the process everything gets better. Your stories perform better. Your journalists feel more fulfilled because they’re actually connecting with people they’re making the work for. You produce differentiated content. You gather more email addresses for subscriptions if that’s your model. There’s just a lot to like about playing with the recipe for how to make journalism, and giving the public a different role.

Do you work with all types of media?
We work with newspaper, TV, radio, digital only, local sites, topic-based sites, international, you name it. Anyone with an audience or who creates content we can work with. It’s just a matter of whether or not they can afford our services, which we don’t think are too expensive. News is historically under resourced, so charging them any money for anything and people are like we can’t afford anything.

You’re the cofounder and also the CEO. What’s your job description as CEO?
We’re a consulting tech company and I do everything that’s necessary to keep us in business and growing. I do a lot of sales calls, and presenting at conferences and writing, and wrangling, and meeting, and trying to get partnerships off the ground, and trying to help our different teams stay on track for continuing to build out our model and our toolset, and do taxes and legal stuff, and fundraise from investors, and connect foundations and all. Water the plants. You name it; I do it.

No founder has everything it takes to make a company run so you’ve got to figure out who can support you in things you can’t do or who can do things better than you can do, and that’s just a constant learning.

Are a lot of those new skills you’ve had to develop at Hearken?
Yes. A mentor of mine asked me a few months ago, “On a scale of one to ten how much of what you’re doing now are things you like doing and that you feel like you’re good at?” and I was like “three.” I’m not in the perfect role right now. I think in my ideal world I would be doing a lot more writing and a lot more creative work and user testing, and talking to journalists, but instead I’m in an operational position where I’m trying to keep a company going and growing instead of applying myself in the areas that I think I’m probably best suited for, but that’s the way most startups start. No founder has everything it takes to make a company run so you’ve got to figure out who can support you in things you can’t do or who can do things better than you can do, and that’s just a constant learning.

What are you hoping for the future of Hearken?
We’re serving an industry in complete and total chaos. I ideally would love to grow and to create even more tools that allow journalists to be more transparent and show what they’re working on, and to allow the public even more of a role in information gathering and sharing.

It’s very hard to get a job without proving that you really care about the thing,

You describe yourself as an “accidental journalist.” What advice would you give somebody who wants to be involved in media and journalism but hasn’t necessarily gone to school for that?
One of my mentors and friends really helped kicked my butt in the right way when I was asking her how do I get into the business. She gave me really great advice: just make stuff. You just have to make things. It’s very hard to get a job without proving that you really care about the thing, especially given that the tools are at everyone’s disposal. You’ll be much more likely to get a job if you have experience doing some of those things. The only way you can get experience doing those things if someone’s not paying you for it is to prioritize it in your life. Figure out ways of sneaking in time and creating incentives for you to do that work, and see if you like it and learn how to do it well.

We need a lot of people with interdisciplinary brains in the industry now. The more non-journalists we can get in the newsrooms the better, because I think a lot of the issues the industry faces are trapped in thinking that doesn’t work well anymore and that is due for a refresh. The more fresh ideas and questions people can ask of the processes, and of the systems, and the “Why are we doing this?” the more we can unravel some of that stuck thinking and actually make some progress.

Did you have a vision for what you thought being an adult would be like when you were a teenager?
I really didn’t. I just knew how I wanted to feel, and I think I’m always chasing that special chemistry of feeling like I have the capacity to do things and also remain open-minded and curious, and not just a workaholic. I went to a psychic when I was younger who told me I was going to die young, so I never actually really allowed myself, I think, the imagination, time, and space to be like “What do I want this to look like?” I never really had that forward vision of how things would look.

This interview has been edited and condensed.