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Third-Party Tools

Chatting about NPR Live Chats

There's growing interest among a number of my colleagues at NPR.org about making live chats a regular feature of the Web site. So far, we've conducted just a few experiments, and we've learned a lot from the experience. What would you like when it comes to live chats?

For those of you not familiar with the idea, a live chat is a real-time conversation that takes place on the website. For example, the Washington Post Web site is known for its daily moderated discussions, where users can submit questions to special guests, reporters and columnists. Only questions that get answered appear in the discussion thread, and you have to refresh the page in order to keep up with it.

Similarly, Washington DC member station WAMU has started chats of its own, most notably with Diane Rehm. They're simply using a blog's comment thread as the mechanism for posting questions and answers. So rather than using a proprietary chat tool, they invite users to post a comment in a blog post, then the special guests post replies as comments as well. The station also posts all proposed questions to the thread. This means you end up seeing questions that never get answered, but adds a certain amount of transparency to the discussion that some users might find attractive.

At NPR, we've done some experiments with various chat methods. For example, NPR Music has utilized an AOL chat room on and off while broadcasting live concerts. During the SXSW festival this past March, they used the free chat tool Meebo.com, which allowed them to embed the chat into a blog post, rather than directing traffic to a third-party site.

More recently, NPR Music utilized chat rooms while webcasting video of Tiny Desk Concerts - intimate performances in which a musician is invited to play a few songs sitting at the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. We've used another free tool, a video webcasting site known as Mogulus.com, to transmit video via Bob's laptop. Mogulus has an integrated chat room for their video channels, so users watching the concert could chat among themselves or pitch questions to the performer. Mogulus allows embedding into the website, too, which means the video and chat can take place in a variety of locations online.

Our latest experiment with live chat tool took place just yesterday, when My Cancer blogger Leroy Sievers participated in our program Talk of the Nation and then took questions online. For the full hour of his on-air appearance, we used the live-blogging tool CoverItLive.com to allow the public to chat about the show and submit questions to Leroy for an online discussion following the broadcast. The chat also utilized BlogTalkRadio.com, which allowed Leroy to answer questions over a conference call that was streamed on the blog. We ended up having more than 500 comments posted to the chat, and Leroy answered dozens of questions.

Though the chat worked very well, it wasn't without certain challenges. For example, we decided to moderate the chat comments, which meant every one of those 500+ user posts had to be approved in real time. I spent the better part of two hours going click, click, click to approve these comments, which didn't leave me as much time as I would have liked to help users who were having problems with the chat stream. Fortunately, other users would chime in and offer troubleshooting of their own.

No doubt, we'll continue to do more live chat experiments in the coming weeks and months. But I'd be curious to hear from you as to what types of live chats might make the most sense for us. For example, do you like moderated chats more than ones that are lightly moderated, or unmoderated altogether? Should our chats be text-only, or a mix of media formats depending on the circumstance? Does it bother you when live chats include a thread of all proposed questions and only get around to answering a subset of them? And what types of subjects or guests would you find most interesting for live chats on NPR.org?

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