Case Study: Pickin’ for Donations

September blew in with a fury across the southeastern United States. Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast, from the Florida Panhandle to New Orleans, scattering citizens and raising worldwide concern. In the wake of such a disaster, the older generations—many who remembered Hurricane Camille in 1969 (which killed more than 250 people in the same Gulf Coast area) and the early 1970s gas crisis—passed on stories to next generation of long gas lines and suffering, but also stories of heroism and neighborly assistance. The next generation listened and used all its available resources—including technologies considered science fiction in 1969—to respond rapidly to the suffering caused by Katrina in the best way they knew how. This is one such story of a response augmented by digital media, including streaming, that happened Labor Day weekend.

Tracy Edwards pushes a stray piece of blonde hair back behind her ear and watches intently. The heat and laziness of an early September Saturday afternoon in Kingsport, Tennessee in the middle of the Labor Day weekend are pierced by the sound of lawnmowers on a mission.

Less than 26 hours earlier, Tracy and Stephanie Edwards had watched CNN and fretted over how to best help Hurricane Katrina victims. Tracy and her husband, Steve, are one half of the Edwards Family bluegrass band. Along with Steve’s younger brother, David, and his wife, Stephanie, Tracy and Steve occasionally play venues like the Carter Fold and live in a historic Kingsport neighborhood, referred to locally as White City for the ring of white clapboard houses that surround Yadkin Green and bounded on either side by a middle school and an old high school that’s been transformed into a local arts center.

Then it hit them: they could stage a bluegrass benefit concert on Labor Day evening. With the scheduled event only three days away, they first called in favors from other bands in the local area—including the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass Band, whose alumni include Kenny Chesney and Tim Stafford—and then they set about getting the word out. They called the traditional media: the local newspaper and TV station. But they also used two new technologies not available in 1969—the last time a storm approaching the magnitude of Katrina hit Mississippi and Louisiana—to spread the word.

First, they enlisted the assistance of Jeff Fleming, a thirty-something city planning manager who runs a regional email list that reaches almost 1,400 regional leaders; second, they turned to this writer to digital media to get the word out, which was done in three stages.

The first use of digital media for this Labor Day benefit concert occurred seven hours after the Edwards got their idea, at the previously scheduled finale to downtown Kingsport’s Bluegrass on Broad, a summer series that features many famous bluegrass bands. Through the use of donated server and bandwidth space (provided by Intellithought) and a Wi-Fi testbed that had been set up to provide free Wi-Fi access to visitors, an audio-only stream of the Bluegrass on Broad finale was broadcast live across the U.S. During this event, series organizers made a plea for donations to the Red Cross and mentioned the upcoming benefit concert. Fleming’s email list then picked up the story Saturday morning, which drove more traffic to the site to listen to the archived Friday night event.

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