Last month, about 700 people packed an auditorium in Seattle, not for a Microsoft developer’s conference, but to discuss whether the city’s burgeoning global health movement can eradicate disease and poverty across the globe. It was a live forum sponsored by public radio station KPLU and its Project Argo blog, Humanosphere. The event was provocatively named, “Can Seattle Save the World? (Poverty, Health and Chocolate).”

Town-Hall-full-panel-sized.jpg src=” http://www.pbs.org/idealab/assets_c/2011/05/Town-Hall-full-panel-sized-thumb-320×225-1929.jpg ” title=”Seattle do-gooders together for a live forum.” />

It’s exactly the kind of event we had in mind when we began working with NPR member stations last year on Argo. We’d been hoping that the offline and online worlds could collide in a way that would lead to serious discussion around weighty topics.

“The idea of community engagement is always something we’d hoped for in a variety of ways,” said Jennifer Strachan, assistant general manager and director of public media at KPLU. “Our struggle was, what kind of a topic could draw a crowd around global health?”

For those of us who are evangelists of digital storytelling or espouse certain philosophies at conferences that usually start with, “The future of” in it, this is another way to measure that elusive “engagement” metric we all talk about. Certainly, we can’t ignore critical web analytics — uniques, pageviews, comments. But when you fill a large venue at $10 a head, you’ve tapped into something important.

Humanosphere blog

KPLU’s Humanosphere is one of 12 NPR Project Argo blogs, whose mission is to develop deep content in a niche vertical that’s critical to a local community but resonates nationally.

The Seattle-based site draws modest traffic numbers, punctuated with spikes when writing of global health/poverty issues more broadly in the news (see Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” scandal).

But on this night, those who turned out to listen and ask questions acted as if they were going to see rock stars, Strachan said.

Tom Paulson, Humanosphere blogger and the evening’s host, is most definitely an unlikely rock star. But he’s been covering the growing movement in Seattle — that goes far beyond the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — for years as a newspaper reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Paulson brought in experts from the Gates Foundation, the University of Washington, PATH and Theo Chocolates (hence the “and chocolate” in the title).

The event was live-blogged on Humanosphere, videotaped for Seattle’s municipal cable TV channel, and tweeted via its own hashtag, #SEAsaves.

Engaging Young People

While Paulson said he’s aware that influentials in the global health space like Humanosphere, he noted, “One thing that was confirmed for me is how big a deal this is for young people. A huge number of people in the crowd were college age or in their 20s. I was surprised at the sophistication of the questions, diversity of opinion, and the excitement for the subject matter.”

So the question for Humanosphere is what practical effect the event will have on the blog itself going forward. The answer so far is that it has done little to increase traffic on the blog. Paulson admits the evening was long on policy and short on pitching the blog to this crowd, perhaps something he might do a bit more of next time. And yes, Paulson does expect there to be another live event in the fall.

But for KPLU, and its potential funders, the message on this night was there is an engaged community in Seattle willing to engage in a serious discussion about disease and poverty, and that public radio can be the impetus for that conversation.

As to whether Seattle can actually save the world, Paulson provided the answer to the gathering in the first five minutes. “We were kind of kidding around with the title. Obviously Seattle can’t save the world. Bill Gates can’t even probably save Zune.”

Photo courtesy of Justin Steyer/KPLU.