From Homeless Vets to the Exploratorium’s Tactile Dome, KALW’s Audio Academy Tells All
By Guest Blogger Ben Trefny, News Director, KALW
Somebody told me, last week, that March can be a tough month. It’s long, it’s not quite winter and not quite spring, and in the course of an academic year, it can feel like a low-energy lull before the home stretch.
Not so for the Audio Academy. Not when we’ve got some of NPR‘s most outstanding contributors coming to present before our newsroom.
On Tuesday, we had the pleasure of hosting Al Letson – host of NPR‘s State of the Re:Union and CIR‘s Reveal. He toured the station, recorded some KALW promos, and spoke with our team about his rise in public radio, his strategies on research and storytelling, and his passion for making audio pieces.
The first thing that Al said in addressing the 25 or so attendees was what a “beautiful thing” it was to see a newsroom filled with such a strong cross-section of society. Younger people, older people, multiple ethnicities, genders, identities … it’s what we’ve strived for and will continue to work for to best represent the public in our journalism. He talked about how much he appreciated our “funky newsroom” and what great work we do at KALW. He also directly called out for our Academy members to reach out to him directly to help him produce the national work he’s come to be known for. Stories about race and redlining as well as fun, sound-designed stories told cinematically. Really, this is a man whose philosophies are right in line with our own.
I’m really digging our continuing evolution of themed shows, led by the work of the Audio Academy.
On Monday, we aired Chris Hambrick‘s first feature, about how playgrounds have changed as a result of societal safety concerns. She traveled all around the Bay for sound and really put a nice personal touch into the story. That was followed by Olivia Cueva‘s playful piece about a combination Mexican/Vietnamese deli in Oakland.
Tuesday was Marcy Fraser‘s turn, and she made a touching and well-researched piece about a new home for 130 formerly homeless veterans in San Francisco’s financial district. That was followed by an interview by a former KALW news trainee – now at UC Berkeley – with esteemed Bay Area journalist Gary Kamiya investigating perpetual homelessness.
We aired an extended version of Olivia’s story about seasonal workers in California’s marijuana industry, on Wednesday, and even though it ran at a hefty 14 minutes, its movement around the state and sound-rich scenes made it feel like time well spent. We chased that with a story from another trainee – also at UC Berkeley, now – telling the story of marijuana farming from the perspective of growers.
And Thursday, former Audio Academy member Mary Rees reported a piece about the undocumented immigrants being held at the West County Detention Center in Richmond. A story about the history of the immigration station on Angel Island followed, giving our listeners some context in which to see the immigration issue. Then Hannah Kingsley-Ma told a delightful story for Audiograph about the Tactile Dome at San Francisco’s Exploratorium.
Just to recap: that’s five new stories this week, plus one from an alum, an interview from a former KALW trainee, and an archival piece from another former trainee that helped contextualize a topic that’s hot in the news cycle right now.
That’s some good work!
Speaking of good work, here are some thoughts from Audio Academy fellow Todd Whitney about his experience reporting for us this year:
By Guest Blogger Todd Witney, KALW Audio Academy Fellow
It’s becoming “a thing” in radio/audio to say that you don’t have a reporting beat or that your podcast is about “everything and nothing”. I used to catch myself slipping, saying this when people inquired about my work and I didn’t have a readymade explanation. But it makes nearly 2.5 years since I set into this radio-making terrain, and as things become a little more lucid, I’m realizing that it’s important to avoid the mentality of “everything and nothing”. My recent work at KALW has focused on developing an aesthetic and figuring out the primary drivers that initially put me in a position to create radio. My aesthetic, my driver, is me. Let me explain!
I don’t know a soul in radio who doesn’t have the audio world at the forefront of their mind. It’s no secret that the game done changed and that there are opportunities to do really special stuff if you’ve got the ideas and skills. But it’s impossible to think about this audio world without thinking about one’s place in it. To create a niche, some folks adopt beats while others specialize in a particular area of audio creation. Me, I’ve tried to flex my chops while figuring out that my curiosities and life circumstances are good enough inspirations to make good art.
Here are a few recent examples of things I’ve done at KALW:
Illegal Dumping: I live in West Oakland, a land where people do their dirty business and create negative externalities. I’ve never understood the litterer’s mentality, so I was even more befuddled to move to West Oakland and witness people dropping mattresses and couches on the streets. So I pursued a story to figure out that mentality and the reason behind it.
Black Folks in Nature: Folks in the Bay Area get excited about hikes, camping, meditation, and all that. When I first arrived this was (and still kind of is) something foreign to me, as I’ve never had a strong impulse to do those sorts of outdoor activities. But I decided to see how other Black folks think about the outdoors, and to try to understand the history behind stereotypes about People of Color in the outdoors. What resulted was a wavy piece where I documented a change in my mentality.
OREE ORIGINOL: OREE ORIGINOL is an Oakland based artist whose prints have become a visual component of the #blacklivesmatter movement. I’m Black, and my life matters, so I wanted to pursue a piece on the man creating this important art.
On the horizon I’m doing a story on the forces at work that are curbing crime in Richmond, CA. It’s been edifying to pick up the issue of police/community relations in the wake of everything that’s been happening since Eric Garner and Mike Brown.
What all these stories have in common is that they are things that interest me. They also share strong support and encouragement from the team at KALW, a squad of folks who let you do you. The team at KALW thinks they assist me in becoming a better radio person, but they’re truly helping me to become a better person.