On Scarcity, Community, and Not Being Afraid: Exit Interview with Reporter Lewis Wallace

Lewis Wallace (right) Interviews Miami ValleyHigh School teacher Alicia Pagan. (Photo by WYSO’s Juliet Fromholt)

We’ve known Lewis Wallace ever since 2012, when he was a Pritzker Fellow reporting at WBEZ, and our CEO Jennifer Brandel was starting Curious City (Hearken’s precursor). After completing his fellowship Lewis became a reporter at WYSO, the small but mighty public radio station for Ohio’s Miami Valley. He brought along with him the audience-first reporting model we were building at WBEZ and started WYSO Curious. So, by our reckoning, that makes Lewis the earliest adopter of what’s now called Hearken.

He worked at WYSO for almost three years and became the station’s Managing Editor. Now he’s moving on to a new adventure, reporting for Marketplace in New York City. We’re huge admirers of Lewis’ work and his commitment to community engagement, so we called him up to ask a few questions about his experience building WYSO Curious and the wisdom he’s accrued while working at a remarkable public radio station. The following is our “exit interview” with Lewis, conducted by Hearken Community Manager, Ellen Mayer.

EM: Since you were one of the earliest adopters of Hearken, I’m curious to know what drew you to this model for journalism?

LW: In a lot of ways Hearken and the Curious City model was just a really natural fit for WYSO. It’s a radio station that has long been really engaged with the community, and especially over the last few years has been really ramping up efforts to keep the doors open and — as much as possible — have the programming be driven by what the people who live in this broad, diverse community are interested in. To me, starting up WYSO Curious and doing something with this model where listeners ask questions was just another way for people to get involved, and specifically for people to get involved with WYSO’s newsroom. That was part of the station that had tended to be a little less accessible.

EM: I’m glad you brought up the fact that WYSO already had a community-minded culture. Newsrooms often tell us, “we’d love to be doing more to engage with the audience, but with the breaking news cycle we just don’t feel like we have time or bandwidth.” But then WYSO is a tiny newsroom. So how did you make engagement a priority?

LW: That’s the thing. At a small station you never have time or bandwidth! So you have to make choices to prioritize things. Regardless of whether we adopted a model like WYSO Curious to drive some of our newsroom stories, we’d always be making those difficult choices: are we going to maintain our ability to respond to breaking news or are we gonna focus on features and do things that no one else is doing?

I will say that when we do features in general and when we’ve gone out of our way to find stories that no one else is covering, and especially when we do WYSO Curious pieces, those are always the most popular. At least on the internet side of things where we can get feedback based on how many people are looking at and sharing stories. When we do a daily news story that we’re chasing that somebody else has already done, it’s never that way.

I think in some ways, not being able to be the leading daily news organization freed us up to go well, okay, what can we do? What can we lead at?

EM: What were some of the biggest challenges of starting the WYSO Curious series?

LW: Well the first thing I want to say about that is to give credit where it’s due to the general manager at WYSO, Neenah Ellis, and the web master, Juliet Fromholt, as well as the news director at the time, Emily McCord. I was really new as a reporter and I said, I want to try this thing, and what do you think? And they were all basically like, “that sounds great! Let’s try something new and ambitious! No problem!”

There actually is a lot of scarcity at WYSO: we’re a community radio station for an impoverished city of Dayton, Ohio and a 3,500 person college town, Yellow Springs, and another fairly poor city, Springfield. Resources really are genuinely a huge issue. But there’s not a scarcity mentality at the station in terms of pursuing new ideas or making space for the things that really matter.

Probably, the biggest challenge is the predictable one of staffing. Right up front, there’s a lot of things that I think we would have liked to be able to do around soliciting questions and doing outreach. But a big lesson for me on outreach and engagement was that having a tool doesn’t necessarily change anything. You still have to do the real work — and the real hour by hour time that it takes — of going out in the community and asking people, “what are you curious about?” Or going out and promoting this thing. People aren’t gonna magically click because there’s a good module online and start engaging with you. So, that comes down to a staffing and hours challenge.

Have you noticed any major patterns in terms of the questions your particular audience is curious about?

LW: One that isn’t surprising but makes me really happy is history stories. We’ve had a lot of questions about history and what’s the background on X, Y or Z. And Dayton is a city that I think is really conscious of its history. It’s where the Wright Brothers are from and has this long history of being a center for invention and industry. But the heyday of that was really more than one hundred years ago, and the city has struggled a lot since then. I think Dayton has held on to history as something really important. So it makes a lot of sense that people have come to WYSO Curious wondering details about the history of the area.

EM: Before WYSO Curious existed, were there many history stories on the station?

LW: No, actually. That was something that we didn’t really have an avenue for, especially to assign a news reporter to.

EM: At other newsrooms we have found that some questions have turned into stories that become recurring issues in the news cycle. Has that happened at WYSO?

LW: Not exactly, but another theme that has had a lot of overlap with issues that we cover in more of the daily news cycle has been vacancies and abandoned buildings. Actually, the very first WYSO Curious story that I did to launch the series was a piece based on a listener email, so it was before we’d even really launched the series or put anything up online that said “ask your question here.” We had gotten a listener email after we had done some stories about abandoned properties in the city of Dayton.

There are many thousands of abandoned properties and not a lot of resources for dealing with them. All of that has been a real grind for the city of Dayton and Montgomery County. So we had been covering it and a listener asked a question about abandoned properties in Dayton which was actually kind of fascinating. He wrote us and said how would I go about buying up these old one of these old empty houses if I wanted to? Is there a database? Is there some sort of resource? And the basic answer is no, there’s not any one resource. But there are various city and county agencies that are really trying to work on this and really wanted to get the word out about what the options are for people who might be interested in helping to purchase up or deal with these properties or address some of the blight in Dayton’s neighborhoods.

That theme of empty buildings has been one that we are covering in an ongoing way, and I would say that story enabled us to do something with it that was more about solutions.

EM: What kinds of feedback did you hear from your audience about the WYSO Curious series?

LW: All of the feedback that we’ve gotten has been really positive. A lot of that has come from dedicated listeners and members who maybe have called in at a fund drive or approached us at an event or something and said, “I love that you’re doing that.” Another way we got feedback was hearing from more and more people sharing their questions and curiosities and more participation on that, so that’s been really exciting.

One thing that we’ve struggled with, and I know Curious City had this same struggle for a while in Chicago as well, was the perception that WYSO Curious stories were sort of all inherently light and fluffy stories. So we’ve tried to be really intentional about balancing that out and taking on stories like the one that we did last summer that was about: why do the police in Dayton take so long to respond to calls? In addition to doing stories like, why has Dayton had so many inventors and inventions that are a little more positive and a little more, I guess, light.

So, we were actively working to fight this perception that we’re dedicating a lot of resources to something that’s “edutainment” or whatever, and that we’re really doing stories that are about news issues and things that affect people in serious ways. I think that message has gotten across. We got a lot of serious questions in addition to light, fun ones.

EM: Do you have any other favorite WYSO Curious stories?

LW: I did a story that I really loved and also has been the most popular story on WYSO ever by an extremely long margin. It was about… there’s a lake, it’s like a reservoir in Dayton off of the highway, that is just this really strange color of bluish green, really strange. So when you see it you tend to think, why is there a toxic open pit right next to the highway in Dayton? But it turns out it’s actually part of Dayton’s water treatment plant.

The person who asked the question had grown up in Dayton and had had many conversations for his whole entire life about theories on what this lake may or may not be, and it was something that you couldn’t Google and look up.

Nobody had done this story for some reason, even though everybody in Dayton knows about and wonders about this thing.

That was a really fun story to work on, because I love nerdy science stories that are explainers about things like how does your local water treatment plant work? But also, people were just so excited about this nerdy thing and really wanted to know about it.

EM: I’m really curious about the Community Voices program which is mostly separate from WYSO Curious. Can you explain to us how that program works?

LW: So, Community Voices started at WYSO a few years before I came. Neenah Ellis had come to WYSO to become the general manager with a vision for the station, a vision of, to some extent, returning it to its roots. WYSO was started in 1958 by Antioch College students. And the opening broadcast from WYSO was about taking radio from the Ivory Tower and being a station that belonged to the community. So that had always been really clearly in the mission, and then over time, the station went through many different stages and operated as a student station, then operated as more of a professional station. Then there had been a big community controversy when WYSO management in the early 2000s eliminated a bunch of local shows and programs. So when Neenah came in, part of her vision was just to restore some of that and rebuild some of those relationships that had been damaged.

She really wanted to put the tools and skills of production in the hands of the community. There had been volunteer DJs in music shows, which is one way of doing local programming. But she wanted to take it one step further and have community production — production by non-professional community members — become a part of our news shows, [which are] the most listened-to parts of WYSO programming. And to teach professional level production to members of the community. So they started doing a Community Voices class that was open for people to sign up.

EM: You’ve said that the Community Voices Program was a really meaningful part of your time at WYSO. Why is that?

LW: I think it does something that’s kind of funny for us as journalists. It says — to some extent — anyone can do this. Give them the tools and the skills and it’s possible for anybody to go out and find good stories and turn them into great radio stories. And to me that’s really inspiring.

I also became the managing editor at WYSO, and one of the things I most love is working with people who are learning, you know, who are doing their first or second radio story. And they’re having that sort of excitement about what it feels like to go out with a microphone and get to ask people questions and be kind of moving through the world as a curious person and a producer. So I just really loved being an editor and a mentor to the people who were in that place.

In terms of stations who might be worrying or fretting about how to engage the audience or how to engage young people or how to stay relevant —

I think one of the easiest and most straightforward ways to stay relevant is to say to your community, “hey, you can be a part of producing this. What do you wanna talk about?”

SF: Some of your WYSO Curious stories were reported by people from the Community Voices program. How did you integrate those two projects?

LW: The Hearken/WYSO Curious model ended up being a really great match for Community Voices, because we had a whole category of people who had gone through the class, and when you go through the class you do your one story. You make a feature and then those features air on Morning Edition or All Things Considered. What there hadn’t really been at WYSO yet was an integrated way for people who had done their one story to come back and do another.

One of the things that was actually hardest to teach and hardest for people to learn was this idea of pitching a news story: how do you find a story that works and how do you put together a good pitch? That’s just something that takes time to learn. WYSO Curious was a really great way for us to have ready-made assignments for people who wanted to come back and do a second or a third story and really start to build up their skills as radio producers.

As soon as we opened up that option to people we had a lovely handful of people who said, “Oh, I would love to do a WYSO Curious story. Just sign me up, send me out.” And then we worked with them and edited them the same way that we would a journalist in the newsroom, you know, to the same standards of production with the same ethical expectations, all of that. It was a huge learning experience for them, and I think those stories turned out really great and brought fresh voices to the air and just created a way for folks to keep learning how to be producers at the same time.

EM: Now that you’re moving on to new things, what are some of the biggest lessons you’re taking away from WYSO with regards to audience engagement?

LW: I think the biggest lesson for me is something Hearken and Jenn Brandel have been really strong on right from the start, which is just don’t be afraid to try something new. Newsrooms can’t really afford traditional thinking right now. I think it goes back to what I was saying earlier about being a small newsroom with a limited capacity. If we remain in a sort of a narrow rut that says, well, we still have to do news as defined XYZ — the way it’s taught in journalism school — and we still have to determine newsworthiness as defined by XYZ, and we can’t have too much audience or listener involvement because it might risk the ethics as defined by XYZ… I think all of those definitions should be up for debate. Because we have to experiment and do something new within the public radio sphere in order to survive and be relevant. So something has to be up for debate.

I think that Hearken has been just one really great way to throw open the doors around this one piece of the process, which is newsworthiness and the story assignment process, but that we should be throwing open the doors on all counts. Community Voices is another piece of that, throwing open the doors on who gets to be considered a producer, who can be considered a journalist.

I guess for me, it’s essential not to be afraid, to try new things. And then, if it does create ethical quandaries, then address those and have open conversations instead of having conversations that open with the premise of, “well, we can’t do that,” or “that would be too difficult,” or “that would raise too many hairy ethical questions.”

To my mind, all of producing news is a hairy ethical question, and we should just admit that, and kind of go from there with clarity about our values.

WYSO is a place that, as I already said, really fundamentally values its audience and values its community and values the diversity of that community. So how is that reflected in the practices of the newsroom? I had community organizing background where it’s just sort of a known quantity that you have to be one-on-one with people and you have to be face-to-face with people, and engagement means engagement, with an actual person, in-person. I still believe there’s no cutting corners on the matter of engagement. And that may seem or feel kind of daunting, but I think it shouldn’t. I think it’s an exciting reality that should help us to think differently again about what a newsroom is, and how newsrooms should operate, and how we determine our priorities.

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