Intro from Jay Allison: Narrative radio documentary is all about story arc, building tension, and carefully crafting a world. Investigative reporting, in a classic sense, is all about FOIA requests, spreadsheets, exposing wrongdoing, and getting the bad guy. Laura Starecheski is tasked with marrying these two worlds at Reveal (from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX) where she is a senior reporter and producer. Laura’s manifesto tells us where investigative reporting is alive and well in the public radio system, and she offers advice and encouragement for anyone who thinks digging deep sounds like fun.
May I Be An Investigative Radio Reporter Please?
The first radio documentary I ever heard was The Jewish Giant.
This was waaaay before public radio was cool, back in 1999. I didn’t grow up as a listener, so I didn’t actually know what a radio documentary was when an old friend of mine, Meagan Howell, told me she was working for a little company called Sound Portraits, run out of an East Village apartment. I was in college at NYU. I’d stop by for lunch with Meagan, say hi to Dave Isay and Stacy Abramson, with no idea I was cruising through a realm of radio genius. I didn’t even know what my friend Meagan did at work until The Jewish Giant came out.
When I listened to that piece I heard voices bubbling up from the deep past. Familial joy, tension, sadness, all of it so close. Whatever she had done to help conjure this world, I wanted to do that. To be the magic, invisible conduit through which raw stories could flow. That’s how I thought radio documentary production must work. You mainly just had to be very quiet and listen.
Once I started making radio myself a couple years later, I realized that even though I am excellent at being very quiet and listening, my inner ham was too strong to ignore. I liked being a voice in the story too. I narrated fun documentary-style pieces as an intern at the now-defunct WNYC show The Next Big Thing, and then as a freelancer for Radiolab and other shows.
I’d been a freelance fact-checker before, so I was lucky to bring my super paranoid skepticism to even my fluffiest radio stories. But I wasn’t really about hard reporting. I couldn’t imagine working in a newsroom — I was all about story, story, story.
I never even considered investigative reporting. I don’t think I even did a confrontational interview, by which I simply mean interviewing someone who didn’t want to talk to me about something they didn’t want to talk about, for any story, until I was 10 years into my radio career.
Now there are brilliant, in-your-face, get-the-goods public radio reporters across the country. A lot of them. But I didn’t learn radio in a newsroom. Totally skipped journalism school. And my training ground, the public radio documentary world, is pretty. . . polite. We illuminate and educate the public. We are nice, very nice, while we do so. We are gentle. Even when I eventually ended up in my first newsroom, reporting on NPR’s Science Desk for a year, politeness abounded.
I realized my open-heart-conduit style of interviewing for radio was a little, well, unconventional the first time I watched a seasoned investigative newspaper reporter fire off a battery of questions at an undocumented single mom. We were both part of a health reporting fellowship in L.A., and we were standing in this woman’s bedroom, which doubled as her living room. This young mother sat on the edge of the bed she shared with her kid, looking totally intimidated and nervous as we stood over her.
Notepad in hand, the newspaper reporter barked out questions. “When did you come to the US?” (scribble) “How did you get here? (scribble) “How much did you pay the coyote?” (scribble)
My jaw dropped. I would have gotten an hour of backstory before building up to that stuff.
The contrast was made even starker when I went to my first Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference, just a few weeks after starting my job at Reveal in 2015. Notice the acronym, “ire”? Not a coincidence. Investigative reporters are supposed to be fiery, angry. Their work should inspire outrage and yes, ire, in the powerful people they hold to account. This was no warm and fuzzy empathy fest like Third Coast. It was a boot camp for reporter superheroes hunting down wrongdoing and injustice.
There was data and documents, spreadsheets and FOIA requests. A whole new landscape. The landscape in which I was to function, somehow turning all these get-the-bad-guy investigations, often dangerously devoid of human voices, into compelling radio at my brand-new job. (Rictus smile emoji.)
Compelling radio is manna!
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An Investigative Radio Partnership Is Born
While I was fear-sweating my way through IRE, Jack Rodolico, then a reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, was happily raking muck for his first big investigation. He’d been reporting on a corrupt residential treatment facility for kids and adults with severe disabilities, called Lakeview NeuroRehabilitation Center. There was horrific abuse, even a patient death. Jack’s work had contributed to the state shutting the place down, but the story had more depth and history to explore and he still had more questions. Best of all, he had a treasure trove of beautifully recorded, emotional tape, full of actual humans speaking.
He pitched a version to me, together we pitched it to Reveal, and I had my first big project.
“It was really the first serious accountability-driven investigative piece I did ever,” Jack says. “I had done features and had done some of what I would call ‘investigative lite’ work. But this was like, Okay, there are stakes here. There are people’s lives literally in the balance, and there’s accountability on the part of regulators.”
Jack had lots of accounts from devastated parents whose children had been abused and neglected. He’d also found former patients and former employees who detailed conditions inside Lakeview. He had strong characters and stakes. Jack had been putting out short features and spots on this story locally on NHPR for about a year.
Those stories detailed horrifying abuse of people with disabilities. He had hundreds of pages of documents.
Jack had the goods.
My job was to take a year’s worth of his reporting, stacks of documents, and hours and hours of tape, and work with him to weave it into an hour-long documentary. Something Jack says he wouldn’t have been able to do on his own at NHPR.
He explained, “That would have meant completely reporting and editing it and producing it ourselves. That was the limitation. Whereas working with you and working with Reveal, it was just this influx of resources. . . I don’t think we had the option to do it on our own, it was too heavy a lift.”
Along the way, I got my first real crash course in investigative radio.
Here’s the short version of how we did it:
Jack and I spent untold hours on the phone, day after day, both squinting at the same scripts in a Google doc, doing edits and writing and rewriting with our editor Deb George. We foregrounded the strongest characters and dropped some voices entirely. I put in a couple FOIA requests for old FBI documents. I learned to interpret old Articles of Incorporation to trace company owners over time. This document hunting was growing on me! And I took a reporting trip to Florida to meet the man who helped come up with the blueprint for scammy, corrupt, appallingly abusive facilities like Lakeview.
Best of all, we got to open the Reveal episode, which you can hear here, with a brand new scene that’s one of my favorite show openings we’ve done:
The whole process took about six months. NHPR partnered with Reveal on the show, and both kicked in resources to make it happen. NHPR pared down Jack’s workload for two months of intensive production. Reveal provided some funding so the station could hire a freelancer to cover some of Jack’s responsibilities during that time.
Jack says his news director supported both the opportunity to do investigative work on his beat, and to work with a national outlet like Reveal. This is a rarity at local station newsrooms, he says. “I don’t wanna sound like a dick, but I think that a lot of people in public radio have no experience with investigative reporting, because there’s no room for it. That includes myself, up until recently.”
So Why Aren’t There More Investigative Public Radio Reporters?
Hard-boiled investigative reporters seemed few and far between as I wandered through my first decade or so in public radio.
These people are out there, don’t get me wrong. NPR HQ has its own investigative team. At WHYY, the station that graciously gives me a desk here in Philly so I don’t have to work at home all alone, StateImpact PA energy reporter badass Susan Phillips is just a few desks away. Beat reporters like Laura Benshoff, who covers immigration, serve up investigative stories when they can — sometimes with Reveal.
A couple weeks ago, I put out a call on Facebook and on the NYC Public Radio Club listserv for station-based investigative radio reporters, and, via my totally unscientific survey, I tallied up more than 20 stations that support investigative work in some form or other. (Reveal has collaborated with about that many stations since the show launched, so there are certainly more.) I put the results in a spreadsheet. If you’re reading this and thinking, “I should be on that list!” you can add yourself (or your friends) here.
Some people wrote to tell me there was actually a person with the title “investigative reporter” in their newsroom. Some told me that the “investigative” title, for reporters and editors, tended to appear and disappear with fluxes in funding or leadership transitions. And most often, I heard about beat reporters who squeeze in investigative work whenever and however they can.
As local newspapers have continued to pare down and sometimes completely tank over the past decade, you’d think public radio newsrooms would be perfectly positioned to jump in and pick up the investigative slack. Limited time and limited money are two obstacles — investigative reporting takes a while and is notoriously expensive. FOIA requests can cost money to fulfill. Pricey lawsuits are a huge risk when pursuing powerful targets.
But “wobbly standards around the system” may be another factor, says Ellen Rocco, station manager at North Country Public Radio (NCPR) in far northern New York state. “I think the real problem is that very few stations have a deep history doing rigorous news of any kind.” That makes the jump to investigative reporting all that much harder.
Pubradio Investigative Boom Time
“There are a lot of times where I’m like, Maybe I have to go to print,” says Alain Stephens, an investigative reporter at KUT in Austin (and Reveal Investigative Fellowship alum). “It’s an option that weighs on me.”
Fear not, Alain: I think we may be in the midst of a micro-trend, a smattering of investigative lifeblood (and money) flowing into public radio stations.
Individual stations are launching their own local efforts. Ellen Rocco of NCPR told me that about a year ago, after decades of commitment to local reporting, the station came up with a new way to support investigative work. “We established the Daylight Reporting Fund to help cover expenses related to deep dive reporting. In rural areas, it’s easy to assume there’s nothing to investigate. Huh. Follow the money, follow the power works everywhere.”
Rocco says NCPR has a track record of investigative work — for instance, their 2015 deep coverage of a controversial murder trial — and that most reporters there do investigative stories. The Daylight Reporting Fund will pay for FOIA requests, reporter training and other costs, so they can do more.
Nearby, Vermont Public Radio (VPR) is beefing up their investigative capacity too. Emily Corwin, formerly a beat reporter at NHPR, was hired last summer as a combo investigative editor and reporter. VPR’s members and community asked for more investigative reporting as local papers scaled back, and the station responded. Emily says she luxuriated in the time she got to work on her first deep dive story.
“It was unbelievable to get to put. . . say, 90% of my time toward this one story for 3+ months straight. That would never have happened as a beat reporter at NHPR, which doesn’t have a protected investigative desk, although they completely support and encourage investigative stories,” she told me in an email.
Last November, American Public Media announced $1.5 million in CPB funding for an investigative collaboration with four local stations, designed to fill in the reporting gap left by withering newspapers: Southern California Public Radio (KPCC), Kansas City Public Media (KCUR), New York Public Radio (WNYC), and Public Broadcasting Atlanta (WABE).
Meanwhile at KUT, where Alain Stephens reports for the statewide news show Texas Standard, he’s battling for more resources. Alain is pushing for the four Texas stations that are part of a statewide news collaborative to get access to Nexis, a basic reporting tool that, though expensive, is considered standard at most newspapers.
“I may have to do a Powerpoint presentation to convince people how it works. All my buddies in print, they been had it, this is old news,” he noted.
Alain also had to fight to be defined as an investigative reporter, by employing some pretty amazing wiles.
Right before an investigative piece of his was set to go to air, he hopped into the host’s script and changed his intro from straight reporter to “investigative reporter Alain Stephens.”
“He read it, and then it kind of became a big deal, because someone else on the show who thought I had some official title change tweeted out, ‘Got tips? Send them to our investigative reporter.'”
That was just the beginning. After doing a Reveal Investigative Fellowship in 2016, battling for information for a big story about how police guns can end up in the hands of criminals, Alain’s reputation grew. He’d put in a few FOIA requests before, raked some muck here and there for a few years. But this was a new level.
“I ended up putting in like 60, 70 FOIAs. . . I fought the AG [Attorney General], I won information at the Attorney General level. We had a lawsuit come in. We dealt with tough sources, a bunch of data.”
Alain says that year of chasing information made him tougher and helped him keep building his station’s investigative capacity.
“You flex that toughness. You magnify that toughness. I use it all the time. Anyone who’s ever putting an information request in, if they get blocked up, the editors are like, ‘Go to Alain.'”
Check out the opening scene of his Reveal piece — so good:
KUT general manager and director Stewart Vanderwilt told me he hopes the station can keep pushing forward on the investigative front. Vanderwilt says he’d like to have a full-time investigative editor. KUT is exploring whether that might be possible through the Texas news collaborative.
Alain says he wishes more public radio news directors understood that investigative reporting may not translate into tons of airtime, but there are other rewards: deep sources (for him, within the ATF and local law enforcement); documents that can yield more stories; and a chance to do stories that can have major impact on local listeners’ lives.
Please, Be An Investigative Reporter
Reveal has worked to make our collaborations a two-way street. We share findings so that our national investigations can be localized, like with our recent exposé of modern-day redlining in 61 metro areas across the country. That data has already been a springboard for a few local station stories, and more are in the works. We’ve welcomed in the next class of Reveal Investigative Fellows, including Elly Yu from WABE in Atlanta. We’re dreaming up new ways to support local investigative work too, stay tuned.
After almost three years at Reveal, I haven’t totally morphed into an investigative reporter myself. I have picked up a real fondness for documents and data. I take joy in any opportunity to challenge people in power and give audiences the satisfaction of hearing that unfold on tape. I’ve worked with more station reporters, at Michigan Radio and WWNO in New Orleans, just to name a couple. If you’re out there, dear radio reporter, reading this, and longing to dip a toe into this investigative world, please consider pitching us. You don’t need stacks of documents or data findings already in hand, by the way. You just need a burning question with revelatory promise.
Truth-seeking feels both more urgent and more complicated than ever right now. I’m hopeful that working alongside local reporters can help Reveal make investigative radio that goes deep and draws in voices from across the country, in a way we never could on our own. And, that we can keep riding the wave of this mini-investigative boom, delivering reporting collaborations that add up to more than just the sum of the parts.
*Note: The photo at the top of this post was taken by Patrick Barry.