Folks, let me tell you as someone getting into a bit of legal reporting for (almost) the first time on this piece, you must do a lot of reading and talking about the legal issue to get the facts straight.
I’m not one to overemphasize legal minutiae and arcane court terminology; I prefer to observe general legal or social trends and call them out. This piece focuses on the working poor, the substance-addicted, and people of color, who are intentionally targeted and punished by our legal system, of which mandatory minimums are one aspect.
In order to report on the more social matters on a solid, fact-based footing, you need to do some studying about the legal issues. Otherwise, you may make some erroneous general statements when you write your script. But, do not get lost in the legal minutiae when you voice the piece, because the larger social point can be lost. Sounds obvious, I know. But hard to do.
It was also a transformative piece for me subject-wise. I had never done a story before (even in print, my preferred medium) on domestic law and crime. Normally I was off in the Middle East or North Africa writing on social issues, yes, but not laws on the books. I never thought of myself as someone who reported on law, because, well, laws were often unjust and meant to be broken by mass action. And indeed, under the guidance of the Transom instructors Rob and Leila, the subject of the piece morphed dramatically, from a focus on a New Bedford-based YouTube ranter, to an elder activist in New Bedford trying to sway kids from crime through basketball, to this. So, what I originally thought of as a place-based report, with no direct legal connection, became something else.
Which leads to the subject of flexibility: I, as well as my team of instructors and the WCAI staff, needed to be flexible in order for the story to come together. I had searched long and hard for someone who had served a mandatory minimum sentence, residing in New Bedford, who was willing to talk to me. But with the story deadline fast approaching, I had to find a character who’d experienced mandatory minimum sentencing first hand, but who was outside the WCAI broadcast range. That’s what brought me to Moka, who was in Worcester, Massachusetts, and whose story was incredibly honest, vulnerable, and powerful. I’m glad my Transom collaborators had the foresight to see that a character with experiences like Moka’s was needed, even if it meant being flexible with geography, as the rest of the voices and reporting came from New Bedford.
Sam’s Sonic ID
I met Joel Vasquez on what would be my penultimate trip among many to New Bedford. I honestly just needed a shave and a haircut. Looked up “Downtown’s Finest” barbershop on my phone. The moment I stepped inside I knew it was a place I wanted to learn more about. Graffiti murals of goblins and skulls laced the walls, signature death metal symbolism, yet it was painted in a hip hop style. I waited and waited, and they called another young man they knew up for a cut who’d arrived after me. That annoyed me, but I decided to settle into the experience and just watch the TV on the wall.
Finally, once I got seated with Joel, all I had to do was ask about the hip hop/metal combo aesthetic, and he got going about everything from music to New Bedford’s hard times to drugs to the barbershop “family.” His thick South Shore brogue told half the story while his incredible vulnerability and honesty in recounting friends lost to drug addiction told the rest. And all because I told him, “I’m a radio journalist.”