As my dreams changed, my goal to tell stories that move people always remained

May 22, 2018
Category: Newsletters

This essay was originally published as a guest column in The Cross Creek Chronicle, a magazine featuring writing from Pinellas County School students. 

I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t want to tell stories that moved people.

The earliest memory I have of putting that impulse into practice was when I was 9 or 10 years old. My mom had given me a cassette player with a microphone for Christmas, which allowed me to record my own voice.

I spent long hours that winter break pretending to be a DJ and a news anchor, entertaining an invisible audience with the hippest sounds and the hottest reports.

As the years went by and I hit sixth grade, I wanted to write so bad, I translated a series of comic books outlining the first "Star Wars" movie into a script for a stage play (Remember, this was well before the days of home video, when you could watch a movie you loved in your own home).

Rounding up a group of similarly space-struck sci-fi nerds, we actually performed that play as part of a school assembly (Guess who got to be Darth Vader? One of the coolest things about being a playwright is that you can always give yourself the best parts.)

Writing didn’t seem that farfetched a profession, likely because of my father. Charles Milton Deggans had a regular column in the Post-Tribune newspaper, which was the largest local publication in Gary, Indiana, my hometown. But his column, titled “Deggans Den,” wasn’t a space where municipal corruption was exposed or the city’s budget priorities were dissected.

Instead, his column was an attempt to capture the nightlife and social scene among black people in Gary at that time. It was filled with photos of cool people partying at local nightclubs, attending fundraisers, cheering on local sports teams — complete with shoutouts to everyone who was anyone in our little town. It was, quite simply, a space to learn where the city’s coolest people were doing the coolest things, complete with a logo — drawn by my dad himself — featuring him in a cool pose.

It was also a column everybody seemed to know. I still remember a moment, many years later, when I was reporting on the syndicated science fiction series "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," visiting the show’s set in Los Angeles for the Tampa Bay Times. The show’s star, Avery Brooks, was notoriously cranky and difficult with reporters. But he also grew up in Gary, Indiana — a fact I used to convince him to grant me an interview. When I stopped by his trailer to say hi, his first question — asked from behind a barely-cracked open door — was blunt.

“Your daddy write ‘Deggans Den?’” he asked. When I said, “Yes, sir!” he smiled, opened up the door, and the interview began. 

So with that example in my life, the world of newspaper writing seemed like a practical way to marry my love for putting words together with a passion for music and telling stories that might move people. I had been learning to play drums since my freshman year in high school, so the decision made perfect sense: I would become a nationally-known music critic.

Part of meeting that mission was to get used to writing on demand. Back in the day, I used to watch a TV show called "Lou Grant," about an editor at a big city newspaper that was kind of a fictional combination of The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. Just a few years earlier, real-life journalists had exposed wrongdoing by President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal and forced him to resign, so crusading journalists were all the rage in film and TV.

But what knocked me out about that TV show was the idea that someone could witness a fire or a news conference, take a few notes and then crank out a story about what had happened within an hour or so. At this point, it took me hours just to figure out how to begin any story I was writing.

Then a story came along in high school which really confirmed everything I was thinking. I was one of several students from across the area who wrote a monthly column for a small newspaper aimed at the city’s black community called Gary INFO; my dad also wrote for them. But instead of doing the same old pieces on football rivalries and sock hops that every other student was writing, I wanted to try something different.

I wanted to tell stories that moved people.

I found two guys in my classes who were the unlikeliest of friends. One was a tall, muscular African American football player from my hometown. The other was a pudgy, pale Caucasian kid who played in the marching band and lived on a farm on the outskirts of town. When the farm kid’s father had a heart attack and ended up in the hospital, the football star spent every afternoon helping his friend finish chores around the property — taking two buses to get there and back.

There was a lot of tension between black and white people in my hometown back then. The city had elected its first black man as mayor years earlier, and some white people had decided to move away from Gary to nearby communities in response. They couldn’t accept a black person as the city’s most important official.  

So this football player was taking a risk by helping his friend. And it was just the story that people needed to see, to help ease the tensions that were building around town. So I wrote about their partnership in my column and got loads of compliments from adults who said they couldn’t wait to read whatever it was I might write about next.

I was hooked. To this day, nothing moves me like knowing that perfect strangers have learned something, felt something or done something because they connected with my writing.

My dream has changed a bit. I cover television and media now because the world of pop music feels like it’s focused on much younger fans. And I create audio stories for a national radio network instead of writing for a newspaper or magazine — filling a job they never had at National Public Radio until I got there: TV critic.

But my mission is the same: To expose wrongdoing, cut through hype and challenge the biggest institutions in the business to live up to their greatest ideals. And I do that, by remembering the mission I set out for myself back when I first fired up that handheld tape recorder in my bedroom 45 years ago.

To tell stories that move people. And, in the process, maybe inspire people to change things for the better in their own corner of the world.