In mid-July, Emanuele Berry started a yearlong fellowship as a race and culture reporter with St. Louis Public Radio. She came in crackling with ideas for how to cover diversity in St. Louis, including using humor to examine identity and stereotypes.
Most of those stories, she knows now, may not get told.
“When Ferguson happened, I think it didn’t take too long before I was like, alright, this is what I’m going to be focused on.”
Covering the news after Michael Brown was shot and killed by then-police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri felt like a whirlwind. It was hard, at the time, to process everything.
“It was constant, breaking news,” Berry said. “And it still is like that every once in a while.”
Since August, Berry and her colleagues at KWMU knew they wanted to look beyond Ferguson at how the community and the region got where it is now and how it can move forward.
“Not just a few paragraphs,” she said, but “why systems are the way they are and what’s being done about it.”
On March 8, KWMU launched the podcast, “We Live Here.”
“It’s not the Ferguson show,” Berry said. “Ferguson may have been the impetus, but these are issues that are being dealt with all over the St. Louis area and all over the country.”
Here’s Berry, from the introduction:
“Yes, we know racial and economic disparities are nothing new to St. Louis or America, for that matter. But let’s be real. Like many of you, the last few months have pushed us to rethink those divisions…”
‘…It started here’
What happened in Ferguson could have happened anywhere, “but it started here,” said Shula Neuman, an editor at KWMU.
Near the end of last year, staff started planning what would become “We Live Here.”
“We realized that St. Louis as a community is facing this very complex issue,” she said, “so let’s take a step as citizens of this community together to try to understand what’s going on.”
The podcast, which is co-hosted by Berry and KWMU reporter Tim Lloyd, begins with a look at the 90 municipalities that make up St. Louis County and how the county ended up with those 90 municipalities. On a trip down Lindbergh Boulevard, a central street that runs through the county, KWMU reporters found people who helped tell how those municipalities were shaped. Berry visited Benjamin T. Allen Sr. of Blackjack, a small community that has gone from mostly white to mostly black over time, “which Allen attributes in part to white flight,” Berry reports in the podcast.
“…But at the same time, Allen notes that the real estate agents who were showing houses in Blackjack were only showing them to African Americans.”
In the second episode, “We Live Here” looks at how growing up in segregated communities impacts the ways students perceive race. Future episodes will explore pipelines that are working to diversify law enforcement, systems such as health care and how those systems and issues translate into public policy.
“We’ve said so many times to each other, there are just so many stories to tell,” Berry said.
The plan, for now, is for “We Live Here” to last for about a year. But all three agreed, it could go on much longer.
Like Berry, Lloyd isn’t from St Louis. He moved there three years ago and has covered the general assignment beat and then education. Throughout his reporting, race and class have been part of the coverage.
“I don’t think we were ignoring those issues before,” he said. But after Ferguson, “I would say that people talk to us using much sharper language.”
For he and Berry, one challenge with “We Live Here” is unpacking and untangling the issues of race in St. Louis. Another — inviting the audience to join them on that journey in a way that makes people actually want to listen.
“We don’t have to be super serious and dour when we’re talking about race,” Berry said. “We want this to be engaging and fun. We want to pull people in. That’s kind of how we talk.”
She and Lloyd spend hours getting the sound just right for each episode, Lloyd said. Neither have worked together before, and neither have worked this way before, writing scripts together, recording over and over so they’re really having a conversation while presenting their reporting.
“The whole concept of dialogue is really important in this project,” Lloyd said. “We Live Here” looks at systems and people and the conversations they are and aren’t having in those systems.
Early episodes include a lot of talking about race, Lloyd said, and that’s on purpose.
“This is going to get into policy, but we felt like it was important to deal up front with how people are talking amongst themselves about this.”
‘We Live Here’
“We Live Here” is still coming together, but it will have a Tumblr and stories online at some point. KWMU plans to set up chalkboards around town and collect people’s comments on different topics, which it will display. They also plan to hold community events. “We Live Here” comes out every other Monday. Right now, it’s on iTunes and SoundCloud, and it will soon be on Stitcher.
One challenge, Neuman said, is getting beyond the typical public radio audience.
“We want to be sure that we’re telling their stories, but we want to make sure that they’re telling their own stories, too.”
She, Lloyd and Berry are still working their everyday jobs in the process of creating “We Live Here,” and they’ve applied for several grants to help support the project. I asked what kind of outcomes each would like to see from “We Live Here.”
For Berry, it’s engaging the audience, changing the ways people think about these issues, and “personally, we want to make really great stories and something really amazing and cool with this topic that maybe hasn’t been done in this way before.”
Lloyd would also like “We Live Here” to help people inform the ways people think about the issues the station is covering and to do the thing that journalism does best – “help make sense of things.”
“Personally, I hope that we’re able to draw people into the discussion that weren’t part of the discussion to begin with,” Neuman said. “Obviously we want more African Americans of all classes, of all socioeconomic statuses, to be talking about this, to be talking to us and talking to each other, but we also want the white people in south county who don’t think there’s a race problem to be part of this as well.”
“We Live Here” also means something different to each of them, from facing the questions of why things happened where they did to reclaiming a story that became national but, for them, is also daily and local.
“I think we all interpret that title in different ways,” Berry said. “My first reaction is someone saying ‘yeah, we live here, too. Don’t forget about us.’”