October 6, 2022

Matt Shearer was hired as a reporter for WBZ NewsRadio two years ago to produce exclusively audio stories. The world of audio and radio has always been his passion.

“And then they asked me to get the station TikTok going and I was like, ‘Oh, boy, here we go,’” he said. “I was not so sure that TikTok was the best platform for our station, but boy, was I wrong.”

That’s because Shearer’s work has become a viral sensation among Massachusetts residents, and probably even — if we’re being honest — among Boston-haters. He has a knack for street interviews, capturing millions of views through a goldmine of quotes from locals on hyperlocal happenings, like this recent story about the closing of a Dunkin’ Donuts in the town of Stow; a devastating loss for some residents.

@wbznewsradio Our thoughts are with the people of Stow, MA. #StowMA #Massachusetts #NewEngland #Boston #MaynardMA #SudburyMA #ActonMA #HudsonMA #Dunkin #MassachusettsCheck #MassachusettsTikTok ♬ original sound – WBZ NewsRadio

Shearer, who is from a small town in Massachusetts, said it’s fun to highlight these kinds of stories because it’s relatable.

“People from outside of Stow will see that, too, and be like, ‘This is kind of funny that people are reacting this way, but at the same time I totally get it. And if it were happening to me, too, I’d be really frustrated and think about moving as well.’” He also tackles questions like, “Where does Western Massachusetts begin?” and explores landmarks like Plymouth Rock, where the official tourism organization is encouraging visitors to “talk to the rock.”

Prior to landing at WBZ NewsRadio, Shearer worked several years as an executive producer for “The TJ Show” on 103.3 Amp Radio, where he became well-known for his voice-on-the-street bits meant to draw laughter from the audience. Approaching strangers for years seems to have stripped away any hesitancy to interview them for a story — much to his station’s benefit (Shearer creates different versions of his stories for TikTok and the radio).

We spoke with Shearer recently about his newfound internet fame, how and where he finds his story ideas, and the magic and madness of chasing hyperlocal stories.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Congratulations on your videos going viral and, even more importantly, resonating with people. How does it feel to have your work capture the attention of millions online?

It’s wild. I’ve had to turn off notifications for pretty much every social network that I’m on because my phone is constantly lighting up. It’s hard to look away from it, too, because it’s overwhelmingly positive. It’s hard to resist the temptation to tap that notification knowing it’s going to be somebody saying something really flattering about you. [Laughs] It’s been amazing and really cool and also a little exhausting. I have not been getting much sleep. I’ve had videos go viral before, but this is a particularly strong week. The Dunkin’ video is my most successful video yet.

I’m hearing from people all over the place from my past, and from people in the media that I’ve looked up to for a long time reaching out and saying, “Hey, congrats, love your stuff.” It’s awesome. It also adds a lot of pressure. Now I feel like every video that I post has to be this spectacular home run. And I have to talk myself out of that mentality because that’s just not realistic.

Are you ever worried that you’re not going to produce a video up to people’s expectations?

Oh, yes. I try not to let that get in the way of my job because, at the end of the day, I’m a reporter and I do get some assignments. There are some stories that the station wants me to cover and maybe in the moment I’ll decide this doesn’t really feel like a TikTok story. There are times when I’ll show up to a story and decide this doesn’t seem like it’s going to work in video form, or it’s not going to be on brand for the kind of stories that I do — but it will be fun for the radio.

I have to remember, in all of this, that radio is my first love and the reason that I do all of this in the first place. If I can get a story where all I focus on is the theater of the mind and building up a really cool, beautiful soundscape for the listeners, then that’s just as fun for me, too.

Your reporting has been able to encapsulate what many of us carry for life: the pride, passion and even defensiveness of where one is from. You’re a Massachusetts native. Can you tell us more about the Massachusetts passion you’ve encountered through your work?

There’s a quirky personality type that exists in Boston that doesn’t exist anywhere else. You see it all the time in movies, TV shows, and in people imitating Boston characters in sketch comedy. The great thing about it is that’s all super accurate. They don’t always get the accents right, but they definitely get the personality types right.

And Boston people see that stuff and they love it. They’re not ashamed of it at all. They’re like, “Yes, this is who we are.” Or, sorry, “Who we ah.” I don’t have the accent, if you couldn’t tell.

At the end of the day, we look out for each other in Massachusetts. To other people it may come off as rude because people here are very short and kind of to the point, but we look after our own and we care about each other here.

Your work goes beyond Boston, too. You capture that townie spirit. You know those townies whose families have been there for generations and they’re really proud of their town — like the Stow story. What has this passion taught you about what locals find to be newsworthy? 

To kind of touch on what you were first alluding to there, I think a lot of that comes from the fact that I am from a small town in Massachusetts. I’m from Acton, and so I think I’m very much drawn to small-town drama. It’s all really fun stuff because these are the things that people talk about. The fact that both Dunks in Stow closed within a short period of time may not seem like a huge deal to people outside of Stow, but it’s the talk of the town for the people that live there. It completely changes their everyday life. It is fun to highlight that because it’s relatable to people.

People from outside of Stow will see that, too, and be like, “This is kind of funny that people are reacting this way, but at the same time I totally get it. And if it were happening to me, too, I’d be really frustrated and think about moving as well.”

That is hilarious. I covered two small towns, so I know what you’re saying. Why is small-town drama your thing?

I think it’s often overlooked, but it’s real. It’s stuff that affects people. Just being real with you, I think sometimes it can be entertaining and funny. There is room in the news to have a little bit of personality and be a little funny, you know? I definitely think it’s great that we have some amazing reporters who do really great, important reporting — that are up at the statehouse, going to the press conferences, covering the big major breaking news events. And I really appreciate that the station gives me an opportunity to have a little bit of fun, too. I think our listeners need both.

We definitely need both. Can we talk about the first video I watched of yours? You interviewed locals in the town of Billerica (which I am familiar with from my past job as a reporter for the Lowell Sun) about the closing of one of three Market Basket supermarkets that happen to be on the same road. It was hilarious. What was your goal with that story? To me, it felt like you were illustrating the ridiculousness that people would be upset about this, and also how important these things are to people.

I guess my goal was to just tell the story in a compelling and unique way. One of my best friends lives in Billerica, so I had long known about their richness with Market Baskets, that they had so many. He texted me to say one of these is closing and the town is losing their minds about it. I was like, “That sounds like a story.” He was texting me jokingly like, “Haha, this isn’t really news.” But I was like, “Actually, that could be a really fun story.”

So I went there, interviewed people and got what you saw in the video. It went viral for sure, with millions of views on Twitter and lots as well on Instagram. I initially hadn’t posted that one to Twitter myself. It was NBC News reporter Ben Collins who did. He has a huge reach on Twitter, and so that’s what kind of helped put me on the map a little bit. Before that, I was just kind of like the local AM news reporter guy. Because he has this national audience, all of a sudden it put a lot of eyes on me and I got a lot of new followers after and have been growing ever since.

Where do you get your story ideas?

I know this isn’t a great direct answer, but all over the place. Sometimes it comes from the newsroom. All of us reporters have a meeting every morning where we go over assignments and talk about who’s covering what, and so sometimes I’ll get stories from there. Being the nature of my job, being on the road all the time in a different town every day, I see lots of things. I make all kinds of observations and am constantly taking mental notes on what might be interesting to explore for a story. It just grows from there.

What really excites me the most is covering a story that hasn’t really been covered yet. Or if I am going to do a story that’s everywhere, I like to try to find my own little personal spin on it. … But I also love coming up with ideas on my own because it’s like a personal challenge to me. It’s like, “Well, my coworkers don’t really know where I’m gonna go with this, so I gotta try to make it as good as I can.”

I want to talk about your interviewing skills. People really open up to you. How are you able to make them feel at ease to really go unfiltered in their responses? Sometimes you even have people cussing.

That’s a great question. It’s hard to really point to one particular tactic that I have. I think it’s just the way I am. My wife always makes fun of me because I make friends with strangers everywhere I go. She’s rolling her eyes and I’m locked into a long conversation with someone at the grocery store. Kind of the exact opposite of a Boston personality, I guess.

Also, I’ve been doing these street segments for a long time going back to the top 40 station and, even before that, working for a talk station. Interviewing strangers on the sidewalk is my comfort zone. They appreciate me just being real with them to their face. They see that I’m not some hard-hitting journalist who is trying to break a serious story. I’m having fun with them. Sometimes I’ll make little jokes that get cut off the mic. I just have a real connection with someone.

That’s Reporter 101: You’ve shed the fear of talking to strangers. That’s literally what you have to do.

For sure. I’m not easily embarrassed. [Laughs] I do a lot of cringey things in my life that I should be embarrassed by, but I’m not ashamed to embarrass myself in front of strangers at all.

That’s great. It sounds like you need that for this job.

One hundred percent.

So on the subject of interviewing, where did you develop these skills?

I think the skills may have just come from doing this for so many years. It’s not just like I go out and I’ll talk to five people and then use those five people in my story. I’ll go out and walk around Boston for like an hour-and-a-half, two hours, and talk to as many people as I can. I try to get as many different perspectives as I can: white-collar, blue-collar, young, old, all different ethnicities. I think by just doing it over and over, like anything you learn what works and what doesn’t.

How do you choose which interviewees make the cut for your stories?

I go through all the audio in real time and, as I go, I listen and pull out the quotes that I like and I think may potentially work in a story. I say, “Oh, I can use that for something.” So by the end, I have this whole palette of different soundbites from people. Then I start writing and plopping in the quotes where they make sense.

Some of your stories are serious but have this very unique tone that I feel like only you can bring. Because I know you work for a news radio station, how do you see your work fitting into the overall breadth of WBZ’s coverage?

I think I have my own unique voice on the air, and I think all the other reporters do, too. That’s part of why I love this station. This is a really talented station with an award-winning news team. Everyone is so good at something. There are some stories that our reporter Karen Regal can do that I could never do, or James Rojas could do way better than I could ever imagine. And there are some stories that I think I may be a better fit for. It’s just so cool that we have an entire team of people who have their own unique voice and their own unique skill set. I’m just happy to contribute my voice and I’m happy that management sees my voice as an asset or they think my voice fits with the station. I like that.

What has surprised you about speaking with everyday people?

Just how much we have in common. I know this is gonna sound kind of cliche and, “We are the woorrldd, doo doo doo doo,” but it’s true. When I start a conversation with somebody, I don’t know who they voted for, I don’t know where they live or anything about them, but we immediately are able to find a connection and just relate to the fact that we’re here in Massachusetts — living our lives. It makes me kind of wish that more people would be comfortable talking to strangers and not just existing in their own little social media circles. It’s just a totally different thing when you’re talking to somebody face-to-face.

So many of us turn to social media to rant and to connect with one another, and you’re actually doing it in person, which is great. It’s like “Hey! That’s how life used to be.”

It’s funny, too, because early on when they had me doing more of the serious stuff, it was right in the middle of 2020 when there were all kinds of protests and political rallies that were getting very heated and tense. When you’re at a rally it’s different, but when you get people one-on-one to actually have a conversation with one another, they’re so much more likely to find common ground and talk in a civilized manner than they are if they’re just yelling at each other behind the keyboard.

Yea, we have a lot of keyboard warriors right now. What’s your advice for other journalists who may want to do similar reporting from their own region?

Find your voice. It’s great if people see my work and want to do something similar, but I don’t think what I do would work for everybody. You just have to go out there. Try stuff. I certainly did. I was experimenting a lot in the early days of my doing this job, and eventually I figured out what works best for me. And I think people need to do that, too.

Don’t be afraid to try new things, especially if you’re going to be putting it up on social media. The rules of social media are a lot more loose than the rules of being on the radio. There’s no FCC or there’s no rating system for social media posts, other than likes and interactions and stuff like that. Have fun with it. Don’t be afraid to do something different, and don’t get so obsessed with playing the algorithm game and just doing what works. That’s the thing that drives me nuts, is when people try too hard to go viral, or try too hard to solicit for interactions and shares and follows. Just put great content out there and, if it is genuinely good, people will follow, people will like.

There’s no winning formula that works for everybody, because everybody is different. If we had gone with what I think the winning formula should be for TikTok, we would have looked so cringey being this old AM radio station out there doing trends, and dances and trending sound. But the fact that we do our own thing and, every once in a while we have a really great video, people appreciate that. … So just be different.

It’s common for journalists to move often in order to advance their careers. Do you plan to stay at WBZ NewsRadio? Or at least in Massachusetts? 

I have no plans on moving right now. They treat me really well over at WBZ, and having lived in Massachusetts my whole life, I think that’s an asset to a job like this. The fact that I understand the local sensibility and the towns and the different dynamics that we all have here in Massachusetts, I think that’s an asset here. Who knows what my life will be looking like or where I want to be down the line, but right now I’m happy where I’m at.

Are you a journalist with a unique beat? Or did you work on a project or story that you think we should know about? We’d love to chat with you. Please email Amaris Castillo at acastillo@poynter.org and we may feature you on Poynter.org.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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