January 19, 2016

Public radio producers spend a lot of time prepping their hosts.

This can include anything from taking notes on a book to writing introductions for segments to writing out interview questions for the host to use during a pre-taped or live interview.

This isn’t surprising, given the number of interviews and segments that typically make up a daily radio show: A host might tape several one-on-one interviews, called two-ways, go live with additional interviews, and read intros for several segments for use during the same broadcast. That’s a lot of material to juggle, and producers help make their hosts sound amazingly knowledgeable on every subject thrown their way.

A new show by Wyoming Public Media called HumaNature, however, turns the model of the informed host on its head. The host, Caroline Ballard, is purposefully not prepped for her interviews with people who tell stories about their experiences with nature.

The result is absolutely delightful: listeners feel like they’re learning alongside Caroline, who recently moved to Wyoming from New York City. (She also hosts Morning Edition for the station, which does require extensive prep, she says.)

I like HumaNature for a few reasons: it doesn’t sound like other podcasts, it sounds like it comes from Wyoming and not from a studio in DC or New York, it helps transport me to a different place, and it’s short — episodes clock in under 20 minutes.

I asked Caroline, as well as HumaNature’s senior producer Micah Schweizer if they would answer some questions about how the show is put together, as well as other projects underway at the station, which is known for training and mentoring reporters and producers in public media.

I want to start off by asking how you came up with the idea for HumaNature. It sounds “Wyoming” to me — and before listening, I’m not quite sure I knew that Wyoming had a distinct sound (or ever thought about what that would be.)

MS: Wyoming Public Media wanted to create a show with a Wyoming flavor and broad appeal. I was discussing this with Caroline, who had just moved to Wyoming from New York City. And when one first moves here, one quickly feels inundated with the need for special shoes and jackets; cocktail party conversation inevitably turns to discussions of obscure trail routes, outdoor gear and animal sightings. The wild world is present in a way it just isn’t in many other places. So Caroline said, “What about a show about the outdoors?” Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to see the thing right in front of you.

What has been one of your favorite episodes so far? Why?

MS: One of my favorite episodes so far is “When A Search And Rescue Becomes A Search For Something Else.” It’s raw, it’s emotional, and it doesn’t really resolve. (It’s also the darkest episode, so I don’t know what that says about me…)

CB: I always love listening to our first episode because it’s hilarious. I mean, pigeons with jockstraps? I laugh every time. But as far as an episode as a whole, I am really happy with how our episode “Catch And Release” turned out. It goes through practically every emotion in the book and ends on a hopeful note. (I think I’m the more optimistic of the two of us, Micah…)

I love that Caroline is kept in the dark before talking with the guests on the show so that she experiences the story in real-time, along with the listeners. Caroline, was that hard to do? How does that change the way the interview is conducted?

CB: It’s a bit funny, since many of these interviews start out with me saying something super open-ended like “So tell me about xyz” or “What happened?” and we go from there. Most of my follow-up questions are hardly questions at all, like “Yea?” “What happened next?” or “Wait, what?” to encourage the storyteller to keep the momentum going. I am present in a way I don’t feel when I’m trying to be a polished journalist or host. I’m not thinking ahead to my next question because I haven’t written it down, and I am totally locked in on what our storyteller is saying. That ultimately leads me to asking the question the listener would naturally ask.

It’s a completely different approach than I use in news interviews, and at first it went against every journalistic instinct to not be prepared, but for the podcast it works. These aren’t politicians or PR folks trying to get the best spin on a story. They are, for the most part, regular people. In a way I think it helps them to tell their story if I come across as a bit vulnerable without extensive notes or questions. While editing episodes, we came to the conclusion that we always get our best tape when the storyteller is processing their emotions or actions in real time, and that’s difficult to achieve when you already have questions burning in your mind before you begin.

MS: If the host is a proxy for the listener, why not really make the host a listener herself? Caroline is quick on her feet, and she’s good at responding to the story in the moment. This approach is something that’s evolved over the past few months. One of Caroline’s gifts as a host is the ability to be very present with her guest. Limiting her knowledge of what’s going to happen just heightens that.

We also do this because the star of HumaNature is the guest — the storyteller. There’s so much mediated storytelling out there, where the host drives the conversation or a reporter does most of the narration. We want to flip that equation. Storytelling is innately human, and yet in our culture it seems most storytelling is done by ‘experts.’ So we’re trying to create a space where a regular person has the chance to share their story to an engaged listener. In the end, Caroline’s role as host is to be the listener when we’re taping and to keep the story moving (in taping and in post-production).

The podcasts are shorter than almost every public radio show out there. How did you decide on the shortened length for the show?

MS: At the beginning, we discussed creating everything from a full hour show to a four-minute module. Once we decided to go in the direction of storytelling, we just let the story determine the length—throwing off the shackles of the clock is one of the fun things about podcasting! We normally tape for about an hour, and that naturally seems to distill down to about 15 minutes, give or take. We also wanted to make the show bite-sized, so you can listen to a full episode while running an errand or even just sitting at the computer.

Moving away from the show for a second, what else is Wyoming Public Radio exploring this year? And how do you cover an entire state?

MS: This year is our 50th anniversary, so we’re very excited about that. We’re traveling the state for some special events and to meet listeners face to face in their communities.

As the saying goes, Wyoming is like a small town with really long streets, so it’s actually pretty easy to develop contacts and relationships around the state. And listeners often say Wyoming Public Radio fosters a sense of community across the state.

Our management has a vision for the next 50 years that is marked by strong original programming such as the podcasts HumaNature and The Modern West, as well as investigative reporting in areas critical to Wyoming and the West. Wyoming Public Media has already invested in a multi-state energy/environment reporter, as well as a statewide education reporter. Cultural programming was given its own desk as well.

CB: We have an amazing team of reporters here that are always working on exciting upcoming projects, like Title 25 mental health care and energy and the cloud.

Covering a state as geographically large as Wyoming with a mid-sized staff is definitely a challenge. Our reporters are on the road a lot, and that can be doubly difficult during our (no joke) eight to nine months of winter. We also have a couple of freelancers scattered in the farthest corner of the state. Plus, we are on the telephone a lot. I think it helps that, even with the general assignment reporters not necessarily assigned to a beat, we have all come to own certain areas of the news, like social justice, tribal news, and wildlife. And it helps to have a cultural affairs director to tackle the arts!

What’s a news story taking place in Wyoming right now that should be receiving more national attention?

CB: We actually have a really great relationship and track record with NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and other shows across the country. So if our reporters think a story is important, we aren’t shy about pitching it and it often ends up on one of those outlets. Energy is always important here, and now that prices are slumping our energy reporters have been kept busy with reporter interviews and features for NPR, Here & Now and The Takeaway.

Right now I’m partnering with a local leadership group to look at why Wyoming (the first state to give women the right to vote) has hardly any women as state representatives or senators. I’ll be moderating a panel on this issue, and I’m working on a series of features on the barriers women face to running for local or state office, especially a rural, energy-based economy.

I think it’s an issue worth a more national conversation, since it’s a problem that influences how the state is run and is certainly not limited to Wyoming. And one of HumaNature’s producers, Erin Jones, is compiling a report on the issue for Leadership Wyoming, which will also help with the panel discussion and directions I want to take with features.

Micah, a lot of young reporters I know have moved to Wyoming for a few years specifically to work at your station. What does the station do to help cultivate young talent?

MS: Our news director, Bob Beck, has a track record of seeking out and hiring really bright and ambitious new reporters. There’s quite a list of respected names in public radio who have gotten their start in Wyoming.

I’ve also developed a robust intern program for students at the University of Wyoming (where we’re licensed). One of my core philosophies is that interns should be creatively engaged and do real, useful work (which ends up on air or online in some form). I typically have two to four interns every semester. In fact, two of HumaNature’s producers (Erin Jones and Ryan Oberhelman) are interns/volunteers at the station. The station also has the newly-endowed Women in Broadcasting internship, which gives women a broad experience in all areas of station life.

CB: I think the biggest thing is that our news director is simply willing to take a chance on young reporters and train them through “trial by fire.” So many stations will want you to go up the ladder by being an intern, then a part-time staffer, then maybe a fill-in host. Bob just throws you in. The learning curve is steep, but you figure it out.

The other great thing is that if you have an idea like a podcast or a news series or a public panel discussion, station leadership is very supportive. It’s a great environment to come into when you’re still trying to understand what it means for you to be a reporter or a host.

Do you recommend that everyone go to a smaller place at some point in their career to report?

CB: Working in a mid-size station in a small (population) state has meant that I have been able to do things that would not have been available to me for years in a larger market. Host a podcast for instance! Or host Morning Edition, interview top government officials, moderate panels, etc.—really hands-on stuff. If you’re one of the few people covering an area you also have a better opportunity to have stories on national networks. I personally feel like I’m thriving at Wyoming Public Radio, and if someone is willing to move to a small area, it’s rewarding. That being said, living in a small town is not for everyone, and I think you do have to consider whether or not you can be happy in that kind of environment. Two thirds of your time will not be spent in the newsroom and that has to factor in.

MS: I don’t think market size is the be-all and end-all. Under the right management, small and medium-sized stations can allow a lot of room for creativity and innovation, which means opportunities to try new ideas and learn new skills. That keeps the job interesting and leads to engaged and multi-skilled employees.

How do you get your news in Wyoming? Aside from the station, who are you following and reading?

CB: I check my “Wyoming News” Twitter feed every morning. It’s full of local newspapers, journalists, government agency accounts, and individuals. It gives me a good sense of what is going on every day. Most of our reporters also have great relationships with individual sources. It’s a lot of shoe leather reporting here.

MS: The Onion. Also, WyoFile and High Country News are two essential news outfits in Wyoming/the Mountain West. And local papers are important too, because the state is so big and spread out, so that helps give us a closer look at local issues.

How do you share what you learn with other colleagues?

MS: Open communication and idea sharing are part of the culture at Wyoming Public Media, and that makes the work we do better—and makes work fun.

Which stations and organizations do you look to for innovative ideas in the news business?

MS: Poynter, obviously. (Really.) WNYC is a guiding light for a variety of programming, including podcasts. I like seeing what WYSO is doing as a great community-oriented small station. I’m also enjoying NPR’s new Editorial Training website. And Transom is a trove of interesting and inspiring information.

If someone else wanted to start a podcast like HumaNature, what advice would you give them?

MS: Make sure the station’s management is strongly supporting new, innovative, experimental programming initiatives and creating an environment in which programs like HumaNature can flourish. We were greatly aided in this by the recent creation of a full-time digital position at the station. Without the dedication and enthusiasm of Anna Rader, who serves as HumaNature’s digital producer, we wouldn’t have a podcast at all!

Start small. We designed this new show to fit within our existing resources, so that’s why we’re currently releasing one episode a month. I’d rather have quality than quantity. (This can be challenging, given the internet’s limitless appetite for new content.)

Focus. Over the months we spent developing the show, we worked to define what the show is about—and (equally important) what it’s not about. We have a mission statement and story checklist for the show, and we review them often.

At the same time, keep an open mind. There has to be some room for experimentation and evolution. It’s a balance, sticking to the core mission/concept, but not closing ourselves off to new ideas and possibilities.

Don’t obsess over metrics. Yes, we all want to be the next Serial, but let’s be real. I’m more interested in seeing audience growth than I am in the absolute numbers. And we’re periodically creating air-formatted specials so we can tap into the existing radio audience. (There’s one on PRX right now, and it’s free to anyone who’d like to air it. Hint hint.)

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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