On the Air

On the air
The most amazing thing has happened to me: I am back on the air at WFDD, the public radio station in Winston-Salem, after an unplanned sabbatical of more than 12 years.

I think I made good use of the time: I learned to be a newspaper reporter and editor; I learned about the web and video and social media; and I dipped my toe into a dizzying array of technical issues that would once have seemed more incomprehensible than Old Church Slavonic.

But I’ll confess: I never stopped loving you, radio.

I fell in love with radio when I was a girl growing up at the edge of a cornfield in rural Illinois. In my mother’s kitchen, the radio was always on, tuned to the farm report and obituaries, the Renfro Valley Sunday Morning show, and on summer nights, Jack Buck’s soft baritone calling the play-by-play for the St. Louis Cardinals. I remember how Mom would look out the window near the sink, as we were cleaning up after supper, to wait for the called strike or the third out or that long ball into right center field.

At its essence, radio is just so simple and immediate. A great show or story, made of its individual elements, is composition and performance. Writing for radio requires an ear for the music and poetry of everyday speech, a keen awareness of audience and an appreciation for clarity, brevity, and simplicity. Reporting for radio requires patience and the ability to listen deeply.

Making a newspaper every day is nothing short of a miracle, either. It’s a complicated process made easier by systems, refined and practiced day after day. It too requires exceptional attention to detail at every step. It requires ethical decisions, made by people who possess high ethical standards. And digital media, with its seemingly boundless capacity for extending the reach of story, for communicating with instantaneous multiplicities (sometimes in hazardous or irresponsible ways), creates a universe all its own.

But I would argue that radio still retains its place as the most intimate form of media. One person at a microphone, speaking directly to you, as you drive the kids to school or butter the toast or walk the dog or share a goodbye kiss at the door — or help your mom clear the supper dishes — that’s magic.

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Recommended by Wordle

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 12.52.57 PM

One of the most humbling things I’ve done recently is ask my former colleagues for LinkedIn recommendations. The many beautiful responses I received reduced me to tears of gratitude, especially the words of the young journalists who have all gone on to bigger and better things in their careers. Just for fun, and because Wordle is a nifty tool, I decided to see what it would do with those astonishing recommendations. Wow.

Thank you, friends. For the thoughtful words, the amazing memories, all the good we’ve done together, and all the awesome goodness yet to come.

 

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Everything you need to know about social media …

And I thought I was so clever. Lately I’ve been having conversation with friends who are still trying to wrap their heads around using social media as part of their outreach for business or creative projects. So I started thinking about a straightforward way to explain some of what I think of as the basic principles of using social media for these purposes.

And then it came to me to express things this way: “All you need to know about social media you learned in kindergarten.” I was feeling all smart and smug for being so clever, but here’s the teachable moment: You can save yourself a lot of time if you Google your clever idea before you start writing, not after you’ve finished. Turns out I’m not the only person to express social media basics in this way. Maybe that just means I’m onto something.

But what the heck. Here’s my spin on things, for the record:

Play nice and observe the Golden Rule. People respond best to positivity in social space. If you’re going to introduce politically charged topics, do so in a way that is well considered, moderated and thoughtful, then be prepared to moderate the debate in a similar tone.

Think before you speak. As you’re building a social media strategy for your business or project, take some time to clarify your communication goals, beyond wanting people to buy your product, see your film, hire you etc. It is the chance to tell the story of why you do what you do, what you do, and how you think about what you do.

Share and share alike. Your professional page is about your business, your project, your ideas, but it is first and foremost a place to share your expertise and passion, and to invite others to share in that as well. It’s about building relationships with others and showing respect for them and interest in them. Find and like others’ pages, and even comment on them when appropriate. Share their stuff on your feed when you want to. There is always a human face and voice behind every Facebook page or Twitter feed. Your stuff will show up in their news feed, and they’ll be able to share if they want to. If you have something you want to post on their page, and you’re unsure whether it’s OK, send a message and ask. You have to give to get.

Tell the truth. In social space (as in the rest of our lives), credibility builds from a foundation of transparency. Your business or professional page is an extension of you. And especially if you are an artist or you are self-employed and your product is virtually inextricable from your self, at some point the lines blur. People want to know the people behind your business or project, so don’t be shy about pulling back the curtain (but not so much that you’re embarrassed, of course!)

Put others first. Social media is also a curatorial tool, which makes it super-easy to share all the cool things you encounter in your browsing and reading. But you don’t want your fans to feel like they’re being spammed, either. By defining the editorial focus of your page, you can avoid that. In writing your posts, make it clear why you’re sharing, even if the message is basically “I just ran across this and I think it’s really cool.” If you’re worried about posting too much, you’re probably doing it about right. Not everyone is going to see everything you post.

Pay attention. If you stray into a discomfort zone, be prepared to endure a moment of it. Not everyone is going to like what you say 100 percent of the time. If there’s a problem, and it’s one you can fix, take steps right away to fix it. If you are seeking dialogue and engagement with your audience, ask for it in such a way that invites conversation and then be prepared to stay with the conversation for as long as it lasts.

Don’t run with scissors. Social media is a funny animal, because it is at once seemingly ephemeral and random, but it also lasts forever.

It is an accumulative storytelling modality, and over time a metanarrative emerges from your social media interactions. To see what I mean, look back at your own Facebook profile or Twitter feed, or Pinterest board or whatever, and you can trace the arc of your own story. It tells the story of you (and your evolving relationship with social media). And it will follow you around.

Know your audience. Children quickly learn that to get what they want, they often need to ask Mom in one way, Dad in another. If your posts aren’t reaching the people you want to reach, reconsider the tone of them. Do a little audience research. Look at what your fans are reading, sharing, interacting with on social media. Take time to understand the basic differences between various social media sites, and tailor your approach to them based on those differences. LinkedIn is different from Facebook is different from Twitter is different from Instagram is different from Pinterest is different from Quora, etc., and the profile of users is different as well.

Keep your desk tidy. Analytics are not the be-all and end-all of your social media success, but it’s not a bad idea to track likes (and unlikes), demographics and engagement trends. This will help you determine what you can and should be doing better.

Take small bites, and chew with your mouth closed. Don’t attempt everything at once. Decide which social media sites you’re going to focus on first and spend the most time with them. Set aside some time every day (or every few days) to do a little more learning. Mashable.com is a great site for reading about social media, and every site has a help or FAQ section for users.

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Inauguration Day

Obama Wins

A father, his daughter and the first black president of the United States

My old dad always did have a knack for getting things his way with us, even before an epidural steroid injection gone wrong landed him in a wheelchair.

I’d learned to tolerate this, and my forbearance was even sweetening into genuine compassion. “He’s an old man,” I told myself. “Just love him. Do whatever he asks of you. It’s not that hard. He won’t always be around.”

He’s not, but I was sure thinking of him Monday, on President Obama’s second inauguration.

Four years ago on the day, just as I’d settled into a leather La-Z-Boy to wait for Obama’s swearing-in, Pops wheeled into the living room and stopped between me and the live coverage on CNN.

“Come on kid,” he said, “take me to the library.”

Under ordinary circumstances I would have been in North Carolina, watching the history-making moment with my colleagues in the newsroom, but I’d gone to my folks’ house in Missouri to give Mom a little breather from the day-to-day grind.

I sighed. Such was the deal I’d cut with myself, so I pointed the remote at the TV screen, silencing Anderson Cooper mid-sentence, and stood up. Pops was gathering up a stack of hard-cover books, mostly Civil War history and biographies, from the end table next to me.

On short trips he could leave his chair behind and get around using just a walker. I helped him out the door and into his van, and we headed toward Camdenton, the county seat.

I wasn’t sure how much time remained until the actual swearing-in ceremony, and I tuned around on the radio as I drove, hoping to find live coverage on NPR.

Pops had another idea, though, and soon I was hearing George Jones:

“In North Carolina, way back in the hills, me and my old pappy and he had him a still … he brewed white lightnin’ ’til the sun went down, then you’d fill him a jug and he’d pass it around. Mighty mighty pleasin’, pappy’s corn squeezin’ … Ooooh! White lightnin.’”

He turned up the music real loud and lit a Benson and Hedges 100. And just like when I was a girl, riding shotgun with him along the gravel roads in rural Illinois, he kept the window rolled up.

The minutes ticked, and a world away, in Washington D.C., the first African-American to be elected president was about to place his hand on the same Bible used by Abraham Lincoln and swear to uphold the Constitutional duties of his office, and damn it, I thought, here I am barreling down a four-lane road somewhere in the Ozarks with my Rush Limbaugh-loving pappy listening to a song about moonshine. I was dead set on keeping the peace, so bringing up Obama was out of the question. Besides, a deal’s a deal, right?

We dropped off his books, rounded up a stack of new ones, and when we were back in the van he said, “Now take me to Wal Mart.”

The sliding glass doors had barely closed behind us by the time he’d commandeered a motorized scooter.

“See ya, kid,” he said with a dismissive wave and sped off toward the guns.

I ran toward the back of the store, envisioning a display of flat-screen TVs tuned to cable news channels. Instead I found dazzlingly large replays of Sunday NFL game highlights.

As I was lurching in the direction from which I’d come, dodging slow-moving retirees and weary moms and harried workers, I caught a glimpse of a video monitor high above my head. There, as if by magic, was Barack Obama, dapper in his dark coat, solemn and reassuring, delivering his inaugural address on the Wal Mart Television Network. I stopped in the middle of the wide aisle, between the children’s wear and the small appliances, to listen.

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord … On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics … Let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled …”

When I met my father at the checkout counter, I was relieved to see that he did not have a gun in the cart.

But that day at least one of us got what we wanted. Come to think of it, maybe both of us did.

How far we have traveled, yet how far we have yet to go.

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Song of the Ice

The iPhone is a mighty media tool, especially when it is the one piece of equipment you’re carrying when you encounter breathtaking beauty and mystery.

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Crossing the Inner Sea

I know I keep saying it, but I’m one lucky woman. Some months ago now, I got to spend a couple of days with a group of young men involved with the College Success Foundation of the District of Columbia. They were in North Carolina at the tail end of an intensive summer academic program. I met them at Morehead City, just as they were about to board the fishing vessel “Continental Shelf.” We took a mighty bumpy ride over the Beaufort Inlet to Shackleford Banks, in the rain. None of us, myself included, was really ready for the rain, and so we all swaddled ourselves in makeshift gear made of garbage bags.

I’ll be blunt: I expected whining from this group of city boys, but how wrong I was.

They were in it, and nothing could stop them from soaking up every moment of the day.

Here is a snapshot of that day, in their words and in the photographs of David Wilson.

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Angels Talking: Cecilia’s Story


A car accident set the course of Cecilia Henry’s life when she was just six years old. The girl nearly died from a traumatic brain injury, and doctors told Cecilia’s mother that she would never again walk or talk. When it was time to discharge her from the hospital, the neurosurgeon announced that he had arranged to send her to live at a home for profoundly disabled children.

Her mother refused.

Cecilia eventually recovered her speech, and began to walk again.

“God just brought her out of it,” said her mother, Dianne. Cecilia, she says, is “an angel” and a miracle.

Whether or not you believe in angels, to be in Cecilia’s presence today is to be with someone on whom the noise and conflict of everyday life is meaningless. And for me, that is miracle enough.

This story is part of our series “Story of My Life,” featuring six residents of Group Homes of Forsyth. The series is meant to explore Henri Nouwen’s assertion that our hearts, not our minds, make us human.

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“God Is So Good”

When Christine Rucker, Phoebe Zerwick and I started the “Story Of My Life” project a year or so ago, we did so with the words of the late Henri Nouwen sounding in our heads. Nouwen is a writer, scholar and priest who spent the later years of his life working with profoundly disabled people in a L’Arche community near Toronto. “What makes us human is not our mind but our heart,” Nouwen said, “it is not our ability to think but our ability to love.”

It’s been a challenge to present these stories in the rich fullness they deserve, because some of these folks don’t use words. Still, we hope that their spirits shine through photographs, and that the words of those who love them and care for them will convey some adequate sense of the meaning of their lives.

In James Loudermilk’s case, words aren’t really necessary. He has music.

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Goodbye, Newsroom

Perhaps it’s not the most politic thing in the world to announce your unemployment on your own website, but I have never been one to pussyfoot around. I lost my job a little over a month ago, in a newsroom reorganization that was part of a larger reduction in force by the Winston-Salem Journal’s new corporate parent, World Media Enterprises. (Yes, the Warren Buffett people.) In all, 105 folks lost their jobs, others accepted new assignments at lower wages, and WME shut the doors on one newspaper, the Manassas News & Messenger.

To say goodbye to my friends in the newsroom, I made this little video. Part nostalgia, part pep talk, I was happy that it got a little wider play thanks to social media and blogs like Romenesko and Gangrey.

Stay tuned to this space for more on my adventures. And if you know what’s going on in your town, thank a reporter.

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My Name is John

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How do you tell the story of your life without words?

Meet John Linville, a resident of Group Homes of Forsyth and one of the subjects for our series “Story of My Life”.

John is one of a set of triplets, born prematurely in a time when, as his sister says “it was incredible that any of them lived.”

John’s inability to speak is probably the result of some kind of injury at birth, and he lived at home long after he grew to adulthood. Now he lives in a group home, where he’s learned to do a lot of things for himself and gained a sense of independence he didn’t have at home.

Stay tuned for more “Story of My Life” installments.

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Pieces of the Past

Winston police force in front of the Winston Town Hall, 1894.

 

Once again, I’m a lucky story magnet. A week or two ago, I was walking through the park with Bunny Snowflake the terrorist retriever and I saw my neighbor Bill Brake playing with his girls on the swing set.

“Hey,” he called out to me. “David Gall called me the other day, said he had something I should come take a look at.”

Turns out that David had found a piece of the old Winston Town Hall, a short-lived but beautiful building where the Reynolds Building now stands in Winston-Salem. David and some other volunteers had been cleaning up at the Happy Hill cemetery, in an old African-American neighborhood in Winston-Salem, when they unearthed a marvelous piece of terra cotta molding.

A couple of days later I went by David’s office. Right away I knew it was a story, especially given that a) it was a mystery as to how pieces of the old town hall ended up in an overgrown and essentially forgotten African American cemetery, and b) that it had been found just before the anniversary of the merging of Winston and Salem, two towns with very different but intertwined and inseparable stories.

Lucky me. Those who run the paper still see it fit to let me write once in a while. The story appeared in Sunday’s edition.

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Bending Toward Justice

On May 8, North Carolina became the 31st state to adopt a constitutional amendment banning same-sex couples from being legally married. Gay marriage is already illegal in the state, but voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment anyway.

The amendment was opposed by a wide-ranging coalition of legal scholars, progressive religious leaders, CEOs of the state’s largest corporations and ordinary folk, gay and straight. The opposition made a lot of compelling arguments about why the amendment shouldn’t pass. The Coalition to Protect NC Families used video and social media brilliantly in its campaign, in my view, but so did a lot of unaffiliated and passionate others. Documentary filmmaker Frank Eaton did some mighty fine video advocacy on the issue, and musicians from near and far followed Greensboro singer/songwriter Laurelyn Dossett’s lead, either by recording her “Vote Against Amendment One” song or writing and recording their own.

For those who oppose the amendment, May 8 was a pretty bad day.

News of the North Carolina vote was everywhere, and then, the very next day in the wake of it, President Obama said the words out loud that so many people had been waiting to hear: “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Such is the context in which The Campaign for Southern Equality brought its “We Do” campaign to Winston-Salem on Thursday.

One by one Thursday, under the scrutiny of a phalanx of reporters, photographers and videographers, 10 couples walked into the Forsyth County Register of Deeds office to request marriage licenses. One by one, they were refused. Reporter Laura Graff wrote beautifully about it for the Winston-Salem Journal.

She invited me along to shoot video. At first I was only going to mosey down to the Government Center sometime before 5, to witness a couple of the protesters get arrested when they refused to leave the Register of Deeds office. But I decided to go for the afternoon. And I’m so glad I did. What I saw Thursday was a beautiful display of love, courage, dignity, respect and compassion — the clerks whose hands trembled as they denied the licenses, reciting lines from little pieces of paper taped to the counter in front of them, “We cannot issue you a marriage license because it is not allowed in North Carolina, under North Carolina law.” The county manager who carefully and softly spoke to the women occupying the office. The sheriff’s deputies who eventually led the women away in handcuffs. And of course the families themselves, who have all been living out their love and commitment to each other in the shadow of injustice, without the rights and protections extended to heterosexual partners.

I feel like we are living in a particular historical moment now, one in which as a society and a culture we’ll soon be big enough, brave enough and grown up enough to set aside the notion that only heterosexual couples should be granted the multitude of legal protections conveyed by marriage. On Tuesday I felt ashamed to live in North Carolina. But Thursday? Thursday was a whole different day.

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Life Coach

My sister got all the athletic talent in our family, so I’ve never been on a ball diamond for more than a few tortured hours during compulsory school games (always relegated to right field, where I could do little harm). But you don’t have to be an athlete to understand this story. It’s an homage to a great coach from a grateful player, looking back on his boyhood experiences.

Last summer, my friend Chris English went to Fayetteville, North Carolina and spent a couple of days with Iverson “Smitty” Smith, his boyhood baseball coach. Smitty had a profound impact on Chris. “He wasn’t just a coach,” Chris says, “he was a life coach.” Chris sometimes calls me for a little editing help, when he gets on a tight deadline or needs another set of eyes and ears. I love working with him, because, well, he just has the most wide-open heart for story, and he makes amazing photographs.

At first Chris just intended this to be a feel-good story to celebrate an unsung, humble hero. But it took on additional poignancy and urgency when Chris learned that Smitty is suffering an inoperable, malignant brain tumor.

We should all have a Smitty in our lives. Godspeed, Coach, and keep fighting.

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Greg’s Story

Meet Greg Silvernail, the first of six group home residents we’ll be featuring in a new and improved “Story of My Life” project over the next few months.

Christine Rucker and Phoebe Zerwick did most of the field work on this project, so I’m mainly just their most interested set of eyes and ears.

Greg’s wide open spirit and energy is evident the first time you meet him, and you had better be willing to live at a sprint when you’re with him. He plays soccer, rides horses, sings in the Inner Rhythm Choir, volunteers at the Y and the library, and when he’s not out playing or volunteering, he’s studying or visiting with his mom and his brother Henry.

We should all be so loved.

Stay tuned. This project will eventually also have a gallery exhibit featuring Christine’s photos and those taken by each of the participants in this project.

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Body Mechanic

My friend Nancy Crooks is a genius. No, seriously. She is a really gifted body mechanic who has devoted her life to learning all kinds of healing touch methods.

A while back, she asked me to do a video for her that would explain her work with Mechanical Link, a really rather esoteric and obscure technique developed by a couple of French osteopaths. She ran across it for the first time a few years ago while training with a therapist in Washington state.

Without going into the gory details, it’s a technique that attempts to unlock the body’s own healing potential by effecting changes in the fascia system, the web-like structure that extends underneath our skin and around all our organs. It’s cutting-edge stuff, and not a lot of research has been done on it, but Nancy has worked with a bunch of folks who swear by it.

This is the first time I’ve ever ventured into making a video for a “client” (funny even to think of my friend as a client), but it was a learning experience to be sure. As a journalist I can make all kinds of independent editorial decisions, but for this it was necessary to work with Nancy every step of the way, adding things she felt I’d neglected, taking things out that she felt didn’t belong. But I loved it, and I’d do it again.

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