Back Story

I got involved in community radio in 1985, the year I moved to Minneapolis for graduate school. In those days, the air studio was in the belfry of Walker Community Church. The studio door — a sliding glass door — wouldn’t close, so we could always hear the thrum  of traffic along 31st Street. My first volunteer assignment was to help produce a live broadcast of a Take Back the Night march. I remember carrying a heavy slab of plywood onto which we had duct-taped a PZM microphone. The Marti remote transmitter banged against my hip, and the strap chafed my bare shoulder as we weaved our way in and out of the crowd as it made its noisy way down Lake Street that night.

Community media, and all that it represented, became the primary way through which I could express my political and social beliefs. We were paying attention to issues that went unreported or merely glossed over in the mainstream media — sexual violence, globalization, economic disparity, environmental racism, and a multitude of other issues too complex to distill into a sound bite. If we sometimes strayed into the territory of mere polemics or propaganda, we didn’t really care. We saw our work as a means of diversifying a media monoculture. Outrageousness was occasionally necessary to make a point.

Unfortunately, the station suffered from some of the intolerance and squabbling that sometimes besets progressive organizations.  I loved it there, but I was never completely comfortable. I was cultivating my skills as a journalist and refining my ideas about what it meant to focus my energy in the service of the truth. After all, journalists have a powerful bully pulpit, if they choose to use it.

No, these days I can’t wear a political button or sign petitions.  I can’t tap a campaign sign into my front yard or slap a sticker on the bumper of my little Mazda. But I can — and I do — try to frame stories in the broadest possible cultural context, asking hard questions and listening to authentic voices on all sides of the issue. I am very proud of my work covering higher education, particularly issues of access and equity. I’ve long been passionate about literacy, especially after encountering college students whose reading difficulties had all but doomed them to failure.

To write well about people’s lives, it’s necessary to check your preconceived notions at the door. Make room for the complexities and nuances. Listen, and be prepared for surprise when you do. I got a lesson in that from Roger Benge, one of the main characters in a radio story for a series on poverty. It was my job to explore the relationship between literacy and poverty.  One sunny Thursday afternoon, we met at the little country church he attended, and as we sat on the front pew, he told me that he had been ordained as a minister.

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “But how could you be ordained if you can’t read?”

Roger gave me a quiet, compassionate look, as if he felt sorry for me.

“You don’t need to know how to read in order to preach,” he said. “God speaks to your heart and tells you what to say.”