Late in 2011, I had the privilege of being added to the freelance roster of WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate. My first assignment called on me to assist with field reporting and editing a piece for the station’s Front and Center series examining the city of Milwaukee’s positioning of itself as the “water capital of the world.”
A few months after that experience, I went solo for the Front and Center on their series about the impact literacy has on the regional economy. I pitched a story looking at rural libraries and their evolving role in an increasingly tech-focused, recession-wearied world. That story evolved to become a story about immigrant communities in Beardstown, Ill., a small town an hour west of Springfield, Illinois’ capital. The immigrants, mostly from Mexico and West Africa, were drawn by jobs . The story explored the role of the library, local community college and Cargill itself in teaching these newcomers English and the impact such actions have on society and the economy.
The assignment ranks as one of my most memorable assignments, not only because I had to master a previously unfamiliar storytelling medium, from field production to studio recording, but also adopt a reporting mindset of being observant about everything going on around me from the sounds of someone checking out a book to the Spanish-language conversations that take place everyday in Beardstown’s restaurants and supermarkets. While I have always appreciated details as a way to enhance my storytelling, this experience taught me to always notice everything. It’s a tough thing to do, but I believe the journalist’s most important role is to notice and filter noise down to something that is understandable. What I learned on this particular assignment will loom large on my future ones — radio, print or anything else.