Radio story: Smart growth

A few years ago, when I taught the in-depth reporting class for Fresno State’s journalism department, I used to tell young reporters that if they really wanted to understand the news, they’d better start attending planning commission meetings. They would all predictably laugh, but then I’d show them some sample agendas from the campus, city, and county planning commissions to convince them how serious I was being. After reviewing those agendas, I asked students to then use published news reports and public document searches to track how some of those agenda items unfolded. Analyzing the outcomes showed students the influence that the planning commission has on public policy and everyday life.

I’ve never much liked going to government meetings, myself. (As some might say: Those who can’t do, teach!) But last summer as an intern at KQED Public Radio, I was asked to work on a complex public policy story with my colleague Sasha Khokha. We took a look at “smart growth”– a city planning strategy that calls for densely built areas of homes near public transit, with lots of walking and biking space– and how the car-loving, largely suburban Central Valley was responding to its many challenges. The story was part of KQED’s excellent Miles To Go series about sustainable growth statewide, put together by the station’s Climate Watch science and public policy reporting team.

The story took us nearly two months to research and put together. Sasha handled most of the interviewing, and she wrote and voiced the radio piece. I handled most of the research– which included reviewing government documents and reports related to smart growth– and I produced a blog post that included a photo gallery with captions, an interactive map, links, and an unplanned but lively discussion with KQED listeners in the comments section. I also earned credit as a field producer on Sasha’s radio piece, as I oversaw the details of Sasha’s 4.8-mile walk from the Harlan Ranch smart growth development to the nearest supermarket. That’s Sasha with her radio gear in the photograph above, standing where the sidewalk ends.

Last week, about one year to the day from when we started working on the story, I drove out to Harlan Ranch in northeast Clovis to see how far the development had come since Sasha and I visited last summer. I was shocked to see an explosion of new homes– hundreds more new homes finished than before, many of them already occupied or sold, the development creeping steadily eastward to where Freeway 168 stops being a freeway between Tollhouse Road and Shepherd Avenue and then heads for the hills. There was still no sight of the planned shopping center inside the development, but I knew that part of the plan could take a decade or more to come to fruition. People who live there still have to drive out to get to a bus stop, a gas station, or a pharmacy.

There was lots of change, but also not much change. When I thought more about it, I wasn’t all that surprised. Planners had given the green light to build there, and that’s what the developers were doing. After that, people were still lining up to move in. I learned a new lesson about the planning commission: Sometimes the story isn’t over for many, many years.

Radio story: Hunger plays

The first Valley Storytellers Project focused on stories of hunger in the state's breadbasket.

My third freelance radio story for The California Report aired on Friday, March 16, 2012. I reported on the unique collaboration between Central Valley community storytellers and the L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company. Their project yielded two original plays about the important topic of hunger, created out of the shared stories of my Central Valley neighbors.

I first spent a whole day with the participants inside the Sanger High School multipurpose room in early January. The first-day workshop, facilitated by performance artist and self-described “farm apprentice” Nikiko Masumoto, provided the raw material for the plays. Fifteen community members, many of whom had never been involved in a theater type project before, connected with three local screenwriters and a handful of theater pros from L.A. Three weeks later, in early February, I spent a second full day with the storytellers, as they raced through rehearsals in the morning and then presented their work publicly to about 150 audience members in the afternoon. The process was fast and furious, but the results were both fun and profound.

My favorite part of covering the story was watching Nikiko facilitate the workshop. Her energy was infectious, and her thoughtful questions and creative activities prompted the group in unexpected ways to express what hunger meant to them. There was a full-group discussion about each person’s “best last meal.” There was a speed-dating style activity in two concentric circles, where people rotated to talk one-on-one with each other, surrounded by the voices of their peers. And there was a small-group activity where people grouped themselves by their food and eating preferences for a series about inclusion and exclusion. Each of the activities really showed the participants how similar they all were, while emphasizing and embracing the big range of individual differences.

Nikiko’s master stroke as a facilitator, though, was the “kitchen sounds choir.” In a large circle, she asked each person one-by-one to re-create a familiar sound from their kitchen with their bodies. People scratched their heads a bit at first. But then they stomped their feet, made hissing and buzzing and clanking sounds with their mouths, started flailing their arms, and generally began making all sorts of kitchen-inspired racket. Nikiko then gradually combined all the people’s kitchen sounds into one grand cacophony, standing at the center of the circle (with me at her feet, with my shotgun mic) and assuming the role of orchestra conductor to direct a swirling crescendo of homemade “music.” It was a glorious creation of sound– and it was perfect for the radio. As you’ll hear, I decided to lead my story with it.

Here’s a link to my final radio story. Here’s also another story on the event from my colleague Joe Moore at Valley Public Radio.

Radio story: The wonder of Wool Growers

The Wool Growers restaurant and hotel has fed and comforted weary travelers for more than a century.

I’ve lived most of my life in the Central Valley, and I’ve made more trips to the San Francisco Bay Area than I can count. From Fresno, I’ve often driven west on Highway 152 through Los Banos to get there. So when I think about Los Banos, a town of about 35,000 people in southwestern Merced County, my knowledge is mostly limited to a brief drive down the 152 strip. I know which Chevron has the cleanest bathrooms and which local diner has the cheapest two-egg breakfast plate, but that’s about it.

This past summer, while working as an intern for KQED Public Radio, I got to see a little piece of Los Banos that I never knew existed. As part of The California Report magazine’s “hidden gems” themed show for the Fourth of July weekend, I visited the historic Wool Growers Restaurant, where they’ve served family style French Basque cuisine since the 1890s. The restaurant draws locals from all over the west side of the Valley, including tiny farm towns like Dos Palos, Firebaugh, Gustine, and Crow’s Landing. It also attracts many curious travelers and some celebrities. (Multiple people told us about how much NFL commentator and coaching great John Madden just loves the place.)

Wool Growers, on the corner of 7th and H streets.

My colleague, Central Valley bureau chief Sasha Khokha, came up with the idea for the radio feature. She had always heard about the food at Wool Growers and wanted to try it, so when the hidden gems show came along it was a perfect fit. It was about five weeks into my ten-week internship, so we decided that I would take the lead on the sound gathering and interviewing, and Sasha would also record some sound as a backup. Also, since I was an intern, I couldn’t voice the piece on the air myself, so we decided that Sasha would be a character in the story that narrated the experience while we were eating and working. I was nervous throughout the reporting process, but the assignment turned out to be a natural choice for a novice like me.

From the moment Sasha and I walked in, we were surrounded by great sound and colorful characters. I interviewed our waitress, who was one of the owners; a traveler who was there for the first time; a traveler who comes back every time he comes through town; a local father and son who take an afternoon off from their farm work once a month to treat each other to a feast for lunch; and of course, Sasha. She interviewed a second waitress, who was related to the owners, and two groups of locals who also frequent the place. I had no shortage of great material to choose from when putting together my final script.

Here’s the link to the final radio story, voiced by Sasha. With the piece, I earned my very first credits for writing and producing a radio story. I also stuffed my face with a TON of Basque food.

Radio story: China Alley preservation

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So many little pockets of history exist here in the central San Joaquin Valley. The longer I live here, the more I realize that our collective social history lives and breathes all around us if we tune into it.

This past summer, I helped work on a story about Hanford’s historic China Alley with KQED Public Radio’s Central Valley bureau chief Sasha Khokha, who was given one day to report and produce the feature for The California Report. The trip marked the second time that I went into the field with Sasha during my summer internship. It was still early in the internship — only the third week — so I was still a newbie when it came to sound gathering. Sasha took the lead on the main interviewing and sound work, but she asked me to make photographs throughout the trip and to conduct one interview while she was on a tour. The gallery here features my outtakes.

I interviewed Elaine Stiles of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which designated China Alley as one of the 11 most endangered historical sites in the country. I only had about five minutes with Ms. Stiles at the end of the dedication ceremony, so I had to make my time with her count. I basically asked her two questions: What was China Alley’s greater importance to the people of California? And: What was her own experience like touring the alley’s deteriorating treasures?

Her answer to the first question made it into Sasha’s story. Her answer to the second question didn’t make it past the cutting room floor, but it stuck in my memory. Stiles, who also is a Ph.D. candidate in history education at UC Berkeley, talked about how fortunate she felt to see for herself such an important part of California history, a now-abandoned ethnic neighborhood where Chinese immigrants once found refuge from inequality by making their own small cultural space. She reminded me that when people’s stories are involved, a building is much more than just a building. And once those physical spaces become endangered, so do the stories.

Here’s the link to the final radio story, written and voiced by Sasha Khokha. Here’s another link to a similar story and photo gallery about Hanford’s China Alley from our colleague Joe Moore at Valley Public Radio.

Radio story: Volunteer guitar teacher

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My third radio story for The California Report aired on Friday, Dec. 16. I produced a “sound postcard” about 18-year-old Visalia musician Evan Hatfield, who has volunteered his time and energy the past two summers to teach free guitar lessons to kids at the Boys and Girls Club of Tulare County. The classes are organized by Visalia concert promoter Aaron Gomes and his excellent nonprofit Sound N Vision Foundation.

I reported the story this past July during my summer internship at KQED Public Radio, working out the Central Valley bureau office in Fresno. Producing a sound postcard is one of two major projects that interns are asked to complete. The sound postcard is different from a regular feature in that the reporter does not narrate the piece. Instead, the subjects themselves narrate, or the sound itself propels the narrative forward. I had a little bit of both in the final piece.

It’s quite difficult to make a good sound postcard, one that flows organically with the subjects from scene to scene– especially on your first try. I had to travel down to Visalia twice to visit Evan’s class and interview him, because I knew that I needed him to comment on certain ideas in his narration to make the story structure work. I also knew that I needed to get clearer examples of Evan interacting with his students. It was tough to capture the scenes for the story because a guitar class is pretty chaotic by nature, with people continually plunking and strumming. During the sound gathering, I constantly switched back and forth between the warmer room mic (the ElectroVoice RE-50B) and the shotgun mic (the AudioTechnica 8035b).

In the end, I was happy with how the mixing turned out. It was fun to hear Evan describe the class in his own words, hear him interact several times with his students, and also to hear a student and parent describe his classroom demeanor and work. Part of the glue that held the piece together was Evan playing one of his own original compositions at both the beginning and the end. I think the two-minute piece managed to capture multiple elements of what was going on in a very busy class, which was part of my goal.

Looking back on the summer, I was so lucky to work with bureau chief Sasha Khokha, an award-winning radio reporter and documentary filmmaker. Sasha exposed me to a ton of different tasks and assignments in my ten short weeks with her, setting me up in a very short period of time to become a freelance producer for The California Report. I’m grateful for her feedback on this story especially, as she painstakingly walked me through the writing, editing, and mixing process.

Here’s the link to the final radio story. Also, please consider donating to Sound N Vision, to help them keep their summer educational programs free and accessible.

Radio story: Cassette tape resurgence

A man and his Telex Copyette: Fresno musician Daniel Schultz of coattrack records.

My second freelance radio story for The California Report aired on Friday, Nov. 25. I reported on the unlikely resurgence of cassette tapes in the indie music scene, and I focused on the Fresno-based coattrack records collective as one example of do-it-yourself musicians coming together to share their work with their fans in a simple, cost-effective way via tapes.

I conducted the primary interview for the story with Daniel Schultz, the drummer for the Fresno band Achievement House and the founder and sole operator of coattrack. I first talked with Daniel way back in November 2010 as part of a FUSE Fest 2010 sampler on my old Evening Eclectic music show on 90.7 KFSR. We had a conversation off-mic that night about alternative forms of music distribution in the Internet era, and that’s when he first told me about his idea of starting coattrack to help local musicians release music digitally and on cassette tape. Later, Daniel explained that participating artists wouldn’t be “on the label,” like the industry has been operating for decades. Rather, artists would have releases through the label. “It’s like this: The band is an entity and coattrack is another,” he said, “and occasionally we work together and make a cassette.”

It was great fun to interview Daniel at the home he shares with his girlfriend, Melissa Olson. (The two collaborate as TeamTeam Creative Effort for multimedia projects, including the FUSE Fest 2011 visual campaign.) Daniel introduced me to his beloved Telex Copyette tape dubbing machine, a contraption he got for free from a friend’s grandfather, a pastor who used it to duplicate recordings of his sermons. The three of us had fun recording all the funky sounds the Copyette made throughout the dubbing process. We also recorded a bunch of sounds that didn’t make it into the final story: tape hiss, unspooling a cassette’s clingy magnetic tape, rewinding the unspooled tape back into the cassette with a pencil, the opening and closing of cassette tape boxes, etc.

Luke Giffen and his reel-to-reel tape machine.

I also interviewed Fresno musician Luke Giffen for the story. His former band, The Sleepover Disaster, released its last album on CD via the now-defunct indie label Devil In The Woods. His current band, The Quiet Americans, released its debut EP, “Medicine,” on cassette via coattrack. I reviewed the EP back in May for Fresno Famous, and I had played tracks from it on my old Evening Eclectic show. But I listened on repeat to “Medicine” on cassette tape in my car during the final week I spent working on this story, and I have to say that I absolutely fell in love with it. The warble and the wobble really intensified as I studied the record on tape, as opposed to the digital versions of the songs I had first gotten to know. Listening to “Medicine” on tape, quite simply, made it better. And that surprised me.

My little home recording experiment.

The experience of hearing and appreciating “Medicine” in a new way in my car gave me an idea. For the story, instead of using high-quality .WAV files for the music in the piece by The Quiet Americans, Achievement House, and the Fay Wrays, I went old-school instead. I first dusted off my old JVC boombox, which was buried under a pile of fabric in my wife’s craft room. I readied the cassette tape versions of the three albums I was using and carefully fast-forwarded to cue up the songs I wanted. I hooked up my Marantz 660 digital recorder and ElectroVoice RE-50/B omni microphone to capture the sound. And then I played the music out of the boombox, muddy distortion and all, right into the Marantz. The results, as you’ll hear, sounded great.

Here’s the link to the final radio story. As a bonus, here’s a link to Giffen’s beautifully affecting homemade video for The Quiet Americans song “Be Alone.”

Radio story: Hmong American writers

Fresno poet Soul Vang is believed to be the first Hmong American to earn an MFA in poetry.

My first freelance radio story for The California Report aired on Friday, Oct. 21. I reported on the Fresno-based Hmong American Writers’ Circle and their groundbreaking new collection of literature, How Do I Begin? It was a great feeling to hear myself on the radio telling a good story, and the subject matter had a lot to do with my feeling of success.

I was lucky to have long interview conversations with two HAWC members whose writing I’ve long admired: Soul Choj Vang and Burlee Vang. We talked about the book, we talked about writing, and we talked about the immigrant experience in America, which is captured so vividly throughout the book. I invited both Soul and Burlee to come into The California Report’s bureau office not only for their main interviews, but also to perform some of their work. Excerpts from Soul’s poem “Here I Am,” which inspired the anthology’s title, and Burlee’s poem “Eating Without the Poet” made it into the finished story, and I was so glad that listeners got to hear snippets of these two remarkable writers’ work in their own voices.

Burlee Vang, who teaches at Fresno City College, founded the Hmong American Writers' Circle in 2004.

In the process of reporting, I was most humbled by my time spent in Soul’s home and in Burlee’s classroom. On one day, Soul invited me into his home to observe him with his family. He has two sons with special needs who demanded a lot of his attention. He also has the hustle and bustle of a house with three generations of family under one roof, each member filling his or her duties in a graceful but clockwork fashion. On another day, Burlee invited me into his classroom at Fresno City College to observe him with his English 1A students. He has a talkative bunch of beginning writers who demanded a lot of his attention as well. He also has the chaos of a first-year composition course to orchestrate, each student workshopping his or her paper in a sprawling but organized fashion. Unfortunately, none of the sound I gathered at either location ended up making it into the final story. But my time spent with Soul and Burlee in their respective worlds was truly a gift, and it reminded me that reporters are wise to never take that kind of trust for granted.

Here’s the link to the final radio story. Please listen to the audio version first, before you read the extended text version that I wrote for the website. Then, at the bottom of the text version, listen to the full poems by Soul and Burlee.