interview, literary journalism, mental illness, murder, prison

Longform Radio Journalism, with Laura Starecheski


Laura Starecheski at the U.S./Mexico border (credit Bob Torrez)

Recently, while accompanying one of my interviewees to an apartment go-see, I met Laura Starecheski, a reporter for NPR’s State of the Re:Union. As it turned out, Laura and I had chosen the same subject! (Or maybe the subject had chosen us?) As I was watching Laura do her job—geared up with huge headphones, recorder and mic—I was struck by how different our journalistic approach is. After the go-see, while having lunch at a little Guyanese restaurant way out in Queens, we realized we had a lot in common. Laura, too, has done feature stories on prisoners, immigrant communities and the mentally ill. She often follows her subjects for months, sometimes years. And most importantly, she seems to genuinely care about her protagonists.

Laura has created stories for The World and Latino USA and won a Third Coast Silver Award for Best Documentary for her story “Goat on a Cow,” which aired on WNYC’s Radiolab. She was a National Health Journalism Fellow at the USC Annenberg School and most recently received a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.

I’m thrilled that Laura agreed to answer some questions about “longform radio reporting.” (A reverse interview with me by Laura will follow).

Sabine Heinlein: For your Ozarks story, which aired on State of the Re:Union in May 2012, you followed the family of CJ Mahan who is serving a life sentence for murder in a maximum-security prison in Missouri. How did you find the family?

Laura Starecheski: I found the Mahans through a program called 4-H LIFE that teaches inmates how to be better parents. The program works with mothers too, but I was curious about the particular challenge of fathering from behind bars—especially in a maximum-security prison with long sentences. How do incarcerated fathers stay engaged with day-to-day parenting? How do their kids relate to them? The 4-H LIFE staff put me in touch with the Mahans and helped facilitate the process of getting permission to record and take photographs inside the Jefferson City Correctional Center during one of their meetings, which happen just once every two months.


Cindy and CJ Mahan and daughter Carlie

SH: What did it feel like to go to prison and talk to the Mahans? Did you get to meet and observe any other prisoner families? What was the setting like?

LS: Once we were inside, I saw ten loving, excited and emotional families flood into the room for the 4-H meeting. I wished we had enough time to do stories on every family. Each one was so different. There was a man whose sister had brought her kids to visit from another state; a young father with two daughters being raised by their grandparents while he served his time; an older man everybody called “Uncle Walt” who didn’t have family but was sort of a patriarch to the whole group. The stakes at the meeting felt very high. The inmates must earn a place in the prison’s “honor wing” just to be a part of the group. That alone can take years, and they can lose the privilege at any time for any infraction. I got the sense that many of the inmates worked extremely hard to stay out of trouble so they could attend the special 4-H meetings, where they could share hugs and laughter and feel like they were truly parents for a few hours. Almost everyone in the room had broken down and cried—in gratitude, in frustration, in love—at least once by the time the meeting was over. I also felt that in that room I was more welcomed as a reporter (and a person) than most of the other places we reported across the Missouri Ozarks, which was a striking feeling.

When we interviewed CJ Mahan alone in a separate room, though, I got a glimpse of what life in the rest of the prison must be like. It was clear that CJ was bound by the rules of day-to-day life on the inside, no matter how much he longed to be a full-time father and husband. He had a reputation to uphold, and it seemed to be an incredible challenge for him to stay away from the fights and violence that dictate much of the social order. His desire for another future, outside, was intense and palpable to me. And yet even as a temporary visitor, the razor wire and heavy doors of the prison seemed to enclose a universe that felt almost impossible to escape. Getting access to any prison to report these days is difficult, but some day I would like to do a story that could shed some light on that world of life on the inside.


Laura recording Cindy and CJ Mahan at the 4-H LIFE meeting

SH: I recently watched you interview one of your subjects. I noticed that, while we may ask the same questions, the answers to those questions vary (if not in content than in emphasis). Some people appear to become self-conscious in a very particular way. Do you feel like people respond to you in a certain way because you’re wearing headphones and holding up a microphone? Do you think there’s a difference in how a subject responds to a radio reporter as opposed to a print reporter?

LS: That would depend on the type of print reporter, I guess. I’ve co-interviewed with hard-boiled newspaper reporters who fired who-what-when-where-why questions one after another and quickly scribbled the answers. To me, those interviews felt almost unpleasantly similar to interrogations. Not really my style, because I have to take time to allow people to relax and (hopefully) be themselves despite the fact that I’m recording.

In my experience, most people I interview forget about the microphone after a few minutes and talk directly to me. Even people who get excited and want to perform because there’s a microphone get over that pretty quickly. I’ve heard anecdotally that some people find the headphones (and other gear) distracting or intimidating, but I’ve only ever had a problem with that when interviewing small children—who are in fact definitely scared of the big headphones! Adults handle them just fine.

SH: You have done stories about the epidemic of suicides among teen Latinas, children behind bars in Wyoming, mental illness and expatriation within New York’s West African community, and wounded combat veterans in Florida, to name just a few. Can you share some of the strategies you employ to connect with people whose life experiences are vastly different from your own? What are the advantages of looking at someone’s life as an outsider (as opposed to being an integral part of the person’s life)?

LS: I ask stupid questions. I never try to appear like I understand the cultural tics and insider expressions that people employ when talking about what is familiar to them. I always stop someone if they say something I don’t understand and ask them what they mean.

For instance, when I was interviewing Adam Burke, a combat veteran in Jacksonville, Florida, he told me about the mission where he was wounded. He said he was on a mission to “clear a village” in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq. I’ve read that phrase a lot in the news, but I still didn’t have a clear picture in my mind of what exactly it meant. What do soldiers have to do when they “clear a village?” So I asked Adam to paint a visual picture for me, and he said:

You know, a lot of it’s hard to remember. But a lot of the things I do remember is, you know, unloading off the trucks, moving through the village, on foot. You know, knockin’ on doors, goin’ through doors, jumpin’ from rooftop to rooftop, I mean, just covering the entire village. I mean we were under fire almost instantly when we got there and then it got quiet for a minute and then… you know, the last thing I remember is seein’ one of my guys go down, and I went out there after him and, you know, there wasn’t much after that. It was just kinda fadin’ in and out…

That answer gave me a lot more to work with, and it also led into his story of what happened that day. Which was a win for me, because then I understood that story better, and a win for listeners, who would get a much clearer picture in their minds of what Adam was doing and seeing.

As far as being an outsider, it’s a gift and it’s also dangerous. If I’m doing my job right, I get a bird’s eye view of someone’s world and I can see the parts of the bigger picture that don’t quite fit together, the places worth questioning, the relationships with institutions or the outside world that are defined by misunderstanding, mistrust, money… all the interesting stuff. But I also can get it wrong. To protect against this (as much as possible), again, I ask stupid questions. Asking dumb questions up front helps me to avoid blind spots and mistakes in the final piece.

SH: As a writer, I believe that my feelings towards my subjects always shape the outcome of a story. Of course, as we gain distance—as we edit and cut and add our own “voiceover”—we also control our feelings. What role does empathy—and antipathy—play in your work?

LS: I feel almost exclusively empathy when I am interviewing people. I am at home in the world when I am listening to someone tell their story, so identifying with them comes easily in those moments. The equation has to change when I’m editing and writing a story, because I have to be able to divorce my own particular feelings of identification with each (sometimes conflicting) interview, and try to get at a version of the story that feels true to me. The ability to connect with someone during an interview and also be able to be objective when I’m writing is a skill that can be honed like any other. I still squirm sometimes during the moments that require antipathy. But knowing that I’m doing my best to get at all the sides of a story, and not just one, is somewhat of a comfort.

SH: I often envy radio reporters: You can let your subjects tell (most of) the story; music, laughter and tears provide for immediacy and emotions. Do you ever feel like your medium limits you in any way? If so, how?

LS: Radio is limiting in just the way you describe—I have to get the emotion on tape if I am going to be able to draw listeners in. Facts are not enough. That means that investigative, hard-hitting radio stories also must include moments of emotion and surprise that you can hear in people’s voices when they speak. As the producer, I have to plan for the way the person will sound in the story as I’m interviewing, moment by moment, reacting to what they say and how they say it, and asking specific questions to guide them. It can be a mental balancing act. The masters of radio storytelling can elicit these particular moments at will; I am still aspiring to wield this skill gracefully.

SH: What has been one of the most challenging moments in your reporting career? How did you face it?

LS: There have been many! When a piece gets killed and I have to tell the interviewee that there won’t be a story after all, after they’ve invested so much of their time and themselves, often exposing great vulnerabilities to me, it’s a painful thing. In one particular case, I was reporting in Vermont about the new mental health care landscape after Tropical Storm Irene flooded and closed down the state hospital. I was reporting on a robust community there that centers around alternatives to traditional psychiatry (like peer counseling and support), and I had followed one guy for a few months. This particular guy was new to Vermont. He was excited about getting involved in that community, which was enjoying an influx of interest and funding in the absence of the state hospital. I was planning a story that would center around his experience of getting his feet on the ground in Vermont, making friends, even becoming a peer counselor. But as it turned out, the piece took a turn and I didn’t include his voice at all. He was going through a very rough depression just as I made that decision. I could hear the disappointment in his voice when I called him. He was at a low point and being a part of the story was a bright spot that was now gone. Even though I have always done my best to let my interviewees know that this can happen, I now try to repeat that information several times very bluntly… though I’m sure that killed stories will always be somewhat of a disappointment to everyone involved no matter how much I try to cushion the blow.