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? Continue reading