NPR’s Wade Goodwyn on his best work and fighting for his voice

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Call him a broadcaster if you like, but “storyteller” might be a better description for what Wade Goodwyn has been for the past quarter-century on NPR.

“There’s a Southern tradition that I’ve grown up in and probably unconsciously absorbed,” said Goodwyn, a native of Austin, Texas. “My father was a great storyteller. I grew up with people telling stories, so I learned that that’s a natural way to impart one’s history and also one’s everyday life.”

“Radio is a very good storytelling medium because you get to use your voice and you get to hear people and people get sucked in,” he said.

Goodwyn and his dog, NAME. (Photo: Kate Mackley)

Goodwyn and his dog Rosie. (Photo: Kate Mackley)

Goodwyn found himself absorbed by the voices and stories he heard on NPR during the seven years he spent in New York after college, working as a political organizer and driving back and forth between Queens and Brooklyn with the radio on to keep him company. Listening to WNYC day in and day out started him thinking about a career change.

“I didn’t want to be a journalist so much as I wanted to be an NPR reporter,” said Goodwyn, now 56.

A graduate of the University of Texas with a degree in history but with no journalism or broadcasting credits, Goodwyn nevertheless talked his way into meetings with NPR folks. Margot Adler, Robert Siegel and John Burnett proved encouraging. A National Desk editor, Judith Doherty, offered to teach Goodwyn the radio techniques he would need and took him on as a freelancer while serving as his first editor.

Living on a freelancer’s salary in New York was an impossible dream, so Goodwyn returned to Texas. In those early days, Goodwyn confesses, his voice was rushed and his reporting pace slow. He spoke quickly to pack more details into each piece, which might have taken him three or four weeks to complete.

But he found that as he slowed down, and as he aged, his voice deepened. Some of his fans on Twitter have taken turns trying to describe it. “Texas timbre” is what one person called it. “Nonplussed drawl” wrote another. Still another opined: “His voice is like warm butter melting over barbecue’d sweet corn.”

You’re more likely to hear colorful phrases such as “gobsmacking amazement” or descriptions of “dozens of grasshoppers with antennae so large they look like antlers” in one of Goodwyn’s stories for Morning Edition or All Things Considered than in pieces by his NPR colleagues.

“I think it’s a great compliment to his talent that we often notice Wade’s voice or performance or a great turn of phrase,” said Quinn O’Toole, who edited Goodwyn’s work from 2008 until this year. “It means we are listening and we are engaged.”

Burnett, an NPR correspondent since 1986, has worked with Goodwyn since 1993, when the “promising young freelancer” was brought in to help him cover the Branch Davidian standoff with federal law enforcement in Waco, Texas. The coverage elevated Goodwyn’s standing and eventually led to a staff position. “The rest is history,” said Burnett, who’s based in Austin and serves as NPR’s Southwest correspondent on the national desk. “He has evolved enormously. He has one of the most distinctive styles and voices on the radio, alongside Sylvia Poggioli, Ofeibia Quist-Arcton and Susan Stamberg.”

Goodwyn works out of the Dallas home he shares with his wife and two teen daughters. News from Texas has kept him busy lately, with a sniper killing five police officers in Dallas in July. Attached to NPR’s national desk, Goodwyn has found himself covering school shootings in Arkansas, Colorado, South Carolina and Kentucky; the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City; and the aftermath of hurricanes in Louisiana, Florida and Texas.

“I have found that sometimes in this business there can be a prejudice that the most important work a reporter can do is feature work,” Goodwyn said, “but really some of the best stuff I’ve ever done has been about breaking news stories. Those are always opportunities to write things that can be just as profound as any feature I’ve ever done. I never complain when I get a call that says, ‘Drop everything, it’s time to go,’ because I know these tend to be rich opportunities for meaningful journalism, too.”

When a Dallas hospital diagnosed a patient with Ebola — the first time the disease appeared in the United States — Goodwyn reported the story as it unfolded. He also took a step back to file more in-depth pieces, including what the hospital learned in its ultimately unsuccessful fight to save the patient, and how the single case of Ebola became a political issue tied to securing the country’s borders.

When it comes to feature stories, which can take from a couple of days to a week to complete, depending upon travel time, Goodwyn finds them in the usual places: newspapers, suggestions, tips. A Houston nursing home once contacted him about a resident, an elderly black woman who wanted the chance to eat in a railroad dining car. An organization was arranging for her to fly to Colorado for the experience she had been denied as a young girl traveling by train in the segregated South.

“Interestingly, it was a bit of a hard sell,” said Goodwyn, who went along for the ride. “Editors are naturally suspicious of story ideas that sound like reporter vacation packages. And it can be difficult sometimes for editors to envision the potential emotional impact from a written pitch.”

“It comes down to trust between editor and reporter, to look past the cost and reservations, and trust the reporter is going to bring back something special,” Goodwyn said. “And that trust relationship takes time to develop.”

As a neophyte to broadcasting 25 years ago, Goodwyn relied on his editors to teach and guide him. He continues to value their input today.

“Editing always makes my work better, always,” he said. “Sometimes a whole lot better. I’ll come up with something I think is good, and my editor will make it great.”

Steve Drummond has edited Goodwyn’s pieces on and off for 15 years. “Wade in his writing and his stories seems to understand the South and Texas and its people. And he’s a bit of poet — with an eye for detail and a willingness to step out of the straight just-the-facts style of journalism to add that bit of detail, that flair for storytelling, that makes his stories stand out.”

Goodwyn credits his editors with giving him the freedom to develop his own style, allowing him to find his voice as a reporter. The process, Goodwyn admits, took years. “You have to develop your own voice,” he said. “You have to fight for it. Things that sound unusual or unique are things that editors will kind of instinctually try to take out of the piece. At first it was a hard fight; I’d lose a lot of times.”

For one 2012 feature, Goodwyn juxtaposed the popularity of bass fishing on a lake that stretches from Texas into Mexico with the possible perils of running afoul of a drug cartel whose members two years earlier had chased down two tourists on the water and killed one.

“There’s a lot of me in there,” Goodwyn said. “In the story you can hear the guys I’m fishing with talking to and about me, and I respond. All of that is leeway given to me by Quinn O’Toole because he likes my style — Texas storytelling.” At the time the deputy national editor and managing director of NPR West in Culver City, Calif., O’Toole approved the story idea and edited the piece.

“He puts himself in his writing — which is not something I encourage young journalists to do, but Wade has mastered it,” Burnett said. “There’s almost a Charles Kuralt aesthetic to how he approaches a story.”