As the daughter of immigrant parents living in central Jersey, I never had a “driveway moment” while growing up. Members of my family were loyal radio listeners, but we mostly tuned to stations for weather and traffic updates or ’90s pop songs.
I had never heard of public radio or NPR and, in the countless times I must have passed 93.9 FM on the radio dial, I assumed those voices weren’t talking to me.
We were a middle-income family living in an upper-to-middle-income town, home to only a small handful of Muslim families like my own. We were avid news readers and consumers, and highly engaged in civics and politics, but public radio never felt like a space welcoming us in. I think back now and wonder why. Was it too boring for the number of kids we always had in the car? Did the segments dedicated to easy recipes (for cuisine we didn’t cook) or holiday songs (for holidays we didn’t celebrate) feel too foreign, as if they were not designed for us, an immigrant family?
Then, during the summer before my senior year at New York University, I landed an internship at NPR, and soon discovered the ethos of public radio and the power of great storytelling. It was a mission that I came to believe in deeply because it spoke to why I wanted to become a journalist in the first place. I became enamored with the breadth of public radio’s reach, the huge influence of its coverage and the loyalty of its listeners. From there, I was hooked, and I’ve stayed in public radio ever since.
More than a decade later, I now run The Takeaway, the PRI/WNYC newsmagazine hosted by John Hockenberry. Each weekday program is heard by millions of listeners throughout the country. Like any other show, we measure our success in part on metrics: the number of listeners, how long they listen, when they listen, etc. To me it’s just as important to ask: Who’s not listening? I think back to my childhood and why my family didn’t gravitate towards public radio. I’ve never forgotten the disconnect I felt for so many years, and I wake up most mornings thinking critically about what can be done to bridge that gap.
As the executive producer of a news program, I want to hold my show up to the standards that I believe define public radio: to be a voice of the community, to provide a microphone for everyone, especially the marginalized — whether they live in urban liberal America or rural conservative America. I want The Takeaway to tell stories otherwise forgotten, that pull at the threads that supposedly define our social fabric and question the very values that we claim define us. I want to take the lessons of news media’s shortcomings in covering the 2016 election, which were myriad, and reset the boundaries of how we talk about everything from politics to income inequality, social justice and race. And, perhaps most importantly, I want to better listen to the people who make up the “public” part of our mission and hear their concerns, struggles and stories.
So how do we do this?
To bridge this divide and bring more voices to the table, The Takeaway has embarked on a series of road trips, traveling to cities and towns across the country where Trump won handily. Our goal is to speak with as many Trump supporters as we can; we want to better understand their economic and social conditions, the changes they are hoping to see and how they’ll measure President Donald Trump’s success.
Immediately following Trump’s inauguration, John Hockenberry got on a plane to Oklahoma City, where we produced shows out of KOSU during the week of Jan. 23.
Station GM Rachel Hubbard guided our team’s editorial direction by giving us a primer on Oklahoma politics and economics, finding families who invited us into their homes and directing us to Cushing, the epicenter of the oil industry that is increasingly prone to earthquakes as a result of fracking. We learned of the dire condition of the state’s budget and its woeful impact on some school districts that have now moved to four-day school weeks. We learned that many Oklahomans make their livelihood not just from one industry, but from many industries, oftentimes balancing jobs in agriculture, wind farming, and the oil and gas business to support their families.
After the broadcasts several listeners from rural Oklahoma told us how much they appreciated hearing their stories covered in a national show. Many Trump supporters let us know how the economic realities of their lives influenced their votes in November. In the upcoming months, The Takeaway will travel to other communities that voted for Trump, including towns in upstate New York and eastern Oregon.
We are also launching a new project that examines race relations in America. Partly inspired by the “Dear President” project taking place at my home station, WNYC in New York, The Takeaway is challenging both listeners and people within the public radio network to have difficult conversations about race and identity.
Anna Sale, host of the podcast Death, Sex & Money, sat down with her high school prom date, a Muslim-American whose lifestyle and values she says she never understood in her white, rural, West Virginia town. Anne Hillman from Alaska Public Media gathered folks in the Anchorage community to hear how both natives and non-natives are engaging in discussions about identity. Jasmine Garsd, a reporter with PRI, is reflecting on being a white Latina raised by a brown mother and often passing as a white American rather than an Argentinian immigrant.
We’re calling on any and all reporters and hosts within the public radio family to participate and help us create models/examples for how others can think about structuring their own conversations about race and identity. Then we’ll ask our listeners to do the same and take on this challenge.
These projects are just a part of our greater call for renewal, the theme of a recent essay John Hockenberry wrote for The Takeaway’s first broadcast of 2017.
“I want to reach out to the entire community of curious, interested people and renew the idea of public radio, public media,” Hockenberry said. “Let 2017 be the year we make something more public, more new, less categorizable, more young, more of everyone in this country.”
As we enter a moment in history where America seems more divided than ever before, The Takeaway wants public radio be a place for all people, a place where no matter where you come from or what views you espouse, your story is part of the public radio story. The measure of our success — and the success of this industry — will be whether families like mine are not only listening, but hearing their stories on our airwaves.
Arwa Gunja returned to The Takeaway, a national radio program from New York’s WNYC and PRI, as executive producer last fall. She had left her previous job as senior producer of the show in 2015 to become EP of Freakonomics Radio, another WNYC production. Arwa got her start as a producer at NPR, where she worked on several programs, including Morning Edition and Tell Me More, and produced coverage of the 2008 presidential election.