BUFFALO, N.Y. — The May 14 mass shooting at the Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, followed a similar and tragic pattern. A white man fueled by hate and racism opened fire in a public place, killing 10 people. National media and politicians swooped in. They offered thoughts and prayers. Journalists produced heart-wrenching stories and labeled the victims “heroes.”
Then they left.
Though national attention moved on, local media in Buffalo have continued following the story as it unfolds. But one outlet has devoted a full hour of its daily programming to understanding the underlying causes of the massacre and has given voice to a community that often only hears from reporters when tragedy strikes.
Buffalo, What’s Next? is a daily radio show and podcast produced by WBFO in Buffalo. Its first episode, which aired May 26, tackled systemic racism, grief and the challenges facing Black business owners on Buffalo’s East Side where the shooting occurred. The show airs at 10 a.m. weekdays, replacing an hour of NPR’s 1A, and again at 9 p.m.
The longer format, sustained presence and a public radio ethos have allowed WBFO’s journalists the time and space to explore tough issues shunned by their commercial peers, according to Dave Debo, a host and producer for Buffalo, What’s Next? They’ve also avoided the trap of helicoptering into marginalized communities.
“They see that we’re not just dropping in because there’s blood on the sidewalk. They see that we are there six months later talking about the issues,” Debo said. “So to my mind, that’s automatic credibility and some empathy, such that they’re probably willing to open themselves up a little bit more.”
That breathing room has benefited both East Side residents and WBFO’s own journalists. As an East Side native, Associate Producer Angelea Preston approaches her sources with more empathy and caution. She’s even reluctant to knock on victims’ doors immediately and prefers to develop long-term relationships.
“I understand that’s our job, but these people are also people. So I don’t want to contact someone right away after they’re grieving,” Preston said. “We’re going to be here after CNN and ABC and all the national ones leave. These people that lost loved ones, they’re not going anywhere. So you have to allow them the space to grieve.”
WBFO’s journalists didn’t have to convince station leadership to commit resources to the show. The Friday following the shooting, David Rotterman, senior VP and CCO for WNED and WBFO, met with the team and agreed to start the program the following week.
“We need to make sure it’s daily. We need to make sure it’s bringing in voices to address this,” Rotterman said. “So we simply pivoted all our reporting, moved a lot of staff into this and just went full stop into it.”
Using a racial equity lens
The May 14 shooting has served as the program’s guiding principle, opening up broader conversations about race, equity and discrimination in the region. That also meant reporting stories from Buffalo’s marginalized communities, like the East Side, that don’t always focus on tragedy. Rotterman pointed to a favorite episode featuring host Jay Moran’s interview with the Buffalo City Ballet’s director and reporter Thomas O’Neil-White’s story about a Buffalo rapper’s history project on the former Buffalo Braves basketball team.
The show also explores some of the hotly contested issues that might show up in The Buffalo News or on local TV. On the Nov. 22 show, Debo interviewed Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin about the community benefit agreement for the new Buffalo Bills stadium. But Rotterman stressed that they have been careful not to turn the program into a daily talk show that’s too broad.
“If we are going to talk about the stadium, we’re going to look at the impact within the community and issues of transportation and job creation,” Rotterman said. “How do we use that racial equity lens in terms of the reporting and issues we’re going to cover? We’re not going to have the water commissioner talking about the new park development on Canalside or something.”
Managing Editor Brigid Jaipaul-Valenza said she hopes the theme going forward will spotlight underserved communities and unheard voices. Beyond the city of Buffalo, Buffalo, What’s Next? now looks at the Seneca Nation as well as rural parts of Western New York like Genessee and Cattaraugus County.
As one of the few journalists of color at WBFO, the May 14 shooting struck a chord with Jaipaul-Valenza. Before joining the station as a managing editor, she had worked as a freelancer for WBFO’s Racial Equity Project, a special desk examining diversity and inclusion in the region. During her time on the project, she questioned how the lack of opportunities and education affected particular demographics and populations within the city. That chance to cover those communities in a nuanced way proved rewarding for her.
“It was also challenging because it really isn’t a point of view that is taken with the media landscape that we have in Buffalo, at least it wasn’t until May,” she said, adding that now more local journalists are asking why certain communities in Buffalo are thriving while others are struggling.
“To be able to sort of isolate and tease those out is challenging work because, again, we’re talking about a subject that people generally don’t like to talk about,” she said.
‘The first step is admitting you have a problem’
For many Buffalonians, difficult conversations about race don’t jibe with their moniker as “the city of good neighbors.” That reluctance to talk about racism comes from the top down, said Jaipaul-Valenza, who points to Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s refusal to acknowledge racism even in the wake of the May 14 massacre. In a press conference following the shooting, reporters asked Brown specifically about the heavily segregated East Side and what his administration planned to do to combat it.
“We know the historical reputation of a segregated city,” Brown said. “That is no longer the reality of what Buffalo is. Many neighborhoods are integrating.”
In reality, Buffalo continues to harbor racism. One month before the shooting, WBFO’s Racial Equity Project released findings from a survey they took of over 130 Black and brown community leaders in Buffalo. About 26% of survey respondents reported that they had dealt with discrimination at least once in the previous week, while another 20% reported discrimination as a daily occurrence.
The Buffalo News reported that as recently as 2016, Black Buffalonians faced arson, bricks thrown through their windows and racist slurs. Carl Paladino, a former Republican candidate for governor of New York, organized a 2017 rally for Donald Trump in front of City Hall that included Confederate flags. His racist comments about First Lady Michelle Obama in 2016 spurred calls for his resignation from Buffalo’s school board. Paladino remains a prominent developer in Buffalo.
In Mayor Brown’s own police force, officers alleged in a lawsuit late this year that one captain made racist remarks about Black men, and five retired members of the Buffalo Police Department testified that Buffalo police regularly used racial slurs about Black people, received scant training on racial profiling and rarely referred complaints of racial discrimination to internal affairs.
“The first step is admitting you have a problem,” Jaipaul-Valenza said. “Our leaders, our elected officials, some of them have simply refused to admit that we have a problem. Yet it came in the form of 10 bodies on the doorstep.”
The mass shooting shed light on something Buffalonians have long known: that the East Side has been a victim of decades of systemic segregation and racism. The area was once a bustling neighborhood and the center of Buffalo’s Polish community. But by the 1960s, a combination of redlining, an exodus of jobs from the city, and the construction of the Kensington Expressway (a concrete dividing line between Black and white Buffalo) spurred white flight to the suburbs.
Buffalo is now deeply segregated and economically divided: 85% of Buffalonians who identify as Black live east of Main Street, according to the Partnership for Public Good, a Buffalo-based think tank.
In recent years, immigrants from Bangladesh have started rehabbing the Broadway-Fillmore corridor block-by-block, but those updates amount to a minor revitalization in a neighborhood dominated by vacant and damaged properties. Even as local media, Buffalonians and expats extol the city’s “renaissance” in its outer harbor and in largely white North Buffalo, the continued blight on the East Side remains an uncomfortable truth that doesn’t fit with the comeback narrative. Preston’s own childhood home no longer exists. Many of her former neighbors feel ignored.
“Coming from the East Side, it makes me angry to see that other places have gotten so much attention,” Preston said. “But the East Side is still not not touched.”
Historically, local media has done a poor job of characterizing the East Side, according to Jillian Hanesworth, an East Side native and Buffalo’s poet laureate.
“I think giving that platform and making it so community-centered, it’s powerful, it is necessary,” Hanesworth said of Buffalo, What’s Next? “We need to process it, and we need to process it with people that understand and that can relate and that we feel connected to. That’s what this show was able to provide.”
The shooting also uncovered WBFO’s own blind spots when it came to sourcing on the East Side. When the shooting happened, Moran, Debo and Jaipaul-Valenza called as many people as they could. They discovered they had a full Rolodex of local politicians but didn’t know anyone in the community who was directly affected by the tragedy. While they struggled to find guests for the first week of Buffalo, What’s Next?, Moran now finds each guest on the show leads to more connections in the community.
“How many people have stories to tell?” Moran said of the East Side.
Moran has done more shoe-leather reporting on the East Side since the show launched. He attended an annual Juneteenth celebration, and in November he visited a meeting of the Wakanda Alliance, an Afrofuturist group working with Buffalo youth.
Given the origins of the program, Jaipaul-Valenza doesn’t want to characterize Buffalo, What’s Next? as a boon for sources. But she acknowledges the program has helped her team become more present in the community.
“She’s very sensitive to how we expand the program and how we promote the program, because we don’t want to leave the East Side alone, but we don’t want to pick their scabs or create more trauma or get into the same topics over and over and over and over again,” Debo said of Jaipaul-Valenza. “One of the things that we’ve started to talk about is getting a closed-circuit Zoom call with every guest who wants to be on it and just say, ‘What do you see as the future direction of the program?’”
As the show moves forward, WBFO is actively looking at fundraising for the program in the new year and has already garnered some foundation interest, according to Rotterman. They’re also looking at corporate organizations that are civic-minded, he added.
“The fundraising really has to be very thoughtful. This is unique, challenging, difficult content … and we know the fundraising has to take on that same tone, that same message,” Rotterman said. “So I think it’s going to be a distinct funder who’s going to come on board or funders who are going to come on board for this program.”
Beyond fundraising, Rotterman hopes to make Buffalo, What’s Next? more sustainable by broadening its digital footprint beyond the podcast. Those efforts will include hiring a digital editor for the newsroom in the coming year and uploading more content to YouTube, where Rotterman said the station has seen tremendous growth. The station is in the process of installing video cameras in one of its studios to transform it into its dedicated Buffalo, What’s Next? studio, he added.
The reaction to the program has been mostly positive, based on emails, voicemails and reporters’ interactions with Buffalonians. In addition, average audience during its morning time slot grew 51% from summer 2021 to summer 2022, to 6,200 listeners.The podcast version of the show averages about 220 streams and downloads per episode, though an Aug. 4 episode received 2,000 downloads, according to Debo.
Jaipaul-Valenza did mention one listener who left a detailed voicemail arguing that the station shouldn’t cover these issues because in her view, East Side residents already received plenty of resources. At that point, Jaipaul-Valenza realized how critical the show was for Western New York.
“I feel the show is education for everyone,” Jaipaul-Valenza said when asked whether the show still holds value for those who weren’t consuming factual news about the state of the East Side. “Here’s the thing about that person, though. They listened. They listened long enough. They listened to the entire show and had been listening to it since day one. Whether they’re still listening now or not, I don’t know. But at an absolute minimum, we have provided her with a counternarrative to what’s going on in her head.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Dave Debo as WBFO’s news director. He is a host and producer for Buffalo, What’s Next?