Why public radio needs more journalism like NHPR’s ‘13th Step’ podcast

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"The 13th Step" team celebrates its 2023 national Edward R. Murrow award. Left to right: Senior reporter and host Lauren Chooljian, lead editor Alison MacAdam, senior producer Jason Moon, and NHPR’s senior editor of podcasts, Katie Colaneri.

We are at a reckoning in public radio. Given the layoffs and buyouts of the past weeks and months, that grand statement is pretty obvious. And the magnitude of audience declines is noteworthy: NPR’s weekly listeners have fallen from 60 million in 2020 to 42 million, according to an internal March 2024 internal audience report cited in the New York Times.

There’s much to debate about the reasons why. In its report, NPR attributed the decline to a blend of “news fatigue, digital transformation and increased competition.” But the reckoning by those of us who care about public radio isn’t just about how we rebuild audience numbers and fund our work. It’s about the meaning and purpose of the work we produce and how it serves our audiences.

I no longer work for a public radio station. But I do work with them, and furthermore, I care deeply about the future of member stations, NPR and the whole system. I believe in the quality of work the system is known for and the audience of curious people it serves and can serve in the future.

Which is partly why I spend time analyzing some of today’s best audio journalism on my podcast Sound Judgment. My appreciation and concern for the world of audio journalism, and the pipeline of talent learning how to do this work, influences why Sound Judgment exists: in the hope that other journalists and storytellers can learn how these masters of the craft do what they do. And why.

That’s a long way into the subject of today’s story: a deep look at the process by which New Hampshire Public Radio Reporter Lauren Chooljian and story editor Alison MacAdam, with assistance from NHPR reporter Jason Moon, made The 13th Step.

The 13th Step is an award-winning investigation into sexual misconduct in the addiction treatment industry. It’s a story about alleged sexual exploitation of people at their most vulnerable by those who are supposed to be helping them.

For Chooljian, this story started out as one thing: a quest for the truth about allegations against Eric Spofford, the founder of New Hampshire’s largest addiction treatment network, and more broadly as an investigation into widespread sexual misconduct in the recovery industry at large. But The 13th Step also became about another thing: freedom of the press. And how, why and what it takes to persist with reporting a story in the face of legal and criminal threats.

I sat down with Chooljian and MacAdam to play back tape to them from their own series. I wanted to know: How did they approach the complex job of crafting the narrative arc of a series that Chooljian reported for three years and MacAdam worked on for two? What were Chooljian’s feelings about navigating emotional landmines, including the experience of being both reporter and, later, the subject of the story after her home was vandalized? What is here for other reporters, editors and news organizations to learn about shaping important information into a story propulsive enough to overcome the public’s news fatigue and impactful enough to inspire change?

Later, I would wonder what role this documentary series, and others like it, should play in the public radio system as we figure out what that system can and should look like going forward.

Here’s some of what Chooljian and MacAdam shared. (You can hear the whole conversation, plus excerpts from The 13th Step, on Sound Judgment.) 

1. Clarify your purpose.

“There are too many podcasts out there in the world,” said MacAdam. “If we’re going to make something big, it needs a reason for being that goes beyond ‘We’ve got the reporting.’ … It should have a clear, driving purpose.” What is your central question?

2. Figure out your central question early in the process.

Brainstorm the central question as early as possible, MacAdam urges. It helps you organize your process and the questions you ask your interviewees. It helps you determine what falls within the scope of your project and what falls outside of it. (It’s worth noting that, among many other credits, MacAdam was the audio storytelling specialist on NPR’s training team.)

3. Here are some prompts to get you started.

MacAdam suggests asking: “What is this story? Who is it trying to serve? To what end? How does it connect to broader issues? What are the stakes? What struck you the most?”

4. Who cares? Get clear on relevance.

One of the most important questions is context: Does your story serve a local audience, or is it also relevant to a wider one? Learning that the term “13th stepper” refers to someone with more power sexually exploiting a newcomer to recovery helped Chooljian grasp the interplay between the local story about one man and a much bigger, shocking trend. “In New Hampshire, this was an Eric [Spofford] problem,” she said. “But everywhere else, it’s a big ‘everyone problem.’ Sexual misconduct, boundary crossing, is something that many people have had to deal with on their path to recovery.”

That knowledge led the team, brainstorming in Google Docs, to the series’ overarching question: “How could so many people be harmed in an industry dedicated to healing?” 

5. How high are the stakes? Set them early.

Chooljian shows us both the stakes for individual women — sexual harassment threatened their recovery or their jobs — and for the millions who struggle with substance use disorder. “For every 10 people who could benefit from addiction treatment, only one will get it,” Chooljian says on the podcast. “It’s not news to anyone in the recovery industry that there is not enough treatment to go around.” The idea that a loved one could finally enter recovery only to become the victim of sexual misconduct? It’s a gut punch.

We also learn that early recovery is an extraordinarily vulnerable time, making the effect of sexual misconduct that much more dangerous and painful. 

As listeners, when we encounter high stakes early in a series, we get invested in the plot. We can’t help but tune in to one episode after another.

6. Figuring out a narrative arc is messy.

As MacAdam says, it takes trial and error. The messiness is the process.

7. How to solve the narrative arc puzzle?

First, take small bites. Don’t try to solve the entire thing at once. Second, The 13th Step team brainstormed which key characters and plot points to include and when — but they also brainstormed the themes and in which order to present them.  

8. The best defense is the truth.

MacAdam wrote an inspirational quote at the top of her primary Google doc: “The best defense is the truth.” It came from Sigmund Schutz, the team’s lead attorney. Listen to the series, and you’ll hear the word “corroborate” over and over again as Chooljian details how she dug for the truth of every allegation. You’ll also hear the transparency with which the team approached the series — Chooljian shares her reporting process at every turn. In addition, the show posted legal documents and other evidence on NHPR’s website. (Tune into the most recent episode, “Update: A New Bill and a Final Ruling,” to learn the result of Eric Spofford’s lawsuit against Chooljian and the station.)

9. Leaders need courage.

It takes stationwide leadership to resist expensive and nerve-wracking threats. 

In April 2022, about a month after Chooljian published her first story about the allegations, vandals broke a window at her parents’ home and spray-painted the “C” word on their garage. Similar attacks happened at the home of NHPR news director Dan Barrick and at a house Chooljian had previously lived in.

In a second round of attacks in May, Chooljian’s current home was hit. A brick was thrown through a picture window, and the phrase “JUST THE BEGINNING” was spray-painted in red letters on her house. The FBI and law enforcement in New Hampshire and Massachusetts began investigating.

In 2023, four men were arrested and charged with federal crimes. One of the men was described as a “close associate” of Eric Spofford. Spofford himself has faced no charges and denies any involvement.  As of last month, two of the men had pled guilty. 

At NHPR, leadership prioritized the team’s safety. According to Chooljian, NHPR CEO Jim Schachter asked the board for funds and approval to provide security for Chooljian, her parents and Barrick. 

10. Motivation is fuel.

Chooljian bristled at the notion that she might have considered quitting the story after vandals targeted her parents’ home. “None of us asked for anything to happen to us, but we all believe so strongly in this reporting,” she said. Unlike the NHPR team, she said, many of her sources had no access to lawyers, insurance or security.” And yet, they did such a big-deal thing of coming forward and talking to a stranger and saying, ‘Something happened to me.’ And so we had to continue, and it was the total right thing to do to continue.”

Retaliation — both criminal and legal — also provided another reason for continuing, one that applies to everyone reading this story: the importance of fighting for press freedom and setting an example for reporters everywhere. “This was shutting down reporting, this was a First Amendment situation — a ‘what kind of world are we living in now’ situation,” Chooljian said. “And that, to me, was terrifying.” 

This article could have been a straightforward how-to piece for ambitious reporters and editors. But the “why to” is as important, if not more so. The 13th Step should be seen as an example of what public media can do — and what its future can, at least in part, look like.

If it seems counter-intuitive to advocate for such lengthy, deeply reported stories at a time when most member stations (and NPR itself) are struggling for resources, bear with me. Accountability journalism isn’t the sole answer to the questions of purpose and audience plaguing public media. But as station after station reduces headcounts and piles more and more work on its journalists, we should take a long, hard look at the need for — and at least the potential decline in — accountability journalism. We should continue to find ways to support it, no matter how much hard thinking that requires.

When skilled reporters lose their jobs, what happens to the reporters left behind? It’s a conundrum for news directors everywhere: Member stations need to serve local audiences, especially in news deserts. But some of what has made public media great is threatened when leaders prioritize story quantity over quality — over nuance and depth. 

As Dan Rather wrote recently:

The importance of a free press willing to dig deep cannot be stressed enough. News is what somebody somewhere, particularly somebody in power, doesn’t want you to know. It is imperative that every journalist working in the country must find the news, find the information someone doesn’t want you to know, and report it.

How much change will result from The 13th Step is an open question. But a bill is already before the New Hampshire legislature that calls for more oversight of New Hampshire’s drug treatment industry. It’s a result of this series.

In the most recent episode, Chooljian quotes the testimony of Amanda Vachon, a drug court coordinator. “When I listened to The 13th Step podcast, I was left sick to my stomach,” Vachon told lawmakers. “Because I have sent … hundreds of people to inpatient centers. And I know that, statistically speaking, there were people that came across my desk that went to those treatment centers … and were likely victimized by somebody in that treatment center.” 

Is a call for more accountability journalism naive?

Plenty of stations are still making important and impactful stories. For those that aren’t, it would be tone-deaf not to acknowledge that enterprise journalism is expensive, challenging and risky. News directors struggle to allow daily reporters months away from newscast duty to report in-depth stories, and that’s understandable. With innovative thinking, though, there are ways to approach the financial and other risks differently. And when it comes to rebuilding audience and, especially, attracting younger listeners, there are good reasons why leaders should run toward this kind of journalism — not away. 

“When you are looking around right now at what’s happening in the world, you’re seeing people sitting outside in protest of institutions. How old are those people?” asks Rebecca Lavoie, NHPR’s director of on-demand audio. “Are they primarily boomers? Or are they young and diverse? If you are interested in attracting the eyes and ears of young and diverse people, do strong journalism that holds powerful people and institutions to account, because that’s what young and diverse people are doing and [what they] are most interested in right now at this moment in our country.”

There’s also an argument to be made not just that accountability journalism is the right thing to do, but that investing in it can help stem audience and revenue declines. Of course, such reporting can and should appear in many forms in addition to the serialized podcast format. (For instance, the reporting at the center of The 13th Step appeared on NHPR’s website and broadcast, and has been the focus of live events.) 

“There’s a chicken-and-egg thing going on,” says Abby Goldstein, executive director of the Public Media Content Collective (formerly the Public Radio Program Directors Association).

“There are fewer resources, but stations aren’t doing the kind of reporting that engenders support,” she says. “Membership is … not growing as people have found lots of other ways to get the type of content that used to be exclusive to public radio. So, what’s the answer?” Along with smarter revenue management, Goldstein says, “stations have to earn that support back by producing distinctive content that is highly relevant to audiences.” 

In the search for a more robust model of public radio, we should celebrate good accountability journalism. We should teach it. We should grow it and the reporters, editors and producers eager to do it.

Elaine Appleton Grant is EP and host of Sound Judgment and CEO of Podcast Allies, which provides host coaching and editorial consulting services to public media, nonprofits and higher education leaders. She also offers public-facing and custom workshops on a variety of journalism and storytelling skills.

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