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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor
I’m an admirer of “Tested,” the news podcast produced since March 2020 by WUNC. In its timeliness, and in the way it gives stories from around the state a second life, it’s a worthy successor to “The State of Things,” the topical interview show that ended late last year after host Frank Stasio decided to hang up the mic.
But “Tested” is also different — and until I was chatting the other day with founding host Dave DeWitt, I didn’t truly appreciate how rare it is.
“We’re one of the few podcasts produced out of the news department on a public radio station,” said DeWitt, WUNC’s feature news editor, who came to the station 19 years ago and started on “The State of Things.”
“Usually, you have podcasts produced out of the podcast department — like, with us, ‘Embodied’ and some others,” he said. “We’re trying to bridge the radio listenership with a podcast listenership, and deliver news in that style.”
It’s also very much a team effort. If you pull up an episode, you might hear DeWitt — or you might hear Leoneda Inge. Or Will Michaels. Or Kamaya Truitt. Or Charlie Shelton-Ormond, Jason deBruyn, Rusty Jacobs, Naomi Prioleau, Celeste Garcia …
“When we started, it was really to expand on our COVID pandemic coverage,” DeWitt told me. “When we kind of reframed it a little bit later that year, we had two goals. One was, like I said, bridging that gap between the radio and podcast audiences, but the second goal was to give our younger journalists a chance to host, and see ideas and perspectives through to completion. You know, we’re a hierarchical organization, like a lot of news organizations, and sometimes younger people don’t get a chance to do things like that …
“I had a conversation with some colleagues at WNYC a couple weeks ago. And they’re like, ‘You’re doing a podcast out of your news department?’ And WNYC is maybe five to eight times larger than we are. It takes a lot of effort. And the way we’re able to do it is by spreading it around.
“And that helps with our main goal, which is to diversify both the types of stories that are getting told, the sources that are getting onto the air and onto the podcast … and, you know, our younger reporters tend to be more diverse, so we’re bringing different ideas and perspectives on.
“One of the things I’m really proud of is that we track our source diversity, and 40% to 45% of our main sources on ‘Tested’ are people of color.”
“Tested” is also a strong mix of news and enterprise reporting. In the past week, Shelton-Ormond and Anisa Khalifa delivered an update on Howard Dudley, a wrongly convicted man who spent 24 years in prison, who told his story along with reporter Joe Neff of The Marshall Project, who investigated Dudley’s case when he was at The News & Observer. Meanwhile, Will Michaels hosted a newsy update on omicron, including deBruyn and new DHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley.
“We’ve got essentially a small core team of people, which I lead,” DeWitt said, “that kind of meet every day … So we have a basic schedule, and we have people who are outside of that who are doing work on some future episodes, which are probably more enterprise in nature. And then we do a lot of shifting. You know, we will purposely be a little bit open to what we’re doing in a specific week so that we can react to things that are happening …
“It helps that we’ve got really talented, live-radio people who are used to doing things on short windows.”
So how rare are news department podcasts in public radio?
“I think there are two other public radio stations in the country that are doing it — KUOW in Seattle, and KQED in San Francisco,” DeWitt said. “I’m not sure they’re doing it quite as much, and if you were to listen to those, they’re really good, but they’re different. I would argue that sometimes ours, because we’re spreading around the production, are almost like mini documentaries.
“Oftentimes (in radio), when we record interviews with people that we want to put on the air, we record 15 minutes and cut it to four, or we record 15 minutes from five different sources and make a feature story out of it. This just allows us to give a little more life to things we were leaving on the shelf.”
That applies to reporters from outside WUNC, too.
“You know, reporters get their stories edited and lose some things, or … just by the production of a print story, you leave things out,” he said. “So getting an opportunity to come on and talk about it for 10 to 12 to 15 minutes, I think really good reporters love to do that — and give those stories, not only just a sort of additional life, but call attention to the work that’s being done. That’s really important. Anybody who’s worked in a newspaper, like yourself, you know, you do it and it gets out there and then you’re on to something else. I always felt really good about getting a really good story on the radio.
“The other thing we’ve learned about our audience is, for a really high percentage of them, we are their primary, if not their only, news source. They’re not reading in a lot of other places or listening or watching a lot of local TV. So we’ve often felt a special kind of responsibility to make sure the good reporting that was being done elsewhere was getting to them.”
So “Tested” is bridging gaps — between news and podcast listeners, between sources and diverse audiences, between communities and reporters from away, and even inside its own newsroom. Any downside?
“We’re really terrible at marketing ourselves,” DeWitt told me. “We don’t have social media accounts associated with just ‘Tested.’ You won’t see a bus rolling down the street with a ‘Tested’ logo on the side. WUNC is a pretty decent-sized operation, but we don’t have a specific marketing communications person. So we all just kinda do it on our own.”
LISTEN TO ‘TESTED’
◼️ On the WUNC site
◼️ On Google Podcasts
◼️ On Apple Podcasts
◼️ On Spotify
◼️ On Stitcher
Also on NPR One and the WUNC app.
➵ Here’s my interview with Frank Stasio about ‘The State of Things’ as he retired last year.
➵ Here’s a conversation I had with Anita Rao about ‘Embodied’ in November 2020.