Reporter’s Notebook: The Road To A Story

By Madelyn Beck
Madelyn Beck interviews Ram Vakalanka in Ketchikan, Alaska

I’m used to long roads.

I grew up at the dead end of a dirt one in rural Montana.

For my latest radio story, I drove about 11 hours. Every person I interviewed was a stranger in a town I’ve never been. Mostly, I found them online.

Don’t tell my mother.

A picture from the dead end of a dirt road in Montana.

That latest story — about handing down farmland — features a young farmer named Jon Heaton. The directions to his workspace were accurate, but not something I could type into Google maps.

“So we’d be west of Toulon there, junction 78, just a quarter mile south. My seed warehouse basically. Seed shed,” he said into my mic after I found it.

We walked through the warehouse part and into the office part for his interview. We were both just strangers trying to interact like regular people. I smiled a lot and laughed too much. I awkwardly had to ask him to turn off his fan. And then his other fan.

I need “clean” audio, which often means avoiding the hums and beeps of heaters, air conditioning units, nearby people, excited dogs or really anything else loud that’s not pertinent to the story. People don’t even usually notice these sounds because they’ve tuned them out.

The interview with Jon was stiff at first — a few-word answer here, him asking what I meant there — but got easier. By the end, we were just talking about how much soybean seed people won’t be buying next year.

I tend to chat with people after an interview. I hope that giving them a little insight into my life makes them feel a little better about letting me into theirs.

Then, I drove north a few hours. I talked with a family who was wrapping up a small gathering. Two sets of parents picking at veggie snacks and a gaggle of kids off playing somewhere. I felt like I was intruding.

Later, I went to a learning center where I had to ask a woman to unplug a refrigerator because it was so loud. She nearly had to climb behind the behemoth while I blushed and thanked her.

Audio is a fickle beast.

A road beside a corn field in Galesburg, Illinois.

The hardest part of my job is not the roads, but worrying people think I’m just a reporter who magically showed up at their doorstep to use them for my benefit. I hope they see that I’m a person who had to drive there. A person who had to pay the (insert expletive here) tolls and eat gas station cheesy crackers for lunch and sweat bullets every time I pass a cop even if I’m not speeding.

I don’t drive for hours to use people for a story. I drive for hours so I can look people in the eye and get to know them, even for just an hour. I get to not only hear but see what’s important to them, and why I need to do right by them and their story, no matter what.

For my last stop, I drove to Wisconsin. Just north a little ways, but a state I had never visited. I found the place I was going after a little confusion with the address, and talked with Ben Snare as the sun went down. I fought the urge to pet the farm’s extremely fluffy cow

We had to talk outside because his baby was crying upstairs. I cringed every time a car drove by and right into my audio or whenever that fluffy cow gave a bellow at the top of its lungs, but I love moments like that. Where you just have to do what you can. They’re so human.

It would be nice if people could see me driving when they listen to my stories. They hear a farmer in Jerseyville, Illinois and are transported there instantly.

For me, that was a few Chris Stapleton CDs, some Here and Now, a gas station lunch and 8 hours of talking to myself in the car.

The road from Medicine Bow National Forest to Laramie, Wyoming.