Author Archives: sfentem

The Best Christmas Story On NPR (One Reporter’s Opinion)


Credit: US Coast Guard Academy/FLICKR

The Christmas season can be kind of slow for radio news. The institutions that usually drive our coverage–the legislature, schools, businesses–grind to a halt, and newscasts get filled with the inevitable travel and weather forecasts and retail projections.

Every so often, though, a Christmas story comes along that has never been told before. For your enjoyment, here is one of the best Planet Money episodes ever made: #506: Bell Wars.

Like all the best Planet Money episodes, this one introduces listeners to to offbeat characters populating very specific, hidden business universes. In this case: the cutthroat world of handbell manufacturing.

The story: In Pennsylvania, there are two high-end handbell producers (down the road from each other!) that have warred for decades not only over whose bells sounded better, but also over accusations the two companies were spying on each other to try and learn everyone’s deep, dark handbell trade secrets.

But it’s more than a great topic that makes “Bell Wars” such a perfect 19 minutes of public radio:

If you listen to the story, you hear David Kestenbaum (who now, just like other PM alums Zoe Chase and Chana Joffe-Walt, departed for This American Life) give very little narration. He lets the characters tell their own story and then gets out of the way. This is classic NPR: it’s expressive, intimate, surprising and built around the human voice.

Also: the story is about handbells. Most of the arguments between the two companies focused on what exactly the two handbells sound like. Being able to hear these differences (or non-differences) in real time draws listeners into the story in way a magazine article, no matter how well-written, just wouldn’t be able to do.

Even though it’s approaching its third anniversary, NPR sometimes re-runs “Bell Wars” around the holidays. If you don’t catch it during your holiday drive this year, you can always listen to more Planet Money episodes during Morning Edition and All Things Considered.


A Guide To Indiana Public Broadcasting’s New Voices

avengersLoyal WBAA listeners might have heard some unfamiliar voices on the air reporting state-wide news over the last four months. Those voices belong to a group of new reporters referred to within Indiana Public Broadcasting as “the RJC,” and in a more official capacity, “IPB News.”

Navigating the world of public radio can sometimes feel like swimming around in a bowl of alphabet soup. There are so many acronyms. (WBAA, NPR, PRI, APM…) It can get confusing! Here’s the breakdown:

“RJC” stands for “regional journalism collaborative.” This is a fancy name for a group of reporters and editors who comprise a “regional newsroom.” Indiana Public Broadcasting’s regional newsroom is seven reporters spread out across four stations. About half of the reporters are brand-new to Indiana Public Broadcasting. The other half consists of existing network reporters who have shifted to work inside the collaborative.

Even though the reporters are spread out geographically at different stations, they work together as a single team, creating news that’s then sent to all the Indiana Public Broadcasting stations in the state. Each reporter also has a specific beat to cover, so the state-wide news is more in-depth and comprehensive. Where the reporters are stationed has a lot to do with where lots of the action on their beat happens.

Here’s the lineup:

Annie Ropeik, based at WBAA in West Lafayette: Annie covers business, from agriculture to the steel industry, while also finding more offbeat stories to cover, such an upcoming feature about economics and 4-H fairs.

Sarah Fentem (me) also based at WBAA: I cover health and science along with my duties as a local reporter for WBAA. I’ve published stories on topics ranging from data-driven reports on the state’s Hepatitis and HIV epidemics to state-wide and federal legislation battling the opioid use epidemic.

Nick Janzen, works at WBOI in Fort Wayne: Nick focuses his time on energy and the environment. Nick’s expertise in coastal science (he is from Louisiana) means he can delve into science-based stories about the ecosystems around Lake Michigan that might scare less-experienced reporters away.

Jill Sheridan of WFYI in Indianapolis: Jill also covers health and science. She always finds a human face to put on stories about health policy and trends. Jill’s reporting often focuses on healthcare disparities among different demographics.

Brandon Smith, Indianapolis: Brandon is most likely the voice most WBAA listeners already know. He’s been covering the Statehouse for five years and now brings that experience to the RJC. The election cycle means Brandon has been super busy covering legislation as well as Mike Pence’s surprise vice-presidential nomination.

Claire McInerney, at WFIU in Bloomington: Claire is also a familiar voice to Indiana Public Broadcasting listeners. Claire’s covered education as part of the StateImpact Indiana team and, like Brandon, has shifted to work with the new collaborative. She has been tirelessly covering the state’s standardized testing saga for the past two years.

Peter Balonon-Rosen, also at WFIU: Peter, who also covers education, loves deep-dive stories about hard-to-tackle topics. In his short time in Indiana, he’s written stories on the implications of school advertising and the lack of diversity in teacher training programs.

The collaborative is headed up by Managing Editor Sarah Neal-Estes in Bloomington, who worked in public radio in Alaska before teaching audio reporting at Indiana University (She actually was my teacher before she was my boss.) Lauren Chapman, in Indianapolis, is the RJC’s digital editor. She works with the reporters to translate their sound into online stories with nifty graphs, visuals, and videos.


Education reporters Claire and Peter brainstorm at the RJC’s very first meeting

Indiana’s regional journalism collaborative is funded by a two-year grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with the goal of creating more local news coverage.

For BAA listeners, there are two main benefits of the new reporting system:

  1. Because the RJC has hired multiple new reporters, there will be an increase in state-wide coverage. Because the reporters have a specific topic to specialize in, that state-wide coverage will be more in-depth and comprehensive than when multiple stations were covering things in a piece-meal fashion.
  2. Because state coverage is being taken care of by the reporters, there will be an increase in local coverage as well, because reporters at local stations can focus entirely on news happening in their communities.

Stay tuned to BAA to hear the latest state and local news! While our stories do air occasionally on other programs, you will always be able to catch the RJC during the local newscasts during All Things Considered and Morning Edition.



Discerning Media Consumers Love WBAA


I’m from Illinois originally, and my dad still lives in Adams County, more than seven hours away from Lafayette. It is a testament to how supportive he is that instead of listening to the “local” St. Louis station, KWMU, he streams WBAA online. He sent me this picture of his cat, Sullivan, listening to our latest feature.

Our mobile app means you can listen to your favorite programming anywhere! It’s so easy even Sullivan could figure it out. Now we need to teach him how to use headphones.

No Butterflies Were Harmed In The Making Of This Newscast


WBAA studios are underneath Elliott Hall, and while they are undeniably beautiful (the same firm that designed our studios also designed NPR headquarters in D.C!), sometimes it’s nice to see a little bit of nature during the workday.

How did this little guy get into our subterranean soundbooth? He made an appearance right before the recording of Ask the Mayor Thursday.

Mr. Butterfly was re-released safely into the wild (well, the quad), shaken but presumably more informed after listening to the Diane Rehm show.

How The Sausage Gets Made: The Broadcast Clock

Note: The following is written by Sarah Fentem, a reporter who will be joining WBAA next month as a reporter/host. 

There’s a fun, old saying that compares the news business to a meat factory. As in: everyone loves to eat a juicy ballpark frank, but it’s unlikely those same people would want to go to the slaughterhouse to see exactly what goes into making those yummy hot dogs. Similarly, everyone loves to listen to the news, which, on the surface, is ordered, pristine and tidy (especially on programs such as All Things Considered). Behind the scenes, though, there’s chaos, confusion and sometimes a lot of blood on the floor (Ok, maybe not that last one.)

The truth: What you hear (or read) is only half the story. Behind the scenes, there’s a whole other layer of the news business, one concerned with putting all the information and news together and delivering it to the public.  The unsung wizards that make this magic happen are called producers and directors (in radio and television) and page designers (in print). In print, their job is all about managing space. But in the more nebulous world  of sound, these people are tasked with managing something a lot more ephemeral: time.

Hardcore NPR listeners (especially ones who listen in the mornings) pick up on little patterns they hear daily while listening to public radio. (“Oh God, I need to be out the door before they read the funding credits at 8:05 or I’m gonna be late!”) These same people have picked up on one of the fundamental aspects lurking beneath pretty much all the NPR flagship programs: The broadcast clock. 

The broadcast clock is a pie-shaped template the represents an hour of a given program (most of the clocks you encounter during a Google image search are for Morning Edition and All Things Considered.)

For example, here’s the clock for a typical hour of All Things Considered:



The big gray segments, A, B, C, D and E, are where all the interviews, segments and longer-form news stories live. Most of these are broadcast live from NPR headquarters in Washington, DC.

While we here in local public radio love the gray segments, we spend most of our time worried about the black slices of the pie: the newscasts. Newscast 1, at least in our newsroom, is national news. (That’s when you hear, “From NPR News in Washington, I’m Craig Windham with these headlines…”) The national cast is usually where you hear big-deal stories that are often still developing. They’re short and usually elaborated on during the ABCDE Segments.

Then, the moment of truth: The local cast. During the day, local newsrooms at NPR member stations across the country (such as WBAA!) are working hard to bring you stories to deliver during this slot. It’s very short–most local casts are shorter than three minutes long and some can be as brief as one minute. These casts are what we call a “join”–It’s when national takes a break and hands it over to us to report our own news. Because all these stations across the country are coordinating their schedules with the “big” station in Washington, the casts have to be very, very precise, ending at exactly the right time. (In radio, this is called “hitting your post.”) If you look at the clock above, all those little lines that separate the “pieces” are, in fact, “posts.”

The problem is: Even if producers and reporters are really careful, sometimes the newscasts within our own little segment come up short or long. While both aren’t necessarily preferable, short is easy to fix on the fly. That’s when you employ those two handy stalwarts of the public radio cannon: fill music and weather forecasts. If you hear a verrryyy long weather forecast during All Things Considered, that means the local team was probably a story short by deadline.

Sidebar: There’s a story in the NPR lore about the first time Neal Conan directed Weekend All Things Considered. He ended the whole show *four minutes* before the final post, and the producers had to scramble to use the longest fill music they could find…which happened to be a bunch of whale calls. Yes, those listeners were subjected to four whole minutes of whale music!!

Alternatively, if the newscast ends and abruptly cuts to another story that’s being broadcast from headquarters, that means someone went OVER their post. Ideally, the local and national stories are put together seamlessly. When you consider the amount of cooperation that’s needed to make that kind of show happen, the fact you don’t usually notice the broadcast clock while you are listening is something I would consider a daily miracle.

Last year, NPR decided to change up the broadcast clock, adding more national newscasts. Stations across the nation celebrated, in only the way public radio employees can: by baking an NPR-themed cake.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the history of the broadcast clock, I highly recommend you check out the segment 99 Percent invisible produced a few years ago, which proves to be one of the best depictions of behind-the-scenes radio producing I’ve ever heard.

Who’s That Girl? It’s The New WBAA Reporter!

There’s a term that public radio types like to throw around every now and then (especially when they start to fret about demographics): “Back Seat Babies.” A Back Seat Baby is one of those unknowingly lucky children subjected to a unceasing onslaught of All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Fresh Air by their NPR-loving parents, usually while held captive in the backseat of the family car.

I, Sarah Fentem, the new WBAA reporter, am the textbook definition of a Back Seat Baby. I’m not even sure if I knew, growing up, other radio stations besides National Public Radio even existed. Of course, the number one stereo preset in our Ford Escort was obviously set to WQUB, Quincy, Ill’s flagship public radio station. However, (and here’s where it starts to get a little intense) all the other stereo presets were also set to NPR stations around the listening area…KWMU in St. Louis, WIUM in Macomb, even WUIS in Springfield, where my dad would travel maybe twice a year. I suppose he didn’t want to spend the four seconds it would take to fiddle around the bottom of the dial trying to find the next station, lest he miss out on Carl Kassel uttering a single word. Mostly, though, I just don’t think anyone in my family thought there were any other stations worth listening to.

My love of public radio grew along with me. But even after I graduated from college and started working as a reporter in Chicago, I never considered radio for a career. I was worried my voice wasn’t broadcast-y enough, and anyway, it seemed like too specialized and rarified a medium. Even so, I continued listening to WBEZ every day and burning hours worth of Roman Mars and Terry Gross onto CDs to listen to on the drive between Chicago and my parents’ home downstate. (I’ve since joined the 21st Century and bought an iPod.)

That all changed when I started working on my master’s degree at IU’s school of journalism. Sensing my love of radio, a few savvy professors recommended I investigate Bloomington’s NPR affiliate, WFIU. They were looking for a new part-time staffer, and I started working as a reporter and producer there in 2014. In the beginning, I was a little insecure–other than an encyclopedic knowledge of RadioLab episodes, I had no idea how radio worked. This is where being at WFIU helped me. Being in close proximity to such talented people (most who are still very young) taught me so much, not only about audio, but about reporting in general. WFIU’s reporters are so tireless and smart, it was easy to come into work inspired to cover Indiana’s most important stories, in the most thorough, engaging way.

However, I’m graduating in August, and I needed to find a full-time gig. I jumped at the chance when Stan Jastrzebski said I should apply for WBAA’s open All Things Considered Host/Reporter position. Starting this summer, you’ll be able to hear me during ATC on weekday afternoons! When I’m not behind the microphone, I’ll be out finding and reporting important stories in the Wabash Valley for WBAA and Indiana Public Broadcasting. I’m so excited to stay within the IPB family, where I’ve met so many amazing reporters and producers. I can’t wait to reach a whole new audience of Back Seat (and Front Seat) Babies.


So you can match a face to the voice: here’s me (with my esteemed colleague, Packie) in those dark, pre-public radio days

When I’m not on the job, you’ll probably find me out on my bike, going on adventures with my sweet boyfriend Elliot, or snuggled up watching netflix with my cat, Lil Rock. (My favorite show: Parks and Recreation!) I’ll choose a Schlitz over a fancy craft brew any day. A lifelong midwesterner, I love the Chicago Blackhawks and have yet to meet a casserole I don’t like.

You can follow me on twitter @petit_smudge, which is pretty much split 50/50 between news links and 30 Rock quotes.