Mississippi celebrates: Radio newsroom wins 2 national RTNDA awards
In sports terms, it would be a come-from-behind victory for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, the dark horse that galloped ahead and took the purse.
MPB won two national Edward R. Murrow Awards for radio network news reporting, the Radio-Television News Directors Association announced last month.
The state network in Jackson was up there with NPR, which topped two categories; XM Satellite Radio’s Bob Edwards, winner of the first-ever Murrow awarded to satellite radio news programming; and the big commercial nets, CBS Radio News and ABC News Radio.
National Murrows also went to six pubradio stations that won earlier RTNDA regional competitions (separate story).
Before this year, the state-operated Mississippi network had never entered the RTNDA contest in electronic journalism, and it chose to submit entries as a network instead of a station, putting itself in stiff competition with big radio networks rather than small-market stations.
“We entered, and you expect to win,” said Teresa Collier, MPB news director, “but it was very shocking when I got the phone call.”
“We were just stunned,” said Marie Antoon, MPB executive director, recalling when she’d first learned about the awards. “It really is sort of like being David, slaying Goliath.”
MPB began beefing up its newsroom staff in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina made its radio network a lifeline of emergency news and information for residents throughout the rural state. “Internally, we knew it was something we had to do,” Antoon said. “Not every station has a Katrina event . . . but when we made that commitment to step up, it changed people’s perception of us.”
The Murrow-winning pieces aired last year when MPB was gearing up for a second round of radio upgrades, expanding its local production slate and replacing programs beamed in by satellite.
The resulting schedule, introduced in January, also has been a winner, drawing impressively larger audiences in its first Arbitron book.
MPB won Murrows with radio features by TV news veterans who began freelance reporting for MPB within the last couple of years. “The news department has grown over the past two-and-a-half years,” said Collier, who was one of two public affairs reporter/producers at MPB when she signed on in 1994. She now directs nine TV and radio journalists. “We built a team of reporters who are very capable of producing quality coverage. These stories are from two seasoned reporters who are excellent storytellers.”
Sandra Knispel, a German-born journalist and former anchor/reporter for Bloomberg Television in London, won her Murrow for a hard-news feature on the public apology given by community leaders of Tallahatchie County, Miss., to the family of Emmett Till, the African-American teenager from Chicago who was brutally tortured and murdered by local white men when he visited relatives in rural Mississippi in 1955.
County leaders “apologized for the environment that tolerated the murder of a 14-year-old boy and gave the men carte blanche to behave the way they did,” Knispel said. After gathering sound bites during the statement of apology on the courthouse steps, Knispel joined the Till family on a tour of the places where Emmett spent his last hours. “As we were touring, that was when the history came alive,” Knispel said.
Knispel, the mother of two young children, has covered northern Mississippi for MPB since 2002, working freelance at first and then as a part-time employee [correction]. She had just learned she was to be replaced by a full-time reporter assigned to the north when she got word of her national Murrow. Her first question to Collier — “Can I have my job back?” — eventually was answered with a “yes” after MPB managers took a second look at next year’s budget.
The Murrow, Knispel said, “saved my butt.”
“Something I never expected”
Ron Brown, a veteran of small-market TV newsrooms, received MPB’s other Murrow for the feature “Kids Write the Blues,” an advance piece on last year’s Delta Blues and Heritage Festival in Greenville, Miss.
The arts reporter had planned to profile headliner David “Honeyboy” Edwards but couldn’t get time with the legendary bluesman before his filing deadline. Instead, he visited a local elementary school, where he met students who had entered a songwriting contest related to the festival.
When Brown tried to interview some of the children, they didn’t really open up until he asked them to recite their lyrics, he recalled. “It was so hard to get them to express themselves,” he said. “That’s why their poetry is so powerful — because they didn’t have any qualms about expressing their feelings about being blue.”
“I’m so lonely. I’m a lonely girl,” one student says in the piece, her young voice tinged with sorrow as she read her words.
Brown, who was then just beginning to freelance for MPB, has since been hired full-time as MPB’s arts reporter for radio and television. He’s filing weekly stories for MPB Radio and hosting an interview-based TV series on regional arts, Southern Expressions, which debuts this fall.
For Brown, who has judged RTNDA awards in the past, the national Murrow “came as a total shock and surprise,” he said. “It’s really something special because of the name attached to it,” he said, referring to legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow. “It’s on a national level, and it’s something that I never expected.”
Vast field of ambition
Part of the surprise sprang from the decision to enter the network division of the RTNDA contest. Local stations typically compete in RTDNA regional contests, and the regional winners go on to compete for national Murrows. This year, news organizations put up a total of 3,459 entries. In October, 77 entries from 54 organizations will be lauded as national winners at a New York banquet. The winning reporters from Mississippi will be there to accept their awards in person.
MPB had the option to classify itself as a network or a station when it entered the competition, according to Jane Nassiri, RTNDA v.p. of finance and administration. “If a judge feels they’re not correctly classified, they can disqualify them from the awards,” she said. In MPB’s case, the judges felt “as if it was a national network entry.”
Antoon wondered whether RTNDA will change its entry rules to prevent state nets from entering the contest’s national network division, but when she called RTNDA to check, she was reassured that “we won it fair and square, both of them,” she said.
Winning a national-level Murrow is “a pretty impressive thing,” said Dale Willman, a veteran pubradio journalist and a Murrow-winner himself. “It’s really stiff competition. You’re dealing with the very best people out there.”
“To be able to compete and win at that level says a lot about the quality of the journalism they’re doing there,” Willman said, referring to the Mississippi network. He has worked as an editor/mentor with MPB and other Southern pubradio stations in the “hub” project backed by NPR’s Local News Initiative.
Mississippi’s team has a lot going for it, Willman observed. “They are starting at a very high level and have some really good reporters,” he said. Collier, the news director, is “very good and interested in being aggressive and doing the best coverage that you can. When you have that combination, it’s a great recipe for success.”
MPB has another reason to celebrate its radio service. Local programs introduced early this year (see sidebar above), including the morning news show Mississippi Edition, helped expand the audience tracked in Arbitron’s winter 2008 measuring period. Mississippi Edition, which replaced the last half-hour of Morning Edition at 8:30 a.m. on weekdays, has boosted the network’s average-quarter-hour rating for the time slot by 15 percent over winter 2007, according to Jason Klein, director of radio.
MPB’s new 9 a.m. strip of morning talk shows, airing just after Mississippi Edition, had the biggest audience gains. Topics and hosts for the call-in programs vary from day to day — family issues on Mondays, animal care on Wednesdays and gardening on Fridays, for example — but the one with the smallest average-quarter-hour increase still has 60 percent more listeners than The Diane Rehm Show, the NPR talk program that MPB dropped.
The natural-sciences show Creature Comforts enjoyed the largest gain, 129 percent over Rehm. MPB’s audiences for NPR newsmags and its new evening block of national talk programs, which replaced satellite-fed classical music programming, are also up.
“The network as a whole,” Klein said, “just went through the roof.”
The year’s slate of national Murrow Award recipients includes NPR and six pubradio stations, plus the first-ever satellite broadcaster to win one, XM’s Bob Edwards.
NPR received two Murrows in the network radio division. “Rescuing the Wounded,” Guy Raz’s three-part report tracking the medical care of a wounded U.S. soldier from an Iraq battlefield to an Army hospital in Germany, won in the news series category. The reports were edited by Steve Drummond and aired on both Morning Edition and All Things Considered last October. “Sexual Abuse of Native American Women,” a two-part report in which Laura Sullivan examined the high occurrence of rape against Native American women in South Dakota and Oklahoma, won for investigative reporting. Both stories aired on All Things Considered and were produced and edited by Amy Walters, Maria Godoy and Drummond.
Bob Edwards’ National Murrow recognized “The Invisible: Children Without Homes” as best radio network news doc. Edwards reported the piece with producer Ariana Pekary for XM Satellite Radio’s Bob Edwards Show.
In the local station competition, WNYC in New York was the only pubradio winner in the large-market radio division. Its winning piece was “The Second Mom,” reported by Sara Martinez for Radio Rookies, a youth media training project and broadcast series.
Six national Murrows were went to pubradio stations in small markets:
Vermont Public Radio for its continuing coverage of climate change in 2007, including the week-long series, The Changing Climate; WFCR in Amherst, Mass., for “Love, War and PTSD,” a feature story by Karen Brown; South Dakota Public Broadcasting, for “Fire Gel,” a hard-news feature by Charles Michael Ray; Ann Arbor’s Michigan Radio, for “Ashes to Hope: Overcoming the Detroit Riot,” a news doc produced by Tamar Charney (also credited were editors Vincent Duffy and Lester Graham; narrator Christina Shockley; and reporters Steve Carmody, Jennifer Guerra, Sarah Hulett, Tracy Samilton and Duffy); North Country Public Radio in Canton, N.Y., for the news series “Farm to Farm, Family to Family” by David Sommerstein; and WGLT in Normal, Ill., for writing in a compilation of reports by Charlie Schlenker.
Apologies to Jason. We had his first name wrong in the print edition.
Sandra Knispel has worked with the network longer than indicated in the print edition story. She began freelancing for MPB in 2002 and became a part-time employee in 2006.
Web page posted Aug. 13, 2008, revised Aug. 25, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC
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