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Will James ’09: Finding a Home in Audio Journalism

Will James headshot

Will James headshot

The following was written by Stony Brook School of Communication and Journalism alumnus Will James ’09. Will is currently a special projects reporter and producer at KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Washington. 

As a student at Stony Brook’s J-school, I dabbled in a couple mediums but there was one I was happy to ignore: audio. Commercial radio seemed corny. Public radio seemed quaint. Besides, I loved writing and was focused on becoming a serious sort of person: a magazine writer.

Twelve years after graduating, I now develop and produce podcasts and other special projects for my Seattle-based NPR station, including a series TIME named one of the 10 best podcasts of 2020. After years of wandering print journalism, I’ve found an unlikely home in audio.

As a freelancer in my early twenties, I filed a few news stories and one feature for WSHU, the Connecticut NPR station that covers Eastern Long Island. But most of my early career was spent as a staff reporter and freelancer at New York-area newspapers.

My path to audio ran through Central America. At my last newspaper job, I spent a year tracing the path of migrants from a mid-sized town in Guatemala to Eastern Long Island. I was trying to figure out how that path came to exist — how this town, San Raymundo, became so connected to, of all places, the town of Riverhead. 

Eventually, after studying Spanish and traveling to San Raymundo, I tracked down the first man who made the 3,000-mile journey to Riverhead in the 1970s, forging a link that has lasted generations.

After I filed a draft of the story, one of my editors called me into a conference room and sat me down. “We just don’t do these types of stories,” she said. After a year of work, the editors had decided to kill it. At a paper that revered hard-nosed investigations, this story seemed soft, amorphous. I sat there stunned. And then I asked: “Can I freelance it?”

For some reason, I had recorded all of my interviews on a high-quality digital recorder. Maybe part of me already sensed myself drifting away from print. I had enough material to turn the story into a radio feature for WSHU. Reporter Will James and a raccoon.

Then NPR picked it up. I didn’t have a radio at home, so I idled my car in a parking garage to hear Robert Siegel introduce it on All Things Considered to listeners all around the country. As soon as the story ended, I wanted to have that feeling again. I wanted to keep making audio.

That was in 2016. Less than two months later, I was packing up my car to move across the country for my first public radio job at age 29.

Looking back, there were elements of newspaper reporting that never quite jived with me. I liked to look past the churn of news and into dark, dusty corners nobody else seemed interested in. My newspaper editors rarely shared my enthusiasm. They always wanted a “peg.” In audio, reporters seemed to have more creative leeway. The fact that a story was interesting, illuminating, or emotional was often enough to justify its existence. 

The audio world, while smaller, also felt younger, more open to experimentation, and easier to move around in. The performance artist types who produced out-there podcasts like “The Heart” existed in the same world as buttoned-up NPR political reporters. At one conference I went to, judges handed out awards to both a story in which reporters chronicled a night in a Miami emergency room and another that was an intimate 13-minute conversation between two lovers breaking up. 

And then, after white-knuckling it through the precarity of newspapers, there was just something about moving to a corner of journalism that wasn’t shrinking and actually seemed like it was innovating and growing a little. In the years since J-school, podcasts had brought a mini renaissance to audio journalism. Public radio no longer seemed quite so quaint.

At Stony Brook, I was a music major for a semester or so before transitioning to journalism. Using sound to tell stories tapped some of the same drives and instincts I used as a musician. I still love writing. But my idea of “writing” has expanded to include not just the words I speak into a microphone but also the textures and rhythms of voices I capture, the ambient sound of rain or wind or traffic, pauses, and the scraps of music I sometimes use as narrative caulk. 

My favorite part of audio journalism is how its practitioners obsess over the craft of storytelling. The point isn’t just to convey facts, it’s to immerse the audience in another world or someone else’s inner life. The point is to give the audience an experience.

Every medium has its limitations. Print is better than audio at telling stories with more factual density. Stories packed full of data and information from documents are hard to convey in sound. But audio has an advantage when it comes to emotional density. The way a source says something — a waver in the voice or a pregnant pause — communicates subtleties that transcend formal language and can connect people in a primitive way. No medium is better at balancing head and heart.

Back in 2016, as I entered Seattle after my cross-country drive, I saw sprawling shantytowns in the shadows of overpasses. I devoted much of my reporting at my station, KNKX, to understanding homelessness on the West Coast, which had exploded even amid a tech-driven economic boom. In audio journalism, I found the freedom to turn that curiosity into a podcast, Outsiders, that TIME called a “narrative feat.” I’m still at KNKX, working on my next project.

I still miss newspapers. I miss the gravity that came from working at big, old institutions to which people devoted entire careers in that priestly way. I miss the people: wry, passionate, wise, world-weary, quietly heroic. It helps that, in audio, I’m surrounded by other newspaper refugees who can reminisce with me.

I spent the first seven years of my career feeling like I was mediocre at journalism, like I would have to wait years, maybe decades, before someone would give me a chance to show what I could do. But I was just an odd fit for a particular culture, and journalism has more than one culture. I wish I had found my place in this industry sooner. 

There’s a lesson or two in there. Institutions have cultures. Before you think of yourself as a failure, consider whether you might just be an awkward fit for the culture you’re in. A career in journalism these days requires a bit of experimentation. Don’t be afraid to amend the dreams you had in college. Don’t be afraid to pack up your car and start over. 

And record everything. You never know.

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