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Arts & Culture

Hitting The Streets — During A Pandemic

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Christopher Egusa says feeling like a "weirdo" when doing his job as a radio reporter is okay because what he does is important.

Now in my seventh month as an Audio Academy Fellow, I can technically say that I’m a professional journalist. That’s because… drum roll… I got paid! Twice! Here’s the story.

One of the great benefits of the Audio Academy is how it normalizes awkwardness. Hear me out. There’s an attitude that’s exemplified by KALW staff and reporters which is: “This is just what we do. This is our job.” It’s our job to walk up to strangers on the street and ask them questions. It’s our job to call people up who don’t always want to hear from us. It’s also our job to continue calling those people until we get an answer or a refusal to answer. It’s our job to get into people’s business. Ultimately, it’s our job to feel like weirdos.

There is, of course, a good way to do this (respectful, friendly, yet persistent), and a bad way (tabloid, paparazzi, etc.). But I think letting this attitude sink into me has allowed me to push past my own discomfort — both in actual reporting and outside of it.

This first story relates to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how journalism is ramping up in response. KALW is no exception, and as Audio Academy fellows, we have found ourselves right in the midst of it.

In early March, when a last minute request came in from NPR to gather “on-the-street” interviews about the coronavirus’ impact on people’s lives, I decided to go for it. But after being unable to reach the contact person, my newfound discomfort-tolerance kicked in. I called up the senior producer for All Things Considered to try and find out if they still needed this audio. To my surprise, he answered! The answer was yes, and he had specifics for me. So, the next thing I knew I was in downtown Oakland at night hanging out next to a popular taqueria asking strangers about their plans and concerns over what is now a global pandemic.

A day later I heard the tape I’d gathered air on NPR’s All Things Considered. A few days after that, at KALW we used different sections of the same tape to air a montage of local residents’ concerns and preparations. As I listened to both of these, I realized that without that persistence, neither would have been possible. I’m learning that it’s okay to feel like a weirdo when what I’m doing is important. In fact, it’s my job now.

The second story involves selling one of my pieces to KQED. In February, I put out my first story — a four minute piece in which I answered a listener’s question about why there are no billboards on I-280 (our series “Hey Area” is all based on listener questions). I felt like I’d done my best on the piece, but it’s hard to know if something’s actually any good until it airs and people start listening to it. When it aired, I felt like I was walking on stage, even though I was listening from the couch in my home. I felt both exposed and excited.

After it aired I got some positive feedback, and I felt pretty good about it. About a week later, someone from KQED reached out to me about buying the story. It turns out they have a podcast similar to Hey Area called Bay Curious, which also sources questions from listeners to investigate. In this case, the question asker in my piece asked the same question of KQED’s show. When their researcher sat down to look into the issue, my story popped up — answering the exact same question from the same person. They decided to purchase the rights to air it from me instead of creating an entirely new piece. In the process, I ended up going to KQED to re-record some of my lines, which was a great experience itself in that I got a glimpse of how another organization operates.

I’m the first to acknowledge that the circumstances of my story getting picked up were fortuitous. At the same time, it felt validating that my piece met a bar of quality — not as a trainee’s piece, but as a reporter’s. Learning a craft like audio storytelling can sometimes be an emotional roller coaster, and so this was a much-needed injection of confidence. Audio Academy is full of amazing support, but we do spend a lot of time learning, failing, and going back to the drawing board. That’s what it is to endeavor in a creative act. I’m learning how important it is to just keep moving forward, and trust that there will be highs as well as lows.