Richard Copeland, senior producer for the Boise State Public Radio news talk show Idaho Matters, sat at a conference room table at the BSPR headquarters, pitching a story to the editorial team that would involve interviewing a Syrian Refugee for an upcoming show.
"It's just people telling their stories," he said. "It will all emerge. Tape it. Trust me. Shotgun [mic] this stuff—the gems are within."
It was a juicy story. According to the Agency for New Americans, 12,587 Syrian refugees were admitted into the United States in Fiscal Year 2016. In FY 2017, just over half that number were admitted, and in FY 2018, just 44 Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S., even as the civil war that has displaced them by the millions continues. The opportunity to talk with one of them, to shine a light on their plight for a listening audience in Idaho, is a tough one to decline.
As topical and newsworthy as the refugee crisis is, however, host Gemma Gaudette had practical concerns: how her team might overcome the language barrier for the story, and who would ultimately pay for a translator to render the subjects' Arabic into English. The radio show, she noted, couldn't exactly rely on subtitles.
"You have to have more than, 'We're going to bring them in,'" she said.
Copeland has produced radio programs in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; as well as in Las Vegas, Nevada. Gaudette has decades of experience as a television journalist across Idaho and in Tampa, Florida. To say their five-member team, which also includes longtime BSPR reporter Samantha Wright, and volunteers Robin Rausch and Norman Gunning, is well seasoned would be an understatement, but a few weeks into its run, Idaho Matters is still a laboratory—a radio talk show feeling out news values, technical abilities, limitations and the personalities of the staff that pumps it onto the BSPR airwaves at noon and 8 p.m., Mondays-Fridays.
The hour-long program, which officially kicked off April 23, neatly embodies the double entendre of its name. "Idaho Matters" could refer to matters of significance to Idaho, but it's also a statement that Idaho has a significance all its own. In that respect, it's a promise to localize national issues and unpack stories from communities across the Gem State, which it does in a four-segment format that includes pre-recorded and live interviews, 12-minute news reports and other story packages.
The show began generating buzz with its first episode, when it invited Idaho Statesman reporter Sven Berg in to discuss his April 22 feature story about a Southern Poverty Law Center report on hate groups, including a north Idaho church. The segment prompted one BSPR listener, Facebook user Jennifer Enriquez, to write about her disappointment: "You and your guest spent most of the time questioning a charitable organization and [less time] about the specifics of these churches on the Hate Watch." Speaking to Boise Weekly, Gaudette said inviting Berg onto the show was a chance to talk to a journalist about his story, not an independent news report.
"We got some feedback on it, like, 'You didn't show the other side of it,' and the goal of talking to the journalist for us was, he could be a neutral voice, and he could just talk about the story and the facts and what he uncovered," Gaudette said. "He said something about [how] the goal of this was to ask, 'Was the [SPLC] being fair when it made this list?' and I said, 'Well, so are they being fair?' and he said, 'It's not my job to decide if it's fair or not. It was my job to write about the facts.'"
Berg was among the first, but certainly not the last, reporter to appear on the show. Thus far, Idaho Matters has invited Statesman reporter Rocky Barker to talk about environmental issues, Melissa Davlin and Seth Ogilvie of Idaho Public Television's Idaho Reports program for a conversation about gubernatorial debates, and others, including BW's George Prentice. During the editorial meeting, reporters Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News and Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press Tribune were mentioned as likely recurring guests.
The program will rely heavily on newsies from across the BSPR coverage area for story-sharing and analysis, and since it's a talk show, the tone is conversational, giving in-the-know listeners an added dimension to the stories they've been following. For others, it's a point of entry for the news of the day. Most of the guests have hailed from the Boise area—the City of Trees is, after all, the state capital, as well as its largest city and media market—but Idaho Matters aspires to break the habit of leaning on Boise by reaching out to newspaper and television reporters in other markets north and east of the Treasure Valley.
In this regard, the flexibility of radio as a medium will give the Idaho Matters team an edge. Gaudette said she plans to make use of its portability and "take the show on the road" to the Magic Valley and beyond to report directly on matters of local importance. When packing up the team for a road trip isn't an option, she can conduct interviews by phone.
"You can do a phone interview and it can be live, and that gives us so much more reach; it broadens who we can talk to," Gaudette said. "We can talk to someone in Rupert and someone in Bellevue and all we have to do is pick up the phone. I think that's how we create that sense of place. It's not about the Great State of Ada; it's about Idaho. We just happen to be based in Boise."
The show is designed to meet listeners where they are—to, according to an introduction penned by Gaudette on the BSPR website, create "the local news/public affairs show of record." To that end, it will elicit listener participation via phone, email, Twitter, Facebook and the Idaho Matters email account, which has already begun receiving tips and input. In one early episode, correspondence from a listener was discussed on the air.
It's in this arena that BSPR General Manager Tom Michael expects Idaho Matters will distinguish itself from other call-in or talk radio programs. Being responsive to listeners is part of the station's mission, but there are perils to giving an open mic to callers.
"If you listen to sports radio in our market, you get the same group of people calling. [It's] oftentimes white, middle-aged males who pick up the phone," Michael said. "We find on the internet there's a lot of people on Twitter and diverse people doing stuff. We think with the callouts and the emails we'll reach people. It's not your father's call-in show."
A news talk show has been on the wish lists of numerous program directors, news directors and general managers for nearly 20 years, and Michael recalled the topic being broached early on in his tenure.
"It was part of a continuum of ideas we've had in the past, so we executed it," he said.
Michael was able to turn the show into a reality in part because of his prior experience. He came to Boise following more than 10 years at Texas-based Marfa Public Radio, which he helped found, and where he launched West Texas Talk, a daily interview program similar to Idaho Matters. In all, Michael said he interviewed "probably 1,000 people" during his time at MPR.
West Texas Talk isn't the only parent of the new BSPR program. Michael said it was influenced by numerous shows around the country, particularly Texas Standard, a national news show that reports on public affairs affecting the nation through a Lone Star State lens, and Think Out Loud, an Oregon Public Broadcasting show meant to "create a space in Oregon and southwestern Washington for a civil, engaged, far-ranging dialogue." The latter program has perhaps the strongest case for paternity. Its emphasis on community discourse provided a concrete model for Idaho Matters, and Michael noted that while Think Out Loud originated as a call-in program, it has since begun to embrace social media and other forms of audience engagement—strategies he and his team at BSPR built directly into Idaho Matters.
What sets Idaho Matters apart from its precursors is its four-segment format. It opens with a hot, newsy topic, but can segue into a longer-form interview, news analysis or, significantly, original reporting. In recent months, BSPR began working with Mountain West News Bureau reporter Amanda Peacher, an Idaho native with a long resume of reporting work across the region. Her addition is part and parcel to the station flexing its muscles in the newsroom.
"If someone were to say, 'Here's (blank) amount of money, I'd just as soon hire a news reporter," Michael said. "I came to the conclusion, and others convinced me, that [Idaho Matters] is a good use of our investment. If it doesn't amplify our news efforts, we're not doing things right."
Every week, Idaho Matters will generate five hours of original, local news and cultural content: approximately 1,000 segments per year. Its inclusion has been made possible by cutting one hour a day from the National Public Radio program All Things Considered, but Michael said framing it as a tradeoff between national programs listeners are accustomed to and his station's role as a local journalism powerhouse may be putting it too simply. Segments for Idaho Matters may become fodder for national programs, which will still get airtime on the station, and are accessible on the internet or the NPR One app.
"You can get those national shows easily," Michael said. "What makes Boise State Public Radio any different? We have to prove why you should listen to us, and I think the way to do that is through local impact, local journalists and community engagement."