Faculty Q&A: Professor Jule Banville on Her New, Big Podcast, The ‘Happy/Crappy’ of Sabbatical and How To Keep up the Excitement in Journalism

By Kathleen Shannon

Jule in the studio. Courtesy photo.

J-School professor Jule Banville is back from a year on sabbatical, which she spent working on a podcast, due to launch in late October. Jule has done loads of audio in her career, but this show is more serious in nature than some of her other projects and podcasts: it’s a crime investigation. Jule sat down with graduate student Kathleen Shannon recently and below is a transcript of their full conversation, edited ever so slightly.  Read all the way to the end to get Jule’s crucial advice for podcasters and makers and creatives in general.

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Q: Tell me about being on sabbatical. 

A: You know, I set my pace reporting this project. I set my schedule. I did a lot of life-affirming reporting trips, [in] which I did discover that … if you’re really feeling lost or down about this profession, what you need is to get in your car and go talk to people. Go talk to people where they live. So, I was lucky and I was unlucky, in a way, because this pandemic happened during my sabbatical. I feel like a lot of smart university professors had plans to go to Europe or go somewhere tropical or somewhere fabulous. And my plan was to stay in Montana. And so, I adjusted and I decided to keep my sabbatical, even though most people obviously didn’t because they couldn’t travel. So, every trip I took was in my car. I saw a lot of Montana.  

The crime in my story happened in Billings. My main source is a woman in her 40s. She was raped when she was eight. She lives in Livingston, which is an amazing place to visit. If you’ve never been to Livingston, it’s the best. I got to spend a good amount of time in Livingston, and then another major source lives in Kalispell, so then I was up in the Flathead. And, I did quite a bit of reporting in White Sulphur Springs. I went to Portland, Oregon, too. It was really important for me to get in-person tape. So even though it was during the pandemic, you know, I wore a mask, I had a boom a pole. Some of my subjects were masked, and some of them were not. And I came through without getting COVID, so far. So, it was a challenge. It was a reporting challenge. But I chose not to do Zoom. I did some Zoom tape. But I mostly went and did and reported and I’m just so grateful for that time.  

It doesn’t always work out the way that you plan, especially when you’re pitching a huge narrative. And it took me a long time to sell the story. It’s a hard story. It’s not one that everybody wants to buy. I had a lot of meetings. I would get pretty far with different companies in the podcast industry. I would get to the point of like, ‘send me your budget’ and ‘yes, that looks good.’ And then it would still: ‘poof,’ go up in smoke. It was a huge process. I wasn’t super prepared for that part of it. I didn’t have a contract until late July. 

Q: Which company picked it up?  

It’s a subsidiary of a big reality TV company in Austin. The big company is Megalomedia, Inc. They have a podcast subsidiary that’s pretty small and easy to work with and they’ve been awesome. That’s called Mopac Audio, which is named after a highway in Texas. They’ve released several podcasts and one of them caught my attention. It was about the Long Island serial killer case. And, the victims were sex workers. The way that they did that podcast — I admired how fully developed those victims were. I got to know a lot about them, about their families, about the people who became their families when they went through hard things. So, I reached out to them because I liked their approach. And they’ve been really great. It’s a hard story. Not everybody wants to hear this story and they’ve championed it and they’re going to distribute it. They are working with me to produce it and mix it. They’ll sell the ads, they’ll distribute it on all the platforms. And, they’re paying me, which is nice. 

Q: Yay! So, I’ve heard about the character. What is the premise of the podcast? What are you exploring? 

A: It’s called “An Absurd Result.” Part of that is signaling to the listener, that this is not a podcast where you get to the end and you wonder “who did it?” It’s done. It’s over. We know who did things. So, it’s really a story that this survivor is willing to tell and wants to tell, after a long time of not talking about it. When I met her in 2015, she had never talked to a journalist. I met her through a friend of her sister. And Linda, who is my source, she was ready. She was kind of mad at that point. She was pissed, because they hadn’t charged someone who had been identified by DNA as her rapist. So, there was this limbo period before those charges were filed. She and I met then and we talked on tape for three hours that day. A lot of that is in my podcast, actually, so I was glad I recorded it. But, she really needed a quicker turnaround story. So, at that point, I put her in touch with newspaper reporters who did stories in Billings. She needed pressure on the prosecutors in Billings and she needed more people in Montana to know her story. Then I just kept up with her [through] these years, and I didn’t get a chance to take a sabbatical before I did. Then when I [came up with the idea for the podcast], I first got in touch with her. And I said, ‘if you want to do this, then I’m going to apply for sabbatical. And if you don’t want to do this, then I’m not going to pursue it. Because, I really need you. And … only if it’s something that’s positive for you. I’m not interested in re-traumatizing you or doing a story you’re not into.’ Unfortunately, with the way that things have gone for her, she said, ‘this is the first truly positive thing that’s ever happened in my case.’ So, she’s all in. Yeah, she’s amazing.  

Q: I know you’ve done other podcasts in the past. What did you learn that was new or different from this particular experience? 

Jule portrait by Kathleen
Jule on campus. Photo by Kathleen Shannon.

A: Well, a lot of what I have done in my career as far as radio, even when I was at WNYC, the stories that I was drawn to and the stories that I did there were quirky and fun. I was on the staff of a show called The Next Big Thing. It was a weird show where there were a lot of kinds of stories. A lot of different kinds of radio were welcomed on that show. I was the quirky correspondent. I did funny stories. This isn’t that. This was a really serious story. There was some investigation involved. There was definitely some calling people and knocking on doors and people who didn’t want to talk to me. So, I learned a lot. I learned that I can do it. You know, I teach reporting, I teach narrative, I teach audio, I teach all these things. And, I know that I can edit all these things, but this was a huge reporting challenge. And, I loved it. I love being a reporter. It’s actually really great. 

Q: So you’re reporting on a really serious incident. Were there moments where you were feeling down where you kind of had to lift yourself back up? What was the balance between the joys of traveling out on the road and the seriousness of this story? 

A: I would say that I never felt weighed down by the story. I always felt buoyed by it because I know that Linda wants to tell it. I know that Linda’s story is important. I know that it’s about her. So it’s heavy in the way that I better do a good job because she trusted me with this story. She was eight. You know, she was in her bed asleep. And this man broke into her house and did this to her. And now she just feels really ready and I’m just so grateful. For me, it’s [energizing], to be honest, because I get to be the one to tell her story this way. And it’s [a privilege]. It doesn’t bother me that it’s about something so hard. I definitely understand that from other people. When I was trying to sell it, that was tough. People are like, “don’t use that tape of her explicitly talking about the rape.” And I’m like, “but that’s how she talks about it. That’s what she says.” So that’s important for that, too. It’s a hard story, but I think what’s great about it is her. She’s awesome. And I never forgot who it was about.  

Q: I’m sure you and Linda spent a ton of time together.  

A: We did. And I hope we still do. But, yeah, she’s my source. It’s hard to have that separation when what happened to her was horrendous. And it’s not just the act itself, [it’s also] what happened with the law, which is a lot about what my story is about. You know, that’ll make you mad.   

Q: I assume you’re diving into a lot of legal documents and court proceedings in the podcast. How did that go for you?  

A: I was a cop reporter in a previous life, so some of that was kind of familiar. And one thing that I learned early as a cop reporter that was a benefit to me was you have to be nice to the people who actually control the information. So that’s clerks. When I was a cop reporter, it was dispatchers because they’re the ones who knew everything because they answer the 911 calls. You’ve got to go out of your way and not be fake at all because they can pick up on that. There’s a lot of people trying to butter them up. But yeah, I learned how to be nice to court clerks. That’s clutch. They are clutch people. I got lucky, too, because the defense lawyer in this case, who defended the guy who was charged with sexual assault without consent, there was a moment in his office, where there’s like ten boxes and he’s like, “yeah, you can look through these.” And several things that were really important to my story ended up being in there.  

Q: So now we’re going to play this game called “happy crappy” where you tell me one really great thing about sabbatical one bad thing about sabbatical. 

A: I love happy crappy. Yeah, we’re going to do that at my dinner table tonight. 

We moved our desks [at home] around during the pandemic, like everybody does. And so my desk moved into my bedroom. And, that happened to me once before when I was a freelancer and it was not a happy. It was crappy. Because, I didn’t have a focused project and so the desk was a little bit too close to my bed. [And now] I sort of wistfully look at the time I sat my ass down and I wrote a seven-episode narrative. I just did it! In a pretty short period of time. I just sat my ass down and wrote the story. And even though it was really hard, I did that. And I didn’t know that I could really do it. But I can, as it turns out. 

Yeah, crappy. I thought I was going to hike every day. I often go up the Sentinel fire road. And I was like, “oh, man, when I’m on sabbatical, I’m going to be on that thing every day.” I was so busy. I was working all the time. If I wasn’t planning a reporting trip, I was trying to get documents, I was trying to line up interviews, I was trying to sell the thing. That took forever. You know, it was lots of pressure. It was a lot of anxiety about having the story land somewhere because I was so tied to it and Linda, too. So, I didn’t hike. That’s crappy. I went for walks in my neighborhood and listened to other podcasts, which made me also more anxious. 

Q: What would you say to a student who has a podcast idea he/she is really excited about?  

A: I think on one level, make it. Just make things. That’s how you’re going to maintain your excitement about something and that’s how you’re going to learn. The other sort of prong of that is: listen. Listen to things that are like the things that you want to make. And you can’t listen as a consumer, right? You have to listen as a maker. You have to listen as a journalist to understand the decisions that this producer made, or this host made, or who are the multitudes of people who are making this thing? It takes a lot to pull off these kinds of projects. And it’s not impossible. I did most of it myself, but I’ve also been doing this for 20-odd years. I think that there’s a lot you can learn by making but I think there’s maybe even more you can learn by listening. 

 

Faculty Q&A: Fall ’21 Pollner Prof Jan Winburn on Traumatic Reporting

By Kathleen Shannon

Fall 2021 T. Anthony Pollner Professor Jan Winburn stands outside Don Anderson Hall on the University of Montana campus. Winburn is teaching a seminar on trauma and reporting this fall and advising the student newspaper, the Montana Kaimin. Photo by Kathleen Shannon.

Jan Winburn, this semester’s T. Anthony Pollner Professor, says most journalists will likely report on trauma at some point in their careers. That reporting, in turn, can be traumatic for journalists.

She’s now teaching a class, called “The Worst Day Ever: Writing About Trauma,” which aims to help UM students report on trauma both accurately and compassionately. She’s also advising the students at the independent student-run newspaper at UM, the Montana Kaimin.


While at home in Atlanta, Jan teaches in the University of Georgia’s MFA program in narrative nonfiction writing. Previously, she’s worked at The Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Hartford Courant and she spent a decade leading an investigative reporting team at CNN.

UM Journalism graduate student Kathleen Shannon sat down with Jan last week to learn more about her. The following is a lightly-edited transcription of their conversation.

Q: When did you get interested in trauma reporting?


A: I think probably a few years after the biggest trauma that had occurred in my life, which was the death of my brother in an airplane crash. That’s when I really got interested in: how do you talk to people who’ve been through the worst day of their life? And what actually happens after the worst day of their life? That’s what interests me most.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for young journalists to learn about trauma reporting?


A: I think it’s important for young journalists to learn about trauma reporting because very likely, in their first jobs, they’ll be thrown into a situation where they have to report on a fatal car wreck, a drowning, [or] someone losing their home in a wildfire. These are things that are traumatic experiences for people and for young journalists it can be traumatic for them, as well–even secondarily. So it’s good for them to know not only how to approach those interviews but also what impact it might have on them.

Q: What work from your career are you most proud of?


A: That’s really hard because I have to single out one reporter and I’ve worked with so many who’ve done tremendous work. I think a very recent thing I did just comes to mind because it was a young reporter. I worked on contract for an Atlanta newspaper to work with a reporter who basically solved a 40-year-old double murder. The wrong man was in prison, so [the writer] got him exonerated and he pointed the way to the probable suspect. Basically, they’d overlooked this guy because they thought his alibi checked out and the reporter just completely took apart the alibi. So, now that person is under investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and I think sometime not too far away will probably be arrested for that murder. But, the other guy is out of prison for the first time in 30 years. And the reporter, I must mention, is a guy named Joshua Sharpe. He won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for local reporting for that story this year and then he also just won a Murrow Award for it. So, I mention that one because it’s just so extraordinary that you have that kind of fairly immediate impact with a story. But, also because Joshua is 34 years old and if you look at the winners of the Livingston Award over history, those are the who’s who of journalism–people whose names you know today. I think it just took such extraordinary effort and belief in [himself], really, that [he] was onto something. It’s called “The Imperfect Alibi” it was published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Q: What do you think of Montana and the University so far?


A: Well, this morning I was walking my dog and there were police cars with sirens on my street and I was like, “what’s going on?” and it was a bear! They were chasing a bear out of the neighborhood. I was so excited! It ran right past me and my dog! It was 12 or 13 feet away. It was exciting, right? So, I’m in love already with this state and this town and this campus. I mean, it’s so beautiful and people are friendly. I went up to Glacier [National Park] for a few days before school started and I really scored big for my first visit to Glacier: I saw a moose and a bear! So, this was actually my second bear, but this one was much closer. So far, I love it. And the students have really been impressive. People are really passionate about why they’re in this J-School and what they’re wanting to do with their lives.

The Pollner Professorship, which brings nationally-renowned working journalists to the University of Montana School of Journalism each semester, was established to honor the memory of Anthony Pollner, a 1999 graduate of the School of Journalism. After Anthony died in an accident in May 2001, his friends and family created an endowment that makes this professorship possible. In 2014, friends and family expanded the endowment to allow a distinguished professorship in both fall and spring semesters. 

Q&A With Podcast Superstar Nora Saks, MA: ‘You Can Be Pretty Creative About What You Do With This Degree’

Nora Saks is the host and reporter for MTPR’s podcast, The Richest Hill which, follows the past, present and future of a famous Superfund site in Butte, MT. The podcast was named one of the “Best Podcasts of 2019,” by The New Yorker magazine and it has become popular in and outside of Montana.

Nora Saks graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Journalism with her MA in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism and Richest Hill was born out of her master’s thesis.

Graduate student Sierra Cistone chatted with her about the podcast and her time in graduate school. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Nora Saks is the host and reporter for MTPR’s podcast, Richest Hill photo credit: Grant Clark

What made you want to pursue a MA in journalism?

I spent about a decade almost as an organic farmer … and I think over time I realized I was interested in subjects like food justice and farming, but really what I enjoyed more than anything was listening to the farmers and hearing about their life experiences and backgrounds. And, that mostly got me interested in storytelling.

Eventually, I realized, ‘what is a job I could do that would let me keep learning, would let me talk to lots of people and walk a few steps in their shoes and have all kinds of adventures but do it with a purpose?’ And, I think that’s ultimately what led me into journalism.

Is there a class that was really helpful for practicing skills that you use today?

I remember Investigative Reporting being pretty helpful … that was when we had just the worst smoke season and Seeley Lake was just inundated with wildfire smoke. I am pretty interested in public health and environmental justice. So, Joe Eaton who is the instructor of that, taught us some good investigative reporting and research basics and then I decided to focus on the health impacts of prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke. I think having that class was a baseline for doing that work and I ended up getting two stories on NPR that were born in that class.

How did your idea for Richest Hill get started?

When I was reporting the radio documentary for my master’s it was on a much smaller piece of this puzzle. That was what my project [master’s thesis] was on and throughout that process of reporting that for months I realized “oh there are a lot of things happening right now in Butte around Superfund, not just what this activist group is focused on.” 

And, that’s what made us think, “oh this is a much bigger story…”

What was one of the biggest take-aways from the early episodes of producing Richest Hill?

There were a lot of people involved but I think some of the people who showed up in some of the early episodes come back. You never really know if you’re doing a project like this, who you are going to want to come back to and who might end up being a bigger presence.

So, I think keeping those relationships for your sources solid and up to date and as trustworthy as you can is pretty important if you are doing a long project.

Nora Saks interviews Mark Thompson with Montana Resources for Richest Hill. Courtesy photo.

What would you say to anyone considering pursuing a graduate degree in environmental journalism at UM?

For me the people and the relationships that came with those other students and the faculty — I probably didn’t really appreciate fully at the time and I’m only now beginning to understand how vital they are. 

I guess to anyone who’s worried about putting themselves in a box by doing this degree, I would say you don’t need to worry about that… Having an area of specialty or expertise is really useful and the coursework I did in school, as well as the research I did on my own in reporting, I think it’s actually really broad and kind of exciting in that way..

I think there are a lot of directions you can go with it and you don’t need to worry about getting pigeonholed and you can be pretty creative about what you do with this degree.