The Advanced Audio class at the J-school just launched a podcast called Rest Stop Radio, telling the stories of human beings on the road. The stories come from people driving along Montana’s section of I-90, which covers the most miles of the longest interstate in the US.
Students talked with travelers at I-90 rest stops and recorded the conversations to get each story. In case of a lull, students carried playing cards with questions written on them that their traveler could choose to answer too. The class voted on a set of questions prior to reporting that helped set them up for success. Asking anything from ‘what do you miss the most?’ to ‘what’s the deal with those pants?’ the cards led to more genuine and intimate reactions and opened the door to some reporting fun.
Cole Grant, a junior in the class, came up with the premise for the podcast at the beginning of the semester. “I’m used to traveling. I’m used to going up to random people and talking to them when I’m out and about, so it’s pretty normal, you just have the recorder.”
“The rejection they get out at the rest stop is really true to life as a journalist,” professor Jule Banville said. “It’s a great thing to interview strangers and get them to tell you intimate things about their lives.”
The recorder chased away a few potential travelers who were only willing to talk off-the-record. However, making a compelling radio piece out of a 15-minute conversation proved to be the most challenging aspect.
“It’s all kind of flying by the seat of your pants,” Grant said. “The roughest part is trying to bounce off what they’re saying and figure out if that’s the story. Usually you have the story and then you find the quotes, but here you’re finding the quotes and then digging in from there.”
The same week Rest Stop Radio premiered, NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg was in Missoula to deliver the annual J-school Dean Stone Lecture, and she stopped by Banville’s class.
“She was absolutely curious about what the students were up to. She listened to parts of the first and second episodes of Rest Stop Radio and was truly complimentary and supportive, but still told them what they could do to improve it,” Banville said. “She also loved the same thing I love about what the students are doing—how they’re doing these quick interviews that are actually meaningful because they’re getting people to talk about their lives.”
Grant hopes to continue the podcast over the summer when he’s not busy with his internship at MTPR. “It’s fun. I see no reason to stop, you could just do it yourself,” he said.
“It’s such a flexible idea. I think this project has tremendous potential,” Banville said. “Even Susan Stamberg said the students’ work sounds professional and fancy, and she would know!”
Rest Stop Radio’s first episode features a motorcyclist who used to run drugs on I-90, but turned his life around after an arrest. The pilot also includes a moving interview with a traveling IT professional who’s no longer able to spend much time with his kids. According to Banville, “The show ends on a funnier note—you’ll have to hear it for yourself.”
By Jana Wiegand