the art of storytelling

by brenton crozier
Talking about his simple pleasure, scenic road television show, On the Road, Charles Kuralt said “Interstate highways allow you to drive coast to coast, without seeing anything.” This is the approach we’ve adopted at State of the Re:Union. Between the internet and 24-hour news channels, it’s easy to get the breaking stories and headlines at a moment’s notice. But when you funnel a particular city or area strictly through the lens of headlines, it can create the impression of chaos, incessant conflict and even despair. This form of information consumption neglects the building blocks that are being constructed within communities to bring people together, highlight how people are transcending challenging circumstances and how neighborhoods are being molded into what they should be, all underlined by the vital cultural narratives of an area.
State of the Re:Union (SOTRU), is a nationally-aired public radio show that is distributed by NPR in conjunction with PRX, and is headquartered in Jacksonville. I’m the Multimedia Producer for SOTRU, and with that disclosure, I hope you will now allow a switch to third person.
SOTRU has released the first half of its first full season. The five episodes that make up the spring season visit a diverse selection of cities and towns and cover a wide range of topics that go to the very core of the respective community being featured. Although SOTRU is a sort-of antithesis to what is now considered mainstream media, it doesn’t shy away from hard topics or candy coat stories to achieve a sunshiny gloss. Rather, it takes listeners down those back roads that often get bypassed. Host Al Letson, who blends his background as a flight attendant, poet and playwright, approaches each location with a sincere curiosity. In using this tact, the show often bypasses the normal talking heads of a subject and explores how something is affecting the people involved on the ground level, starting a conversation rather than supporting a thesis.
The first five episodes covered Brooklyn, NY, Greensburg, KS, Milwaukee, WI, New Orleans, LA and Oakridge, OR.
Brooklyn, NY – Change Happens
Change Happens follows a number of avenues through New York City’s most populated borough. Included in the episode is the exploration of Atlantic Yards, the biggest development project in Brooklyn’s history. SOTRU talks to residents on both sides of this impassioned argument and how it is affecting the chemistry of the community.
Greensburg, KS – To the Stars through Difficulties
It only took one night in May of 2007 for the town of Greensburg, KS, to get wiped off the map. But the residents endured and not only decided to rebuild, but to reinvent as a green town. Listen to the path the town took to going green, the concerns of those who feel it’s not the right thing for the town and the renewed faith many in the area have about what they feel is a promising future.
Milwaukee, WI – City of Vision
Milwaukee has suffered the same fate as so many other American rust belt cities. This episode explores the resiliency with which its residents have poised the city for a rebirth. From an inner-city assisted living facility for seniors that’s changing the surrounding neighborhood to the big urban farming movement, SOTRU examines Milwaukee’s shift towards renewal.
New Orleans, LA – The Big Easy
Almost everyone is feeling “Katrina fatigue” and that is why it makes examining New Orleans more important than ever. The episode takes a look at how residents are fighting the spike in violence and the ever changing demographics of this beloved city.
Oakridge, OR – A Work in Progress
What happens when the largest employer in a small town closes its doors? Oakridge was once considered the “Heart of the Timber Empire” but is in a fight to regenerate its identity. This episode not only explores the impact of what happens when jobs leave, but the momentum this picturesque town has with new businesses opening and on the cusp of a new identity.
Although the subject matter in each episode is weighty, they all feature stories that give the listener a breather, focusing on the undiscovered music of an area or the more whimsical elements of a community’s culture.
When SOTRU began the season, the goal was to play in 75 markets. They are already being picked up in more than 110 markets and growing. I asked Al Letson, the show’s creator and host, a few questions about the first half of season one and the importance of being based in Jacksonville:
What was the biggest challenge in producing the first five episodes?
Al: I think each part of the operation had a different challenge. For me it was keeping my head straight. What I mean is, I’d be in New Orleans reporting on that city, writing the script for the city we just left, and preparing to go to another city after leaving NOLA. It was a challenge to keep it all rolling.
What was the story that moved you the most?
Al: They all touched me in some way. Greensburg though, was very special. When I was writing the end of the show, I had to stop several times because I’d just get overwhelmed with emotion.
Where do you see SOTRU going?
Al: No idea where we are going. The entire staff has a wish list, we’ll follow the stories that sing.
Did the first half of the season come out like you expected?
Al: I don’t know what I expected. I’m very happy though. I’m really proud of the team Ian (Ian DeSousa is the show’s Creative Director and Co-Executive Producer) and I put together. They have been incredible, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.
How important is it keeping SOTRU headquartered in Jacksonville?
Al: This is home. I love this city. I don’t want to be anywhere else. Many local organizations like WJCT and the Sanctuary on 8th Street, and many individuals in the community, have helped me get to where I am. I want to honor that, and stay here and keep giving back to the place I love.