National Awards (in chronological order)
In 1997 I won a national Clarion Award for Excellence in Journalism for a story I reported on about a woman who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had been denied health insurance coverage for a potentially life-saving treatment. The insurer, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Vermont, covered the treatment in a neighboring state - an hour's drive from where the woman lived.
When the story aired (alas, no audio archive exists), it evoked a strong reaction from hundreds of listeners who called or wrote the station - and the insurance company. About three days later, Blue Cross backed down and said it would provide coverage.
As it turned out, the company's reversal bought the woman patient an additional five years, after which she succumbed to the cancer.
We radio reporters rarely archive the texts of our stories. I think this is because they're in the form of scripts - in fact that's how we refer to them - which somehow don't seem as worthy as print reporting copy. Somewhat oddly, the transcript for my ovarian story was preserved.
You can find the transcript here - complete with what we call "mix instructions."
Besides the company's quick turnaround - and the Clarion - this story was unique for me in a number of ways, not all of them positive. One small thing bugged me: the woman's husband in essence conned me into believing that he had stood behind his wife throughout her travails and that's what I reported.The truth as I later discovered was that he had left the marriage a few years earlier and he only recently moved back in. I felt manipulated. One of the pitfalls of investigative journalism of any sort is finding yourself following somebody else's agenda, which how, in retrospect, I felt. In all, I believe the story was fair and balanced (I quote the insurance guy over 10 times in the piece) but the manipulation taints the accolades a little bit.
I won several Edward R. Murrow awards in my career. The first was for a pair of stories I produced comparing two Vermont elementary schools situated less than ten miles from each other.
At the time - 1997 - Stowe Elementary School - located in a prosperous ski resort town - spent more than $10,000 a year per student. Just down the road in the much poorer town of Eden, Vermont, the Eden Central School spent $2400 a year per student - less than a quarter of Stowe's average cost.
I spent a day in each school. I deliberately chose elementary schools because the kids were younger and, from what I had seen, the education experience much less complicated than in high schools.
The two stories explored the difference in quality of education as reflected in the day to day learning environments and resources available in each school. The Stowe school was fully wired for Internet and had the latest computer models, while Eden had a small pile of broken Apple IIs. The Stowe kids had use of a shiny new gym and the latest textbooks but the Eden kids had no gym at all and had to make do with history books that (in 1997) still had John F Kennedy as president.
I interviewed teachers, students, guidance counselors and the principals. I also happened upon some parents who volunteered at each school. One Stowe parent in particular was quite outspoken when I asked her what she would say to Eden parents about the Stowe school being able to spend four times per student what Eden could. Her answer was quite callous - kind of a "let them eat cake" sort of retort. Of course I used this quote in the story. Years later, long after the hub-bub had died down, her husband happened to be a guest on one of VPR's talk shows. He was still mad at me. "My wife wants her voice back," he said to me.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the reaction to the series was quite loud and quite mixed. As one of the state's richest communities, Stowe had an inordinate number of residents who were avid VPR listeners and supporters. Many did not appreciate the series, some cancelled their membership. On the other hand, the ACLU which was then preparing a landmark lawsuit against the state for its lack of equity in education funding, referenced the stories in its brief to the Vermont Supreme Court which in early 1998 handed down its historic Brigham Decision (named after elementary school student Amanda Brigham who lived in Whiting, like Eden one of the poorest communities in the state. The state legislature than enacted one of the most controversial laws in state history - known as Act 60 which through re-distribution sought to equalize state spending on education. Ironically, my reporting on Act 60 for NPR and VPR was heavily criticized by the ACLU and other supporters of the law and culminated in me bing branded a "right-wing journalist" by a local newspaper columnist.
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Here's another story - a much less controversial one - that I won a Murrow award for, this time not as the reporter but as producer, for Best Use of Sound. My reporter Vickie Carr profiled a unique program called the Fairy Godmother Project, which gives away prom dresses and accessories to teens who can't afford them. The trick was to seamlessly mix the audio from a three hour sales event into a three minute piece. Take a listen above.
The following series I produced also won Murrows. Please click on links to listen:
- 2008 Part one of two part, 50 story series Fresh Water, Salt Water.
- 2009 Part two of series Fresh Water, Salt Water 2
- 2010 Ten part series on Special education in Massachusetts Educating Everyone
- 2011 Four part series on Sex Trafficking in New England
In 2007, my reporter Sean Corcoran and I won the prestigious duPont-Columbia Award for the Best in Broadcast Journalism. The du Pont is judged and awarded by the Columbia School of Journalism and voted on by the same committee as awards the Pulitzer prize to print journalists. The year we won, we were the only radio station in the nation to win. So at perhaps the price of modesty, I like to think for that one year our work represented the very best radio journalism done in the nation that year. That's a nice feeling.
We won for a series of twenty stories called Two Cape Cods: Hidden Poverty on the Cape and Islands. The series grew out of a series of reports the station had been doing on the area's quality of public education. I had noticed a disturbing trend: there were consistently higher percentages of students receiving free lunch and reduced lunch than there were percentages of the population listed as below the poverty line. For example, the town of Barnstable - which contains the village of Hyannis, home of the Kennedy compound had an official poverty rate of less than 10%. Yet more than 40% of the kids at Barnstable schools were receiving free lunch which required that they came from households with incomes below the poverty line. Homelessness was also at a very high level. as were the number of full time, year-round undocumented workers earning far less than minimum wage. Food bank officials told us that they could no longer keep up demand. Doctors and particularly dentists said they could not begin to handle the number of Medicaid-eligible patients asking for their services.
At the time, our little station could barely afford to pay for even one full time reporter. But I appealed to my boss to allocate enough money to hire freelance reporter Sean Corcoran - to take on the poverty project full time. It took a few months but we were able to find the money to do so. Sean did the field reporting, I did the editing and production. We aired the series in the summer of 2006 - one story per week.
There was no reaction. Not a single response from anyone in our listening area.
We decided to re-air the series in the fall only this time a story a day, every weekday for four weeks. This time the response was phenomenal. The series touched a nerve
WGBH still maintains the complete audio of Two Cape Cods on its site. You can listen to the series here.
PRNDI awards are given out by my fellow public radio news directors and editors for the year's best work The newsrooms I've managed have won several PRNDI's including for Best Newscast, Best News series. Best Features.
In 2005, my series "A Well-lighted Place: Gay Lives and Communities on Cape Cod" won a Best Feature PRNDI (as did our coverage of gay marriage). I say "my" series because "Well-lighted" was all my own reporting (with help from then intern Elsa Heidorn, now a reporter at WCAI) and turned out to be my last major project as a reporter. My job at WCAI was as program director which limited the amount of time I could spend on actual reporting. I continued to file stories semi-regularly to NPR (being at the time the only program director in the country still filing to NPR). But my bosses at WGBH and I agreed that I should limit my own reporting.
Letter from Vermont Gov. Howard Dean
(original signed copy in frame)
Office of the Governor –November 17th, 2000
It has come to my attention that you are leaving Vermont Public Radio to pursue other interests in the world of public radio. I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate all the work that you have done to build a news department at VPR.
Five years ago there was very little local news on VPR. Today you have a news department that has won many state and national awards, including best newscast for a local public radio station!
I am sure that these honors are the work of many people. But I am also confident that your leadership as news director played a critical role.
VPR offers its listeners in-depth stories of important issues facing the state, and your comprehensive coverage of Act 60 and the new Civil Unions law gave Vermonters a much better understanding about the importance of these laws.
Vermont’s loss is Cape Cod’s gain. Best of luck in the future!
Sincerely, Howard Dean, M.D.
A Little Thing Called the Nobel Peace Prize...
No, not to ME. Rather here's a TED Talk given by my former reporter Alison Freeland on her first assignment with me: interviewing Nobel recipient Jody Williams.