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Vermont Public Radio 2017 Murrow Entry: Innovation

Brave Little State
Aaron Shrewsbury

"What's the most creative, engaging & inclusive way we can answer this question?" That's the starting point for every episode of Brave Little State, Vermont Public Radio's monthly people-powered journalism podcast.

Guided by audience questions about Vermont that were submitted and voted on through the trailblazing Hearken platform, Brave Little State undertook a number of ambitious questions in 2017, from "Why Is Vermont So Overwhelmingly White?" to "What Would It Look Like If Vermont Seceded?"; the podcast consistently broke the mold by finding innovative ways to deepen understanding and enrich the audience experience.

A few examples of our methods:

To answer audience questions, we looked back to ... our audience. In March, we took on a question from Janette Shaffer of Middlesex about the tired barns that dot Vermont's landscape: "Why are so many Vermont barns left to fall down on their own, rather than be taken down?" As part of our answer to Janette's question, we asked our listeners & readers to send us photographs of the falling-down barns in their lives. We received a slew of wonderful images & stories, and curated them into an interactive map.

[Related episode: A Tribute To Vermont's Falling Down Barns. This episode won a 2017 Hearken Champion of Curiosity Award for Best use of visual medium: Photo]

And when Susan Boston of Woodstock asked us what it's like for Vermonters who are working multiple jobs at the same time, we collected input from folks across the state for a waterfall of voices that preceded our deep-dive profiles:

Listen to waterfall of Vermont voices describing their experiences working three jobs.

[Related episode: Vermont Hustle: What It's Like To Work 3 Jobs]

We involved our question-askers in field interviews. In April, question-asker Mike Brown, of Winooski, attended every interview for our episode on Vermont's sewer systems, traveling across the state, from Burlington to Montpelier to Rutland. Mike's devotion was so extraordinary that he was awarded a 2017 Champion of Curiosity Award, judged by the Hearken community, for "Best participation by a question-asker."

Mike's presence in the interviews helped us stay grounded during wonky stormwater discussions, and also shared his thought process as his own views changed during our reporting.

Hear excerpts of the episode that feature question-asker Mike Brown.

[Related episode: What Can Be Done About Vermont's Aging Sewer Systems?]

Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR
Brave Little State question-asker Mike Brown, center, peeks into the inner workings of Rutland's stormwater management infrastructure during a personal tour with Jeff Wennberg, Rutland's commissioner of public works, right.

Meanwhile, in July, Carl Christianson of Weathersfield wanted to know how Vermont's part-time citizen legislators balance their public service with the demands of careers and families. As part of our reporting, Tristan traveled with us to the American Legion kitchen where House whip Tristan Toleno runs his restaurant business, and quizzed Toleno about his work/life balance.

Listen to question-asker Carl Christianson explain his curiosity, and kick off our investigation with Vermont House Rep. Tristian Toleno.

[Related episode: Low Pay, Weird Schedule: Who Can Pull Off The Legislator Lifestyle?]

We turned to the literary arts. For a question Katie Dooley of Hinsburg shared with us in October, about what it would look like if Vermont were to hypothetically leave the union, we invited environmentalist Bill McKibben to read from his debut novel, Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance. The book imagines that an underground secession movement takes hold in Vermont, and was released in the same month as our episode. We also commissioned an original poem by a Vermont poet/farmer from Chelsea:

Hear Taylor Katz read her poem, 'Vermont On Its Own.'

[Related episode: What Would It Look Like If Vermont Seceded?]

We went deep. Often, our audience is curious about the lived experiences of their fellow Vermonters. In February, when listener Eva Gumprecht of Adamant asked us why Vermont is so darned white, we created an episode that mixed cultural history with candid interviews with Vermonters of color. Here, Wayne Miller talks about what it's like driving around Vermont's back roads.

Hear Wayne Miller describe his experience as a person of color in the predominantly white state of Vermont.

[Related episode: Why Is Vermont So Overwhelmingly White? This episode won a 2017 Hearken Champion of Curiosity Award for "Favorite story that would not have been assigned in a traditional editorial process."]

And when we got a question from Hannah Lindner-Finlay of Westminster West, in May, about what it's like to be a migrant worker on a Vermont farm, we spoke to both undocumented and documented foreign workers, and tagged along with a group of Jamaican men during their weekly grocery shopping trip.

Brave Little State tags along with a group of Jamaican farm workers during their weekly grocery trip.

[Related episode: What's It Like To Be A Migrant Worker In Vermont?]

Credit Angela Evancie / VPR
Daine Smith loads his groceries into a school bus that has been re-christened as a "Cool Bus." The Jamaican men who work at Harlow Farm drive the Cool Bus into Bellows Falls and across the Connecticut River into New Hampshire on Fridays to shop.

Finally, we found fascinating details and nuances in the answers to seemingly straight-forward questions. To answer a question about the history of the Underground Railroad in Vermont, shared with us by Carlie Krolick of Charlotte in September, we teased apart long-held local rumors and compared them to the historical record:

This excerpt juxtaposes a primary source document with a breakdown of a long-held local rumor.

[Related episode: What's The History Of The Underground Railroad In Vermont? This episode won a 2017 Hearken Champion of Curiosity award for "Best mythbuster."]

Credit Raymond Zirblis / Friends of Freedom: The Vermont Underground Railroad Survey Report
Friends of Freedom: The Vermont Underground Railroad Survey Report
Houses owned by Vermonters that were documented to have sheltered fugitive slaves in the decades before the Civil War.

And when Sam Libby asked us, for our January episode, to give a basic overview of Vermont's coyotes — "What are their lives like? What do they eat?" we found a scientist who has studied coyote hows, "vocalizations," and he helped us decode the meaning of the evocative, haunting coyote howl.

Coyote as a second language? Hear ecologist Brian Mitchell decode the meaning behind the animals' yips, barks and howls.

[Related episode: What's The Deal With Coydogs?]

Credit Susan Morse / Keeping Track, Inc.
Keeping Track, Inc.
An eastern coyote, as photographed by naturalist and tracker Susan Morse.

Thanks for your consideration!

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