Arts & Culture

Q&A: RIPR’s John Bender talks reporting, empathy

RIPR journalist describes career trajectory in radio industry, intimacy of feature stories for listeners

By
Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2015

John Bender, a radio journalist for Rhode Island Public Radio, describes himself as the “man behind the scenes.” Bender researches stories for RIPR’s Morning Edition segment and records features on community stories.

Bender sat down with The Herald before his talk entitled “The Essentials of Radio Journalism” Thursday to discuss radio journalism, its place in the media landscape and his experiences in the field.

The Herald: What role did radio play in your life before you began your career as a radio journalist?

Bender: Radio was always on in my house, always on in the car. I was one of those kids who grew up with National Public Radio. My parents always listened to it. I had all those people floating around in my brain for years. I loved it since I was a small child.

I remember discovering “This American Life” and being totally blown away by how people were spending 60 minutes delving into peoples’ lives. It got into the nooks and crannies of life that other forms of media sometimes don’t have the time to do. NPR doesn’t have hard and soft news sections. Every story is treated with the same amount of respect because, however small, it’s how someone is leaving their mark on the world.

I remember always thinking that this would be the dream job. And it is a dream job because fundamentally you get to talk to people about things they’re passionate about. Everyone can be compelling and exciting if you get them to talk about something they love. The trick is getting it to be understandable. It’s your job to convey what they care about and translate it for the audience.

Was radio journalism something you always wanted to do?

I went to school for cello, actually. I did do a double major in English, but English felt very secondary. When I finished I didn’t want to go to grad school immediately, which is a natural progression for music. So I applied for an internship with Rhode Island Public Radio.

How did you find the learning curve when you first started working as a radio journalist?

When I started working two and a half-ish years ago, I modeled myself after my co-workers. I heard them all the time. I learned how they were wrestling with their job, with how to write a story.

I didn’t study broadcast journalism, so that definitely made things tougher in getting into the actual world of journalism, but I’d listened to NPR my entire life. So day one, I went in knowing what I wanted to eventually sound like. I just had no idea how to do it. I am very lucky to have the resources that I have at RIPR.

What do you see in radio that sets it apart from other media? Do you believe that radio brings something unique to reporting?

The big thing about radio is its intimacy. When you listen to radio — especially feature stories — it’s like that person is talking to you. They bring you into the story. It breaks down barriers that people have in news.

Radio also requires a lot of work on the part of the listeners as well. All the visual markers — the life — have to be evoked by sound. The listener has to imagine and infer and piece together what everything looks like. In doing that, I think the listener becomes more invested. With radio, there’s also a removal of visual judgment and prejudice that we have about people. There’s nothing to distract from what the person is saying. There’s something freeing about the medium itself.

Do you see radio as competing with television and print, or do you think they cater to different audiences entirely?

I don’t actually know about the demographics of our listeners, and I certainly don’t know about the demographics of people who are reading or watching other forms of news. I don’t know that we’re necessarily competing — we’re all reporting on the same stuff, but that just means that there’s a diversity of perspective for people. That said, we do like to think, however, that RIPR is where the youth hang.

How do you envision your listeners?

I like to think that they’re just sitting at home: rapt, staring and grinning. Maybe with a very poignant and reflective look, staring out of the window, thinking, “John just captured that so perfectly.” But in reality they’re probably just making breakfast, and that’s comforting, too.

— This interview has been edited for length and clarity.