NOT JUST ANY ORGANIC BLUEBERRY FARMER – KNKX host Ed Ronco, right, has a nose for news: for KNKX Connects, live from the Mount Vernon library, he sniffed out Harley Soltes, interviewing the former Seattle Times photojournalist now living the dream in Bow. The scoop? This “is the hey-day of small, organic farming.” – Photo by Ken Stern
For fans of public radio, last Thursday offered the best of both worlds. Regular area listeners were able to see as well as hear the local afternoon broadcast of All Things Considered, the flagship news program of the National Public Radio (NPR) network, during a special three-hour KNKX (88.9) live session at the Mount Vernon city library. Over 100 people filed into the library’s reading room on a come-and-go basis to attend the Tacoma station’s broadcast, highlighted by on-air and pre-recorded interviews touching on a wide range of Skagit Valley themes and topics. Host Ed Ronco said he and producer Geoffrey Redick had spent a couple days here earlier this month doing research and conducting interviews, then returned this week for additional field work and to write the program’s script. It marked the fifth segment of KNKX Connects, a regional reporting project whose prior broadcasts have aired from Port Angeles, Bellingham, Lewis County, and the Grays Harbor area. The Skagit program features included Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau; the North Cascades Highway and nearby glacial areas; the Bread Lab; Trumpeter Swans – a Fir Island chorus, recorded; the area’s diverse manufacturing sector; former Seattle Times photojournalist-turned blueberry grower Harley Soltes; Sedro-Woolley oncologist Dr. Binay Shah; Matt Malyon and his “underground writing” project involving juvenile offenders; librarian Laura Schumacher, live; and the ground-breaking Burlington-Edison School District campaign to encourage Latino students to consider entering the teaching field.
The result was a smooth, compelling format tightly woven with the kind of insightful storytelling of which NPR listeners have long become accustomed. It was also fun. Ronco drew chuckles and applause, for instance, when he seamlessly transitioned from the piece on swans and snow geese to a traffic update, noting that the on-scene reporter had also been “listening to honking all afternoon.” La Conner High English and Journalism teacher Bryan Milliren took note both figuratively and literally. Milliren arrived at the broadcast after having met with his two dozen La Conner High student reporters earlier in the day. “Absolutely,” Milliren said when asked if attending the All Things Considered broadcast was beneficial. “It helps inspire me to go back to the classroom and share what real life journalism is all about. I want the students to gain an appreciation for all forms of journalism – newspapers, magazines, radio and television.” Ronco and Redick were ideal models for that. Ronco spent eight years in print journalism before transitioning to the radio side about a decade ago. Redick said he grew up with the voices of NPR in his home. Redick would eventually serve as a producer for Bob Edwards, famed for his lengthy run on NPR’s Morning Edition program. “Geoff produced Bob Edwards,” KNKX President and General Manager Joe Cohn quipped, “but I produced a 23-year-old daughter. The teamwork necessary for the Skagit project drew upon Ronco’s and Redick’s respective and varied media backgrounds while still promoting a common goal – reaching deeply into the Skagit community and reflect its voices for a wider audience. Localizing national stories is a big part of the KNKX mission, Ronco and Redick said. “The worst thing we can do,” said Ronco, “is go someplace and tell people about themselves.” The aim, then, becomes one of sharing with local listeners what they likely don’t know about a particular region and its residents. For the Skagit broadcast, KNKX recognized the valley’s bountiful agriculture, but also shed light on lesser known parts of the area’s economy, from shipbuilding to aircraft customization. Ronco said the Falconer family, whose financial support has made KNKX Connects possible, is committed to broadcasting stories generated outside the Seattle-Tacoma metro area. “So,” said Ronco, “we’re always talking with people and coming up with ideas to help us tell stories that others find interesting.” Redick, an Ohioan, says it can take large blocks of time – sometimes hours – to develop a polished four-to-five minute story for radio. But, he said, it’s time well invested. “I’m still learning about this part of the world,” Redick said, “so I’m letting my natural curiosity drive me.” Patience and curiosity paid dividends with the Soltes feature, a live interview. The KNKX team prepared questions that traced his evolution from the Seattle Times dark room to blueberry bushes on Bow Hill. “I was there shooting film in the hey-day of photojournalism, when it was important,” said Soltes, interviewed live by Ronco at the library, “But now (with digital cameras) everybody’s a photographer.” His focus today is on what’s truly a growth industry. “Now,” Soltes said, “is the hey-day of small, organic farming.” Soltes said he enjoyed working at The Times but is glad to be far removed from Seattle’s infamous traffic congestion. “I would never leave the Skagit,” he vowed. By show’s end, Ronco and Redick seemed reluctant to go as well. After leisurely milling around at the library and posing for pictures they joined a 90-minute gathering at Skagit River Brewery. A good time was had by all. For the entire KNKX crew, the Skagit visit was a gem – all things considered, and then some.