Michelle Billman is the news director for KUNR Public Radio in Reno
KUNR Public Radio in Reno, Nevada almost missed the story that ended up winning a 2018 national Murrow Award for best sports reporting in small market radio. The story highlights the city’s new professional soccer team, Reno 1868 FC, but it does more than that.
When I first started getting press releases about the team’s formation, I was going to assign one of my reporters to do a daily spot—just 45 seconds of narration with no sound bites. My coverage plan changed, however, when I got a pitch from Stephanie Serrano. At the time, she was a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and our first student reporter hired specifically to do bilingual work. She explained that for Reno’s Latinx community, this was big news. I still didn’t fully understand why, but I trusted her gut and told her to go for the story.
Stephanie ended up producing radio features in English and Spanish, along with creating a photo gallery and providing Facebook Live coverage while she was in the field. She followed about 50 members of the Battle Born Brigade, Reno’s first soccer fan club, as they marched to the stadium. Then, Stephanie interviewed player Junior Burgos:
“I was born in El Salvador and I came over when I was 12,” Burgos told her. “It was tough. When you're a kid you always think about the United States [being] like Disneyland and a happy country. When I came here I didn't know any English, so when I first enrolled into school I think that was my biggest challenge because I didn't know how to talk to the other kids, but I always played soccer, so that always allowed me to be myself.”
Junior explained to Stephanie that he frequently connects with his young fans by speaking to them in Spanish. He wants them to know that even though there are challenges, and they may feel isolated, they can succeed in America.
In under five minutes, Stephanie was able to tell a story that resonates far beyond any soccer team or sporting event. She gave voice to a struggle many children and their families are experiencing in this country by doing what the best reporters do—cultivating understanding and empathy through personal storytelling.
Now, I want to back up a bit to explain how Stephanie’s reporting came to be through a unique partnership that allows KUNR to hire bilingual student reporters. KUNR works closely with a multimedia, Spanish-English news outlet called Noticiero Móvil, which is run by the Reynolds School of Journalism at UNR. Vanessa Vancour is the professor and editor who manages that operation. Together, Vanessa and I co-mentor one or two bilingual student reporters each semester. Those students produce content in both English and Spanish for both KUNR and Noticiero Móvil.
Vanessa and I have spent the last few years experimenting with this process and have found a productive rhythm through trial and error. We’ve found that a collaborative editorial process works best. It’s a bit complex, but we’ve refined it over time. Here’s how it works:
- Generally, Vanessa provides mentorship on the front end by helping our students form their pitches and connecting them with data, contacts, and context related to the local Latinx community.
- After I approve a student’s pitch, I provide mentorship for script, audio, and web edits in English.
- Then, Vanessa and a professional translator assist the student with creating the story elements in Spanish.
- Ultimately, the English stories air on KUNR and are posted online, while Spanish stories are distributed digitally. We will soon be airing Spanish content on a local Spanish radio station as well.
- For social media promotion, we have the student reporters take ownership of posting in both languages for both of our media outlets across multiple platforms. It’s time-consuming, but the effort is worth it. Since many of our story sources within the Latinx community are being interviewed by KUNR for the very first time, they eagerly share the content with their own followers, which helps expand our audience.
Along with fine-tuning our workflow, we also agree on some “big picture” practices and ideals that keep us focused on our goals. I’m sharing these details in the hopes that other stations, large and small, will consider how bilingual storytelling can fit into their mission and values.
- First, we focus heavily on recruitment to make sure we are hiring students who have the language and time management skills to report bilingually. We often hire students who have participated in the NPR Next Generation Radio program, which is held annually at UNR. Read this article to learn more about why Next Gen is a great recruitment tool for local media outlets.
- One student at a time, we are creating a pipeline of bilingual journalists. In fact, Stephanie is now a professional reporter at KUNR, so the station is seeing long-term benefits from the training we’re providing for students.
- We believe in the value of this content and are committed to growing this partnership through open communication and continued experimentation. Our managers at KUNR and the Reynolds School of Journalism also believe in this program, which is huge. I’ve been told more than once by coworkers that providing bilingual content is not worth the time and resources for a small media outlet like KUNR. I’ve also been told that interns should be given grunt work only. I wholeheartedly disagree with both of these criticisms and, so far, ‘leaning in’ to this model has strengthened KUNR’s local programming. We are taking a more inclusive approach to our storytelling, which diversifies the perspectives at our editorial table and, ultimately, invites a variety of new listeners to engage with us.
- We know that having access to a professional translator is essential. Many organizations skimp on their translation resources, which can result in an embarrassing gaffe or can convey a lack of commitment to producing quality work.
- Whenever possible, we celebrate the victories. We’ve been experimenting with bilingual content for a few years now, and Stephanie’s national Murrow is helpful confirmation that we’re on the right track!