Listening and Storytelling at RIPR: An Interview with Torey Malatia

As a long-time public radio listener, I was giddy to step inside the studios and office spaces “where the magic happens” at Rhode Island Public Radio (RIPR) and to meet the voices and minds behind some of my favorite radio programs…including RIPR’s President, Chief Executive Officer, and General Manager, Mr. Torey Malatia. On a sweltering June afternoon, I join RIPR’s Chief Operating Officer, Susan Greenhalgh, for a tour of the radio station and conversation with Mr. Malatia.

As we navigate RIPR’s maze of offices and cubicles, the staff to which Ms. Greenhalgh introduces me effuse a collective energy of dedication and enthusiasm. We peek inside Studio B to see News Director, Elizabeth Harrison, and Reporter, John Bender, hard at work around the studio’s central table. The arms of different colored microphones seem to protrude from the tops of their heads. They explain that they are testing sound playback. Studio B also plays host to political roundtables, one-on-one interviews, and general planning. Leaving them to their work, Ms. Grenhalgh and I walk down the narrow hallway to the main event: Studio A.

We catch RIPR’s afternoon host, Dave Fallon, in the act of planning his next broadcast. Studio A is a trapezoidal-shaped room, much like a performance auditorium, with a gridded, acoustic sound wall at the back, and sound equipment flanked by four large monitors at the front. Mr. Fallon indicates the clock (on which he says everything is based) and Red Phone Light (the emergency phone number to which very few people have access) bolted to the front wall just above seated eye level. The old-timey-looking recording box next to the door, he says, is still “technically on duty,” its last use having been during solar-activity-induced satellite interruptions. After one last look at the room that wakes up to Chuck Hinman’s Morning Edition and winds down the day with Fallon’s All Things Considered, I follow Ms. Greenhalgh to Mr. Malatia’s office.

Photo by James P. Jones/Photography RI

Mr. Malatia greets me with a welcoming but gentle smile and a firm handshake. The ticks of the antique clock behind him punctuate his thoughtful silences throughout our conversation. I begin by asking Mr. Malatia about what makes Rhode Island a special place for public radio. “I haven’t been around the Northeast much,” he tells me. Having spent most of his time in the Midwestern and Southwestern states, Mr. Malatia has been impressed by the investment he sees New Englanders have in the nation’s history. People in New England “have a very strong sense of ownership and of responsibility for the place they inhabit,” he articulates.  And that kind of community, “that is thirsting for information, understanding, history, [and] context,” allows a public service journalism organization like RIPR to fulfill its mission: “to create a more informed citizenry.”

That mission was what initially attracted Mr. Malatia to RIPR. “These people are incredible” he recalls thinking of the board and staff at RIPR. “The board was spot on about ‘here’s what we need to do if we are really going to make a difference…make people understand that they are active participants in moving Rhode Island forward.” It can be hard to convince an organization to embrace that kind of a mission as a lens for its work, Mr. Malatia tells me, but that ethos was already at RIPR when he arrived.

Incorporating the voices of the citizenry more thoroughly into RIPR’s reporting is key to advancing the station’s mission. Mr. Malatia explains that in reporting on legislation, for instance, public radio should expose the stories of the citizens whose problems representatives are working to address. “Because if you hear those stories,” he describes, “a couple things happen. First of all, you can begin to capture…the competing issues that are in the community…And the other thing is that you can begin to evaluate the legislation and whether it actually solves the problem that it was written to solve.” By presenting RIPR listeners with these more nuanced stories, reporters help Rhode Islanders to “better hold our legislatures accountable…Start with the stories of the people first…it makes things more lucid and…more solution-oriented.”

This inclusion of community voices also helps to connect Rhode Islanders to their journalists. “I believe that reporters should be very close to communities,” Mr. Malatia tells me. “I want communities to feel that we can be a resource for their stories.” I ask how the current political climate has affected the nature of these conversations with community members. He articulates that recent events haven’t changed his journalistic philosophy, but he thinks that people are beginning to better appreciate the public radio approach. “We first try to deal with issues from the human perspective; [ask] what makes [an issue] a real issue…and what are people’s stories about it.”

Photo by Christian Scully/Design Imaging Studios.

Public radio provides the opportunity for discourse that incorporates an incredible variety of voices and perspectives. “In a pluralistic society,” says Mr. Malatia, “the significant differences between people have nothing to do with superficiality,” but rather with the lives, traditions, and cultures different people have experienced. “Differences can also be magnets that bring people together because people are fascinated by other people…So, if we are going to get together and try to understand each other better, we have to get past the surface stuff and try to begin to understand what’s driving the way in which we view the world. And the only way you can do that is by telling stories that help people get there.” The “primal” nature of storytelling allows listeners of public radio “be sucked into the lens of whoever is telling the story” according to Mr. Malatia. Understanding of others’ experiences emerges through that kind of engagement and helps move people closer to tangible solutions.

At Doors Open Rhode Island’s Fall Festival, Mr. Malatia is eager for attendees to see the RIPR staff’s dedication to these conversations. Of the public, he emphasizes that “We [at RIPR] care a great deal about them…because they are the people we serve.” This is especially important when so many Americans have come to view journalists as distant, egotistical figures pursuing their own agendas, Mr. Malatia shares. “We also want to hear a lot of stuff” from attendees of the Festival, he says, “because, actually, that’s how we do our work. It’s through listening, it’s not through talking.” Listening and storytelling – that’s Rhode Island Public Radio.

By | 2017-08-01T17:01:08-04:00 June 23rd, 2017|Festival Blog|Comments Off on Listening and Storytelling at RIPR: An Interview with Torey Malatia