In early March — as the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold — I sat with my students on the final day of our Documentary Radio class at Northwestern.
Most of them were grad students from the Sound Arts and Industries program, but there were also some undergrads from the music and journalism schools. Eight students in total reported stories on a range of topics — house music, protests, depression, horses, religion, loneliness. I told students it didn’t matter what they reported on, so long as they were willing to go deep with it.
In my work as a freelance radio journalist and teacher, I spend a lot of time listening. Since 2014 I’ve edited “StoryCorps” for WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station. The oral history project records and shares the stories of everyday people. The stories hinge on people expressing genuine emotion that cuts to the core of our shared humanity.
In every class I teach at Northwestern — whether it be on reporting or podcasting — I try to convey an idea that I first learned from Maya Angelou (though I’ve seen it attributed to others too): That people will forget what you say, and they’ll forget what you do, but they’ll never forget how you make them feel.
The first time I felt anything about Northwestern was in 2005. I had just graduated from Georgetown University and moved back to Chicago to take part in a volunteer teaching program. At the same time, I enrolled in a master’s program in education at Northwestern. My memory of that time is of being exhausted from teaching all day and then driving to Evanston from the far South Side during rush hour to sit through three-hour classes on educational philosophy. I was overwhelmed.
I pulled back from teaching at the elementary level and returned to Northwestern in 2008, this time to study journalism. In an intro class for the master’s program, I met Alison Flowers ’09 MS, and we stayed in touch after we graduated. I went to work in public radio, and she pursued a career in investigative journalism.
Three years ago, Alison reached out to me about co-producing a podcast focused on a murder from 2016, with the victim’s mother as the narrator. I came aboard, and earlier this year we released “Somebody,” a seven-part narrative podcast hosted by Shapearl Wells, who investigates how her son ended up with a bullet in his back outside a Chicago police station. The podcast explores the tense relationship between police and Black people in America’s third-largest city. (See “Listening for Courtney.”)
Northwestern gave me the skills and the confidence to pursue a career as a journalist. It also gave me an opportunity to return to the classroom. These days the teaching leaves me feeling energized.
On the final day of the documentary class, one of the students played a story he had produced about the regular customers at the Sher-Main Grill, one of Evanston’s oldest diners. Customer after customer described how this place made them feel less alone. One man, in recovery from alcoholism, said, “I feel loved here … cared for. Tell me how many businesses you can go to and feel that way.”
Listening to this commentary, I think about how my student documented something that made me feel connected to a stranger. In that brief moment, I was able to share in his vulnerability. As a teacher, and as a human being, I know there is no greater gift.
Bill Healy ’07 MS, ’09 MS is a Chicago-area independent journalist who teaches in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and the School of Communication.