Editor’s Note: For our “Perspectives” series, which talks with New Orleans-based journalists, pod-casters, documentarians, and photojournalists about their place and role in the journalistic world, David Benedetto was interviewed by Adam Goldstein. Benedetto, who oscillates between the professions of journalist, writer, host, and audio producer (at NolaVie, WRBH: Reading Radio, and Antenna Gallery) discusses what makes a good story and how he’d like to see journalism form in the future.
Who: David Benedetto
What: Assistant Program Director and Marketing Director at WRBH Reading Radio for the Blind and Print Impaired. He also hosts the weekly “Writer’s Forum” program and “Audio Portraits” podcast on WRBH’s website. Further, he writes about culture for NolaVie’s “Notes From New Orleans” series.
A Quoteworthy Quote: “Working at the radio station, we read 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Everything from books to magazines, to the daily news, to satire. And it’s interesting to be able to connect those voices as a part of the community. One of my favorite aspects of hearing things read aloud is that this is a person that I know from working at the station. That I’ve seen progress, and I know their reading styles, and I’ve seen them do amazing things with the work on the page… that voice right there is almost incomparable. It’s a performance…”
Q: What are the themes that tend to draw you into a story when you are writing it, and what do you make of these topic’s relations to your own experience?
A: We should start by saying I work in a lot of different capacities as far as writing and trying to deal with stories. At WRBH reading radio, I am the program director, so I deal with more programming and assisting people as volunteers…I [also] host a show called The Writer’s Forum for that station, which deals with local authors, journalists, historians, poets, and everyone working in a writing vein…on a national and international [level]. So, when I’m looking for a person to interview in that capacity, I already know that we have an incredible local writing program on Susan Larson’s The Reading Life, and I know that she’s going to tie in a lot of her programming with events… When I was first asked to be on the show, I felt kind of bored with the idea of repeating the same people that she was doing. And she is a professional that I very much respect…so my idea was, ‘I’m going to take the time to reach out to the folks that maybe have not been noticed on either the local or national level yet.’ Those that are a little bit more experimental in their work…people outside of the normal publicity drive for their book or their project. [I want] to give the interview a little bit more weight and make it a little more about them than about the selling of that current book.
And then for working for NolaVie, I do a show called Notes From New Orleans, which is aimed at covering New Orleans culture-based material. We weren’t allowed to have beats starting out, but I have made my way with approaching comedians, non-profit groups, and festivals, and little-known bands.
And as far as requirements, ThatI am looking for something that someone hasn’t noticed yet. Things that I think would benefit by being on the air in some way, and having a written record of their existence.
Q: Are there any types of causes you particularly are interested in? You mentioned that you enjoy some of the muckraking process of journalism. Are there any issues that you are passionate about that are affecting the quality of life in New Orleans? Or just personal interests? Do you have past experience doing this, perhaps in college or further youth?
A: I do! Like you, I worked for a college radio station at LSU for three years in which I interviewed some bands who were touring, as well as provided programming for music content. [I was] working in every capacity at the station.
As far as issues in New Orleans itself, I don’t have quite a platform to reach into them often enough, but I think the housing and inequality issues that are happening in the city, specifically with short term rentals and home insurance rates rising, and displacement, are near and dear to my heart. I think that people should be paying much more attention to that. I also think the sticky racial issues of our history here and the Deep South can never be brought to light enough, and we should be paying attention to corruption and just ineptitude of local government. I would love see more reporting in that vein.
Q: When following your subject, how do you take notes and gather intelligence? Are there ways in which journalists can be too invasive when gathering information?
A: To answer in two different places, for NolaVie, the internet is my friend. Current events are my friend. Trying to nail down all the contexts that I can for that person before going into the interview and making sure that the four minutes I’m going to have on air that I have enough material to be impactful is important. Also, whatever I’m asking, we have to make sure it can condense down into an effective four minutes that will serve the purpose of the interview. Sarah Holtz, my producer, and I e-mail back and forth going through different drafts of that four minutes like, ‘well, can we include this really interesting personality tidbit, or this funny moment?’ A lot of times, we have to sacrifice those things for the sake of getting the most important information out there. So, I think the context matters most, and being prepared. And knowing that going in for that particular set of interviews that I will have to kill some of my darlings.
For The Writer’s Forum, I am a little more lucky. It’s a half-hour interview program where the people don’t really have the amount of time to dig in deep. And although it’s difficult to read entire books week after week, I make sure that I never just showing up blankly. I’m really interested in my interviews as writers themselves, and what makes them tick. I really appreciate great interviewers. I listen to Terry Gross, and Marc Maron, and everyone in between that.
Marc Maron’s great.
A: Oh, isn’t he? One of the things I’ve learned from listening to Marc Maron is that he has a longer interview cycle, and he goes in a little bit colder. He’s not necessarily after, you know, ‘let’s go over fact by fact-by-fact.’ He’s after emotional connection and emotional truth. He’s after those moments where you can have an amazing rapport with this person, and it’ll keep people listening because it feels like you’re there, and you’re a part of this.
You’re after that interpersonal connection. I think Maron does a really great job of bringing that, even with someone he has no connection with. My favorite interview by him, or one of them, is Julia Louis Dreyfus. I think they’re like just a third of the way into the interview, where she realizes she really doesn’t want to be there. But there are moments within the remaining 45 minutes where he really connects with her, and a joke lands, and they’re able to bounce off of each other, and he’s really good at using that time to find those moments. I use that as kind of a template to find those moments, with the authors and such that I interview.
Q: How do you define alternative, and how do you see your work fitting in or not fitting in this definition of alternative journalism?
A: The journalism industry is at the tail-end of a huge paradigm shift that has been happening over the past two years. I have friends who have been laid off several times from some of the best journalism outlets in the country and from small town papers. It’s a really hard gig these days. So, I feel like alternative is a definition that has switched from being against the mainstream, and a little more edgy and underground, to being what everybody’s having to do. Just because there’s not a support system in place for mainstream journalism to exist as it was formed.
I wouldn’t consider my own work alternative in a sense that maybe someone working at Antigravity would … just simply because I don’t have as much leeway as they do in their publications. They are presenting themselves directly as an alternative press, concerned with certain things that are not being presented in the mainstream. I am limited a little bit more by the organizations that I work for — non-profits, which are meant to be less political in nature. And so, I am bound to certain restrictions. I would say [my work is] alternative in the sense as alt journalism is being pushed towards, but not alternative as an opposition to the mainstream.
Q: Perfect. Yeah just going off that, you’ve mentioned some of the vast inspirations you have, Terry Gross, or Marc Maron in your interview style. I also noted online that you have a lot of literary loves. As an English major myself, I was curious what are some of the ways you try to integrate aspects of your literary inspirations into your work? And do you think that you have succeeded or failed in those efforts?
A: I think one of the main things that I got out of my literary love, and understanding and questioning narratives is the way of framing questions. There are certain things you’re going to want to highlight in a piece. But how you get to that, how you highlight that in the interview itself, can be creative. Like in a good novel, you’re not seeking to make caricatures of your subjects and your characters. You’re seeking to make people that breathe, that are someone you can go up and shake hands with, not somebody who fulfills a stereotype that you think of. I’m looking for ways to dig into that more. I think my literary background lends itself to that. Trying to find better ways of framing the interview, and approaching the people that I’m talking with.
Q: How would you categorize some of the prominent issues facing our society today? Do you feel that there is a common thread, and do you think journalism can function as an effective modern platform for advocacy surrounding these issues?
A: I think it has an ability to. You look at outlets like ProPublica, or again, smaller non-profits like The Lens that are getting more and more organized as the years go by. You find them finding a more prominent role in our society in airing those issues. I think again of some of the other outlets, including our own Times-Picayune and The Advocate. They do great work, [but] they also lose a lot of journalists year in and year out, and they’re not able to keep the ones who would really write those good stories. They’re only able to focus on a series or two each year of the hard-hitting, perhaps Pulitzer Prize-winning content in any other decade. And those things can get overshadowed on their websites, which are poorly constructed, by crime stories or Saints stories. Those are the big advertising revenue draws. I do think it can be this force, and that you see it happening in small locations. We’re kind of in a weird middle area.
Q: How do you contrast the name-brand aspect of journalism, which grants you so much access to information, to a smaller, more dedicated outlet who isn’t worried about the money?
A: It’s hard. You’re always going to have that uptick with the name brand, like The New York Times. It’s the benefit of having that kind of prestige behind you. Specifically, with breaking the #Me Too stories of The New York Times and The New Yorker. There are a lot of uses there, but I think it’s the activist vs politician mentality, right? Or in this case, I’d say an organization like The Lens that push individual stories on a somewhat microcosm level, day in and day out, until eventually politicians, like The New York Times, take notice and run with it. It’s about finding more equitable ways to improve that dynamic. To where these people constantly seeking the truth are able to do so on a more permanent basis. Versus, The New York Times, or whatever, being a media organization not paying attention to these stories until they blow up. If feel like they can work together more.
Q: Does the experience of listening to something read aloud to you affect you differently than reading it in silence? How do you feel one’s physical voice affects the content and output of the writer?
A: Working at the radio station, we read 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Everything from books to magazines, to the daily news, to satire. And it’s interesting to be able to connect those voices as a part of the community. One of my favorite aspects of hearing things read aloud, is that this is a person that I know from working at the station. That I’ve seen progress, and I know their reading styles, and I’ve seen them do amazing things with the work on the page. And I think just inherently it’s a fundamentally different experience. That voice right there is almost incomparable. It’s a performance versus the reader experience of the page.
Q:. Do you believe in synesthesia? Do you think it’s possible to convey the emotive of seeing and reading to the blind? Is that something you stand by in your work at the station?
A: I hope so. I think it falls on the writers. We are a medium to bring the wording and complex heavy lifting, to make our listeners get to that point. So, it’s not necessarily all on us, but the selection [is]. And I hope that with my role of picking the books, I’m picking challenging, interesting, varied sorts of literature and non-fiction that are making our listeners experience it that way. That’s my hope.
Q: What do you view your job as program director, or program assistant director at the station is? Like what is your aim, your end goal? I mean you are working with, I hesitate to say, irreconcilable concepts; you can’t read a book when you cannot see, and you’re subtracted from that human experience. How do you view your role fitting into that dichotomy?
A: Small staff, small non-profit, long history. I see my role as a person wearing many hats, both with the picking of the literature, dealing with the content online, social media, dealing with volunteers, and publishers.
As far as picking itself, I want to bring the sensibilities I brought to being a music director at KLSU. I’m picking things that are from as many different experiences that I can get. Things that are outside the mainstream, as well as best-selling novels. Highlighting the local as much as I can, getting in touch with local readers to make sure that it is a familiar voice coming on the air. As well as talking to very talented individuals to tackle the more challenging books we have. I see my role as organizer of many things. I’m hoping that the processes that I put in place are appreciated by our listeners and by our volunteers, and can be built and continued.
This interview was completed for the class Alternative Journalism at class at Tulane University taught by Kelley Crawford. The interview has been edited and configured for publication.