How Cap Radio Uses First-Person Narrative Documentaries to Share In-Depth Community Stories

by Mary Anne Funk


Capital Public Radio’s The View From Here uses a documentary unit as a capacity building project for reporters in a radio newsroom. The documentaries are each an hour long and tell the stories of three unique people or families, woven together to show how different people deal with a similar social justice issue. The format allows the stories to get beyond headlines and into the real lives of people who are personally affected, rather than just relying on statistics or empirical data. The large challenges of skilled staffing, team building, and marketing were overcome to make this a success.


Project Goals: The goal of The View From Here was to get beyond the headlines and to go deep into people’s lives through a first person narrative. Catherine Stifter, the View From Here’s co-founder and previous director, was interested in removing the barriers between the listener and individuals experiencing a particular challenge. She did this by producing first person radio documentaries and separating the journalist as much as possible in the story. “For me, I was always more interested in hearing from a person; what do you think is the problem with this situation from your perspective; what is it? Not from the reporter’s perspective or from an outsider perspective.” To produce hour long first person documentaries, reporters were given the opportunity to spend extended time experiencing daily routines with the community whose stories they were writing.

Tools and Technology: No unusual technology was used to create content. However, for one story, they gave handheld recorders to the parents of a child who was disabled. The mom recorded her child in the middle of the night when she woke up anxious, and that recording became a part of the story. “It broke your heart because you can hear her,” said Stifter. “She’s sleepy, she’s anxious, she’s crying and you don’t need to explain to somebody what that means, you just run it.”

Impact: The reporters learned that they didn’t need an expert on the matter as they could learn from the people living the situation. At first, reporters fought the idea of not needing to include an expert in their stories. The people from the community were the ones telling the stories. The stories were told from the perspective of the individual’s lived experience.

Organization Background: The View From Here is an engaged journalism project on Capital Public Radio, a non-profit organization licensed to Sacramento State. It was co-founded by Joe Barr and Catherine Stifter. Community-based conversation is key in what they do. Their program is built around one story a year and focuses on a specific topic. The View From Here shares their work through community events, public exhibits and presentations. Their primary funding comes from grants.

Project Resources: The View From Here received grants from The Cal Endowment, Sierra Health Foundation, and the California Health Care Foundation. Staff reporters cycled through the project, spending 2-3 months reporting, writing, and voicing stories. The team met regularly, weekly or monthly depending on the phase of the project. For the first three years, there were no dedicated staff members to help Catherine Stifter get it off the ground. She only had interns and temporary reporters for those thirty six months.

Here’s what worked

1. Diversifying team members

It proved important to have a diverse team so no story gets approached from the same perspective every time. From the assignment to the unit until the broadcast of the documentary and beyond, they formed a team and everybody would meet on a regular basis. For some projects they met weekly with all the reporters, the photographers, the marketing people, the community engagement people, and the interns

2. Developing trust

“My boss Joe Barr let me figure things out with the reporters, make mistakes and try new approaches in every project,” says Stifter. “I really appreciated that belief and trust in me and how I wanted to run the project.” In addition to having the trust of her boss, Stifter also stated that she had the trust of her reporters to make their stories into a radio documentary.

3. Creating a support group

Part of the success of this long term project was Catherine Stifters’ availability to her reporters. Catherine always made sure they could reach her. There were times at night that Catherine would get a call from a reporter saying they couldn’t do this anymore because of the emotional toll a story was taking on them. Catherine would listen and provide comfort. “We actually wound up having a critical stress debriefing for all of the reporters to how to deal with stress that you accumulate from being close to people, reporting on people who are in life threatening stressful situations,” said Stifter. “So, it’s just not about the interviewing, it’s about creating a team and creating a group, a support group for those reporters to keep moving through the stories.”

4. Creating a support group

Capital Radio primarily marketed The View From Here on social media and with broadcast promotions. “In terms of a return on an investment, without marketing it makes no sense” says Catherine Stifter. In the beginning, Capital Radio struggled to get The View From Here off of the ground because they had difficulty reaching an audience. Hiring a marketer helped increase downloads to 10,000 after just one project, and that improved their capacity to distribute the show. The marketer helped by constantly pushing out the weekly episodes on social media of many kinds. This help included making tweets, and helping community partners learn how to push the stories on their own Facebook accounts as well. Capital radio has a member newsletter that now goes out to 40,000 people. As part of their marketing strategy, they inform their members about their process and what they are learning while working on the in-depth story. “Along the year, we’re telling people: here’s where we are at in the process, guess what we found out about this, oh here’s our fabulous interns that helped us with this amazing one of a kind map about all the food resources in South Sacramento,” Stifter said. “So just telling the story while you’re making the story, like that’s a whole other piece of the marketing.”

Here’s what could work have worked better

1. Seek out full-time reporters

When The View From Here first began, they had one reporter who did all three stories within a three month time period and “We just about killed her,” said Stifter “so that stopped immediately and that’s when we decided to have three different reporters.” However, Capital Radio only had 22-25 people in the newsroom. They didn’t have enough reporters to cycle people through this project. So, the staff resources weren’t there. As a result, they had to hire freelancers, which also increased their costs to produce the show.

2. Hiring reporters with the proper skills

Making sure the reporters had the skills to do these types of documentaries, staffing, and team building were the biggest challenges. To resolve some of the issues, Capital Radio opted to have a producer go out with each reporter. This added expense doubled the payroll costs on the story, but ensured that the team returned with good tapes for the documentary. Had this been done from the onset, the initial documentaries would have been stronger.

3. Building a documentary team

Building a team and making sure you have the individuals who are doing the reporting, the photography, the marketing, all committed to the project and aware of all the processes as they go along.

Here’s what else you should know

  • Full-hour broadcasts: These are full hour broadcasts on radio, which makes them unusual. Rather than a three or four minute quick burst, these stories are in depth, and required up to 3 months each to produce. No story is the product of an individual; rather: a sizable team had to be assembled, which is also out of the ordinary. As a result, the pieces are richer and deeper than those usually presented on radio.
  • A two-pronged approach: In addition to the reporter writing their narrative for the radio documentary, they they also wrote the web story. This two pronged approach helps each documentary reach a wider audience. Both the narrative and the web story contributed to the shape of the final project.
  • Special message from Catherine Stifter: “In order for us to get really deep into the community, we have to do that research and meet people to know, you can’t just take like the first person that you meet. You have to meet maybe seven or eight people to decide who’s the right person. So, all of this takes more thought, more time, more money.” Catherine Stifter retired from public radio in 2017. She is the former producer for The View From Here.

Learn More

Get in touch with jesikah maria ross to learn more about this project. You can also visit The View From Here on Twitter.

Tags: , ,