Many fans of National Public Radio experience what the nonprofit calls "driveway moments"—when you're in your car and you become so interested in a radio story that even after you arrive at your destination you continue to sit and listen to the ending.
Jessica Phillips '04 began experiencing these moments when she was sixteen years old in Ocean City, Maryland. "That's when I got my first car and began driving myself to high school in the morning listening to NPR," she says. "I quickly became that annoying girl in your public-affairs course that always raised her hand and said, 'I heard on NPR ...'"
By pursuing her love of the medium, Phillips managed to turn her driveway moments into a career. She currently produces shows for the Center for Emerging Media (CEM) in Baltimore, Maryland, and was awarded the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for her fifty-five-part weekly documentary feature series "Just Words," which aired on Baltimore radio station WYPR in 2007 and 2008.
"Just Words" featured the stories of the working poor and other marginalized groups, as told in their own voices. The goal was to give a platform to those who are often in the news but rarely in a positive light. "All the stories we see coming out of these worlds are stories of fear and hopelessness," says Phillips. "What we wanted to do was to let them tell us in their own words what they wanted other people to know about their lives."
The stories put a human face on issues such as poverty, incarceration, and drug addiction. In one episode, sixty-nine-year-old Lucille Robinson, a grandmother taking care of six grandchildren born to a mother addicted to drugs, talks about the difficulty of trying to live on $600 a month. Her voice quavers as she says, "Nobody could have never told me that at my age I'd be without a mate, financially broke. I keep saying that it's just not me alone. When you go down to welfare you see a lot of young people, old people. I say, my God, look at us down here looking for help."
Robinson died a few months ago, and the woman who had introduced them told Phillips that "Lucille always talked about how when the radio people came it was the best day of her life."
"She felt like such a celebrity when we came to interview her," says Phillips. "It made her feel appreciated. She just really felt heard, and I think that was what was most valuable about the series."
Phillips also hopes the series dispels some myths about poverty. "I think a lot of Americans have this idea that we live in this gigantic welfare state where a man on the street who is addicted to drugs decides, 'I want to get clean, I want to get straight, I want to get a job,' and there's this magical shelter he can walk into to get this help at any time," Phillips says. "That is just absolutely not true. The waiting list to get into drug treatment centers, to get into shelters, is just gigantic. Getting a job is not easy."
Majoring in American studies at Kenyon, Phillips says, directly prepared her for the research, scope, and human interaction involved in "Just Words." "I was in the very first class that had American studies majors," she explains. "I went there thinking I was going to major in history, and I sort of randomly signed up for a class taught by Melissa Dabakis that taught American history through art history. I thought, that's such a great way to teach history!"
Phillips signed on for a summer independent study with Professor Dabakis that researched two folk artists from Knox County. The project taught Phillips how to conduct interviews, and how to approach a topic in a holistic way. She realized that there are many ways to tell a story, and that history doesn't have to approach something "from a dry intellectual point of view," but can give "a sense of the whole picture."
These are skills that continue to serve Phillips as a producer today, she says. "I have to be the person who knows a little about everything," she explains. "I have to call these amazingly brilliant people up and be able to tell if they know what they're talking about. That's what I learned as an American studies major. It teaches you how to think about things in a larger way."
Currently, Phillips is putting together a radio documentary about a Vietnam veteran who gets in touch with the family of the Vietnamese soldier he shot and killed over thirty years ago. Phillips traveled to Vietnam and spent several days recording the emotional encounter, which ended up being cathartic for both the vet and the Vietnamese family. She hopes to release the hour-long documentary in September.
It sounds like a driveway moment in the making.
You can listen to archived episodes of Just Words online at http://www.centerforemergingmedia.org/podcasts/just-words/just-words-podcasts.