BEHIND THE SCENES with Noel Black and Jake Brownell

Tell me about Wish We Were Here - how did it start, and what kinds of stories do you tell?

NB: The station we work for, KRCC, serves Colorado Springs and most of Southern Colorado. Jake and I joined forces in early 2014, after a show he was working on lost its head producer. We both felt like podcasts offered a path forward by which we could create a radio show (that would double as a podcast) and somehow appeal to audiences both locally and nationally. Jake still had his college brain on, which was great because he brought all this really critical thought to the table that I'd sloughed over the years. We're 18 years apart, which is almost always a good thing.

JB: I was still really just getting my feet wet in radio - I was only about a year and a half out of school - but having studied philosophy as an undergrad, I wanted to be able to dive into stories from a slightly more intellectual angle. Noel teases me because I like to question just about every sentence we write together, but I think it brings a different tone to the storytelling genre.

As for the kinds of stories that we want to tell, I think we both gravitate toward stories about underdogs, about people trying to carve out a place for themselves in a culture that hasn’t made space for them. We've done episodes about a local con artist who happened to be intersex, and whose story was grossly misrepresented in the media; about an experimental homeless recovery program in an old prison; about kids raised by gay parents in Colorado Springs; about a worker uprising at a mine in southern Colorado - local stories that have something to add to national conversations about identity, sexuality, poverty and power. But we also really want to tell good stories - stories with great characters that people care about. So that's been our mission: find the characters, find the stories, find the ideas, and marry them into radio documentaries that sound great and (hopefully) keep people engaged for an hour on a stretch.

On your website you write that Wish We Were Here presents “one pinpoint on the map of the U.S. as the archetype of the American experience as a whole.” What do you mean by this - and why Colorado Springs?

NB: The easiest answer is because this is where we are. I grew up here, left for a long time during my 20s, then came back after my son was born in 2001. Colorado Springs has this really notorious, inflated reputation as a village of Christian zealots and right-wing military fanatics, which it may have partly earned in the 90s and 2000s when Focus on the Family and New Life Church stepped onto the national stage and the Air Force Academy started getting in trouble for issues around proselytizing, etc. In many ways, Colorado Springs represents the opposite of what you think of when you think about public radio and its values. But we feel like that’s what makes it an interesting place to live and make radio and podcasts - the contrast.

I've always loved this local naturalist named Ann Zwinger who wrote Beyond the Aspen Grove. She believed you could rope off a one-foot-square area on the ground and study it, essentially, forever, and always be learning something new. Colorado Springs is that area that we roped off to study.

As far as the “one pinpoint on the map of the U.S. as the archetype of the American experience as a whole,” we figured we had to address this issue of the national/international podcast audience if we were going to have listeners outside the region. So we thought: Well, our greatest weakness (our relative geographical isolation) can also be our greatest strength, if we flip it around and look at it from a different angle. So it helped to think of it as a show about one place on the map that could stand in for Anywhere, USA. That said, Colorado Springs isn't exactly anywhere; it's a really bizarre place demographically. Our working subtitle for the show was originally, “Tales and Investigations from America’s Most Conservative City.” But we felt a bit hemmed in by that and decided to leave it more open ended.

JB: Yeah, and my experience of Colorado Springs really came after Ted Haggard (of New Life Church) fell from grace and the whole conservative evangelical tide kind of receded. Noel and I have talked about how our different perspectives (Noel's as a native, and mine as an outsider) complement each other. And I have to say, as someone who got the received generalizations about Colorado Springs, it’s far more interesting than I could've imagined. It’s such a beautiful, strange, and contradictory place.

It also seems to be a kind of news crossroads. National stories and political debates so often have surprising connections to Colorado Springs. There's the evangelical thing, sure, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. There's climate change, which has been wreaking havoc throughout southern Colorado in the form of wildfires and floods, there are all the myriad stories and issues related to the military, there are issues around taxation and how the city choose to fund (or not fund) its basic services and infrastructure needs, there's the debate around marijuana legalization, police tactics... and on and on. So to me, this place feels like a natural backdrop against which to set scenes in the larger American drama.

How well known is Scoop Nemeth in your area? And why did you want to tell his story?

NB: Before he left for Denver, Scoop was a fixture in downtown Colorado Springs. Seriously, if you went downtown more than once and never ran into him, it would be shocking. Speaking of weaknesses being great strengths, Scoop can come off as incredibly pushy when you first meet him. But that was what made him such a good salesman. He was always so doggedly persistent in approaching anyone and everyone to sell his poems and writings.

People who got to know him over time and learned a little bit about his background were inevitably impressed with his determination. It’s a classic underdog story. Here’s a guy who, on paper, should be doing just about anything but pursuing a career in TV journalism. Yet there he is, doing it. You can’t help but root for him. What actually shocked me was finding out how discouraged he does get. When he was in Colorado Springs it seemed like nothing phased him at all.

JB: I remember bumping into Scoop a lot when I first arrived in Colorado Springs in 2008. He'd always give me the same line - "I've seen you around here, haven't I?" - and then he'd proceed to try to sell me his stuff. Like many people, I didn't really know what to make of him. But one day a friend of mine bought one of his erotic poems and showed it to me, and I was just amazed. His word choice, the way that he phrases things, the incredible honesty in his writing, it was all so idiosyncratic and vivid. You could tell that this guy had a story. From there I looked at his YouTube videos and found some of his other work online, and I just felt like I always wanted more from him, like I could watch and read his work all day. He has such an amazing and singular style, and there’s something really captivating about the passion that he brings to his creative pursuits. As for how well known Scoop is in our area, I would say that among people who lived or worked in downtown Colorado Springs while he was here, Scoop was probably more famous and better known than most of the local TV anchors that he so admires.

It can be tricky to portray someone who, like Scoop, is such a larger-than-life character. You introduce a sense of fun in this episode, but never of making fun. Is this something you thought about? And what choices did you make in accordance?

NB: Yes, and that was the crux. I pitched Scoop's story to This American Life many years ago, and they were really concerned listeners would be laughing at him. He’s got that deadpan, nasal delivery, and his somewhat unorthodox obsessions with sexy poetry and news anchors. But I knew Scoop; I'd worked with him and knew that he'd a rough go of it. I wanted to portray him as fully human as I knew him to be. It's easy for people like him, I think, to get relegated to the status of "character" without any real consideration for his full life story, struggles, and dreams.

JB: Scoop was one of the first people that came to mind when Noel and I first started brainstorming for Wish We Were Here. I think we both had a sense that he is someone with a unique point of view and a complicated, inspiring story. I didn't know Scoop personally like Noel did, but I wanted to know him, and that was sort of a guiding principle for this episode, like, we want people to know Scoop from all sides, as a person. But you're right, it could be easy to go about this story all wrong, and we were very conscious of that. Luckily, I think Scoop was the person who made it possible to do it right. He is an open book. He wants people to know who he is, to know what his dreams are, to know what he struggles with. And he also wants to make people laugh. He's so compelling in his own right that, as hosts and writers, we were able to take a kind of minimalist approach, to let him speak for himself, and to let his work speak for itself. Our feeling was that listeners are going to want to hear, first and foremost, from Scoop, and so our job is to use narration and clips and other voices to create enough context for listeners to understand where Scoop is coming from when he speaks in the piece.

Another part of our approach that I think was important was being honest and direct with Scoop. We knew that he would hear this piece, and we wanted him to feel like he was represented fairly and fully, so we tried to present him directly with all the questions that we had about him and his situation. How does he feel about the fact that people find him funny? Do people perceive him in the way that he wants to be perceived? These are questions that we asked him, and we felt it was important to respect and take seriously his answers to those questions.

How did the fact that Scoop’s difficult childhood was off limits change the scope of the piece? Were there any other topics that were off limits?

NB: Actually, I think the fact that Scoop was unwilling to talk about his childhood was more telling than if he'd gone into great detail. It isn't hard to imagine what he went through. He grew up quite poor; his parents were divorced; he's African-American; and he has autism. That alone tells you a lot about his difficulties. The fact that he doesn't want to talk about any of it tells you even more. It's like old horror movies where the action is implied, or off-screen. Again, the details just didn't seem as important as what he showed us in bringing us that print-out where he "went deep with himself." The fact that he didn't want us to talk to his mom was hard because we felt like there might be some ethical issues there if we'd revealed any more. But I'd also met his step-dad, saw where he lived, and spoke with him on several occasions when Scoop still lived in Colorado Springs. So it wasn't like we were questioning the veracity of the outline of his story.

JB: That was really the only topic that was strictly off limits. Scoop is incredibly candid. There were a few moments when he would get tired of a particular line of questioning and say, "Just leave it alone, please!," but that wasn't normally because a topic was off limits so much as he was just sick of explaining something to us.

How did the structure of the episode change throughout the production process?

JB: During the course of production, as we were driving to and from Denver to meet with Scoop, Noel and I had long conversations about what exactly we were trying to do with this story, and what exactly is so compelling about Scoop. We recorded those conversations, thinking that maybe we could use them as another element in the story, or as a kind of skeleton to build the story around. In many ways, this is a story about perception: about how people perceive Scoop, how Scoop perceives himself, and whether it's possible for him to overcome societal perceptions of people with autism, generally, in order to achieve his dreams. Our thought was that maybe, by recording ourselves, and laying bare our own perceptions of Scoop's story, we could highlight that theme, while also stepping away from any claim to omniscience as narrators and creating a space in which all the complexity of Scoop's situation could be left intact. As we got further along though, and spent more time interviewing Scoop, it became clear that that would've been unnecessary and distracting. More than anything, we wanted Scoop to be the star of this piece, and we decided that the best way to do that was by simply using our narration to get people from point A to point B.

NB: We felt like Scoop's journey to become a broadcast personality provided all the story arc we needed. I mean, he's up against the odds in so many ways. And, as I said, his struggles have all the hallmarks of a the underdog’s journey that we seem drawn to. And again, that's where it opens up and becomes, we think, much more universal.

What’s next for Wish We Were Here?

JB: We have a number of episodes we're working on that we're excited about. We're working on a piece about the first black detective and undercover agent in the Colorado Springs police force, who has some incredible stories and a really interesting perspective on the issue of police treatment of people/communities of color. We're also working on an episode about the changing landscape of evangelical Christianity in Colorado Springs, and about how progressively-minded young christians here are wrestling with the cultural and political legacy of evangelicalism. There are so many great stories here, and we look forward to sharing more of them in the months to come.