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NPR’s rural side aired at GCC talk

GREENFIELD — From a Nebraska town that’s 60 miles from to the nearest traffic light to an island off the coast of Maine, Howard Berkes brings home stories as “rural affairs correspondent” for National Public Radio.

In a 90-minute presentation Thursday at Greenfield Community College, Berkes and the NPR’s Northeast bureau chief, Andrea De Leon, discussed how a network whose listeners are stereotyped as “well educated, more on the liberal side, generally urban (and) relatively affluent” reaches to out-of-the way places to make sure its mix of stories “sounds like America.”

The talk was presented by GCC and New England Public Radio.

Berkes, who’s covered rural affairs from his Utah home for the past 20 years, and DeLeon, who’s overseen reporting in 11 states from her house in Maine since 1999, shared experiences of reporting from struggling rural communities across the country where common themes were a sense of hope and promise as well as citizen leadership that helped move them from feeling left behind toward economic development.

In Ord, Neb., it was getting the local telephone company in 2003 to bring in 56 T-1 lines for Internet access. In Magnolia, Ark., it was finding a way to get jobs that had been outsourced to other countries to come back to their little town.

“People in rural places are really connected to these fundamental aspects of self determination, of self-government, of survival, of creating communities that can support their children, so these notions of leadership really pop up in these places,” Berkes said. In rural places that lack leadership, they often continue to struggle, he said.

Many of the rural stories, for which the network also depends on member stations like Amherst-based New England Public Radio, are not just “fishing-hole, Norman Rockwell stories,” said De Leon, “but they’re really stories about things like independence and how we live our lives, about how communities are built, how they fall apart ...”

“We also try to be sure that you hear stories that sound like America, that have context and bits of depth,” said De Leon, who says she edits stories read to her over the phone as she walks around her house in slippers and sweatpants, her chickens clucking in the background. “We want our shows to sound like the United States, that’s as diverse and as nuanced .... We want to hear the sounds of those places, the seagulls off the coast of Maine and the accents of America.”

Berkes, who’s also done in-depth reporting on mine safety following the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia and on grain elevator deaths in the Midwest, said that although those rural stories take up a matter of minutes on the air, they take six, seven or eight months to produce and research but also to win the trust of people in small towns who feel they have no voice and are skeptical of reporters.

“It’s important that these voices get out there, so we can see what the human cost is,” Berkes said.

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You can reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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