Colorado Public Radio Reporter Megan Verlee – Interviewing the Interviewer
By Lee Ridley
As a general assignment reporter for Colorado Public Radio covering state government, Megan Verlee is usually the one asking the questions. In a recent interview, she swapped roles and shared details and insights about working in public radio.
Unlike many of us who tentatively step out into the world as young adults unsure of which path to choose, Verlee jumped aboard a train bound straight for public radio. Her interest in journalism began in high school. While taking a radio class, she discovered that her classmates were willing to talk when they were asked the right questions in front of a microphone. Classmates revealed attitudes and behaviors she never knew existed. She was hooked. From that point forward, she reveled in the opportunity to ask questions that revealed untold stories.
Award-winning reporter Verlee started her professional career working long hours as an overnight intern at National Public Radio and at ABC Radio in Washington, D.C. She moved on to a reporting job at public radio station WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina. In 2008, she began working for Colorado public radio station KCFR in Centennial. Verlee helps listeners decipher the often complicated developments of state government. When the legislature is not in session, she covers a wide variety of stories around the state. She has also covered stories for Public Radio International’s “The World.”
In live radio there must be mishaps or things that don’t go well. Is there one that sticks out in your mind?
I worked for a public radio station in Wilmington, North Carolina. We were a small station, really understaffed, which meant you went on air for pledge drives for hours. On the last day of the drive I’d been on air for about five hours, and so had my news director. We were exhausted. And the emergency alert signal starts going. The college intern who was operating the board couldn’t figure out how to shut it off, so we got into a giggle fit. And it’s terrible. And we finally get everything shut off. We thought, ‘Oh, it’s a tornado alert.’
Well, it was an Amber Alert. We had just laughed through an Amber Alert. And the phones go nuts. And we thought, ‘Oh, there’s our pledges.’ They were not pledges, they were very angry people!
I’ve always wondered if doing pledge drives is a nice break from routine. Or is it more, ‘we just have to get through this?’
It’s yes and no. Because I’m at the legislature, I don’t want to ever take away from what I’m doing there, so the winter drive is tough. But other than that, it is actually a really nice break. It’s the only time that we get to speak directly to listeners. There’s a scroll in the room when we’re doing [the drives] with people’s comments. You’re seeing people say how much they like what you do. And nobody else in media gets to have that.
Is there anyone that you find intimidating to interview?
Not too much anymore. There are people I find intimidating to work with, like other journalists that I greatly admire. There are two New York Times reporters in town and they’re the nicest guys. But there are still times when I’m thinking, ‘You work for The New York Times!’
When someone says something in a moment of vulnerability or ‘off the record’ and it is crucial to the story, how do you manage that?
Well, if they say ‘this is off the record’ before they say something, I may try to talk them into it, to be on the record. But if they’ve said it beforehand and I’ve nodded – it’s off the record. You never want somebody to come back to you and say, ‘I explicitly said that was off the record, now here’s my name in print.’ To me, that is valuable, to have that protection. Everybody in the legislature likes to say the only thing you have up there is your reputation, and that counts for reporters as well as politicians.
Legislators have to talk a lot in front of the media, sometimes off the cuff. You must just have to pick your way through to decide what is relevant.
Exactly. These guys are on the mike and talk for hours and sometimes say things that they do or don’t mean. How do we use this, should we use it, how do we report on it, should we report on it? What I think what we all avoid in the press corps is stuff that’s unfairly out of context. I’m not going to fan outrage at a poor choice of words.
What do you do when someone is shy, reluctant to speak or deliberately evasive?
It’s a different approach for each of those. People that are shy, I take a lot of time with them, asking about their life or about their family, just stuff that calms them down.
Politicians at the Capitol, they’ll be more open if you don’t have the microphone. You discover when it’s going to help you get the story, to turn the mike off and have the conversation. I find that logic is an incredibly helpful thing when they’re just spinning their own lines. And it actually took me a little while to trust myself to say, ‘You know, you keep saying that, but the way I’m reading that is this…’
What do you like most about your work?
I like that it’s different every day and very intellectually stimulating. What’s funny is I’m saying all the things that I like, and I realize that they are the things that make me completely exhausted. They really are two sides of the same coin. It’s an intellectual workout to take each issue and figure it out, and present it in a way that people can understand.
You cover the legislature and you’ve covered stories around Colorado. You’ve also done some work for Public Radio International, covering stories in Ethiopia. Is there a type of story that you prefer more so than the other?
I love the variety. There are two things that I enjoy the most. One is explaining stuff. And that’s what I really like doing at the state legislature. It’s so wonky, but I love explaining policy.
But I got into this because I love sound…pieces that are just so full of sound. I did one back in October about an employee at a haunted house. There was all this great haunted house sound and people being scary. So stories that are really, really sound rich I really enjoy.
And stories with voices that you don’t hear a lot. The Ethiopian stories were a series of stories about Colorado & Ethiopian connections. I guess those three things; explaining, putting on voices that you wouldn’t otherwise hear and stories that have just ridiculous amounts of sound.
Can you tell me about a memorable interview, for positive or negative reasons?
One of my favorites was about water issues, the transfer of water from farms to cities in Colorado. I spent three or four hours with this older farmer and he drove me to see places that had dried up and [were] wastelands of weeds. We were up on the rise right before his farm. His neighbor had this patch of dirt, just bare ground. And he looked at that, and then he looked down at his farm in the valley where his corn was coming up, and it was green and beautiful. And he choked up. He said, ‘This is what water means, the difference between this over here,’ and he points to the green. And then he points to the bare ground, ‘and that down there. And this is what I’m fighting for.’ That was an amazing interview because water is often such a boring topic. I still remember him.
Do you have a favorite on-air personality, either CPR or NPR?
I am so admiring of Ryan Warner. I think he is a fantastic host. There are a lot of hosts who are so involved in being the host, that they don’t feel like they need to master the material. And that’s not Ryan. Ryan really feels like he needs to know what he’s talking about. And it’s wonderful to work with somebody like that. And I love the way he asks questions. He asks really uncomfortable questions really directly, which I have trouble with.
And then Neal Conan, who I worked with for a long time at “Talk of the Nation,” is probably my radio idol. Neal was a mentor to me for a lot of years and is still a good friend. I love what he does on that show.
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Neal Conan told me that everyone hates their voice, which was really helpful. When you hear Neal Conan tell you that everybody hates the sound of their own voice, you’re like, ‘Okay, I can relax a little bit.’
What piece of advice would you give a journalist starting out?
The one thing that I tend to tell journalists is be okay with not having a safety net for a while. You start out piecing things together. You get a couple of freelance articles. And then you get an internship, and then you get some temp work. I think a lot of journalism careers start out really piecemeal, so I always tell people don’t be scared if it’s piecemeal at the beginning.