â€œMoving to Alabama four years ago was a real eye-opener. Even though the â€˜deep southâ€™ has come a long way, the memory of the struggle is still fresh.â€
-WBHM reporter and producer Tanya Ott
Welcome to the NPR Station Showcase with PRX. Iâ€™m Aaron Henkin. Each week this podcast highlights an example of the great work thatâ€™s being produced locally at hundreds of different public radio stations around the country, and this week we tune in to WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama. Thatâ€™s where veteran producer and reporter Tanya Ott has worked for the past four years. Tanya recently put together this weekâ€™s featured story, a report about the changing reputation of the â€˜Newâ€™ New South and how itâ€™s transforming the face of Birmingham. Hereâ€™s a brief Q & A with Tanya, where she shares some thoughts about what she learned when putting this story togetherâ€¦
In this story, you talk to a man with a 10-year-old son who’s moving from New York to Birmingham. He says that things there are more progressive in the South than they were 30 or 40 years ago… do you think that’s true?
I wasn’t here in the south 30 years ago, but from everything I know and have been told — yes, they are certainly more progressive. Forty years ago in Birmingham we had Klansmen blowing up churches and houses. Today many southern cities, including Birmingham and Atlanta, have African American mayors, school superintendents and the like. One major area of concern today, though, is the effects of “white flight” — and increasingly “middle class black flight” from the city and into the suburbs. Birmingham-proper has lost so much population in recent years that public schools enrollment is down more than 2,000, and schools are closing. This is disrupting many historic neighborhoods in the city.
You allude to a tension within the black community in the South about the idea of African Americans who are moving there from the North… could you expand a bit on what that apprehension is all about?
I wasn’t aware of this tension until one of my interview subjects mentioned it as almost an aside. But it makes perfect sense and there are parallels in the Latino community as well. My source works with a lot of inner-city African American church groups. They feel ignored by newly-relocated middle class blacks from the north, who are often moving into wealthier and “whiter” suburbs because of the better performing schools. I hear similar stories when talking with the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. Recent immigrants, especially working class folks from Mexico, have complained that established Latino professionals (lawyers, doctors, etc) aren’t doing enough promote their concerns. But, as one HICA representative told me: really, why would a Venezuelan doctor feel any sort of kinship or responsibility to a Mexican tomato picker? It’s wonderful if they do, but it shouldnâ€™t be expected just because they both speak Spanish.
Are you a native of the South? What are your own thoughts about the ‘New’ New South and how it compares to its own racial history and the presuppositions of Northerners?
Native? Sort of and not really. I moved from Iowa to Florida when I was 9. Growing up in Iowa, I literally did not know anyone of another race, except for the occasional international student or faculty member at the local college. I moved to Florida and immediately made friends that were black, white, Asian, Hispanic – you name it. But honestly, Florida is very “southern”, so it’s not a good case study. Moving to Alabama four years ago was a real eye-opener. Even though the “deep south” has come a long way, the memory of the struggle is still fresh. People still joke — only half-joking — that it’s not safe for black folks to get dinner or gas along one stretch of our major north-south interstate. Birmingham itself is very diverse, but the further you go into the countryside it’s a different story.
Tell us a bit about your radio background and what brought you to WBHM…
I graduated high school planning on majoring in musical theatre and moving to Broadway, but my folks suggested I might consider something more “practical”. I figured television news was pretty close to performing so I enrolled at the University of Florida with plans to take Barbara Walter’s job. I’m a serious type-A person (working on changing that though!), so I volunteered to work at the public radio station my freshman year. I was assigned the 4 a.m. Monday morning shift, but managed to not only survive it but fall in love with radio — and especially public radio! I discovered that I loved researching and writing and storytelling even more than performing. I continued working at WUFT-FM through my undergrad and grad school, did a brief fellowship-stint at WCBS-AM in NYC, then took an ATC host job at Colorado Public Radio in Denver. Two years later I was back at WUFT-FM as Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day production of Morning Edition inserts, a 15 minute noon show and 1/2 hour PM newsmagazine with 50+ student reporters/anchors/sportscasters. It was a bit like herding cats, but incredibly rewarding personally and professionally. After five years with WUFT, I ventured out on my own as a full-time freelancer, contributing weekly to Marketplace and occasionally to NPR’s newsmagazines and other programs. But, being that type-A personality, I found that working from home was a blessing and a curse. I loved the freedom but also found I worked round the clock. So, in 2002 I decided to go back to a newsroom so I could “work less”. It’s worked (sort of!). In addition to my duties at WBHM, I’m a NewsWorks trainer for PRNDI (Public Radio News Directors Inc) and mentor for AIR (Association of Independents in Radio) and have served as a consultant on various pubradio projects including the Morning Edition Grad School (MEGS), PRI’s Global Resource Desk, and PRPD Core Values of News.
â€¦WBHMâ€™s Tanya Ott. You can hear more of Tanyaâ€™s stories on-line at the Public Radio Exchange. Thatâ€™s where producers from around the world share their work. Log on, write your own reviews and help influence what ends up on the radio at www.prx.org.