â€œAfter working hard all their lives, these grandparents deserve a rest. Instead, they’ve had parenthood foisted upon them a second time.â€
-WFDD producer and reporter Thibault Worth
Welcome to the NPR Station Showcase with PRX. My name is Aaron Henkin; itâ€™s my privilege to curate this weekly podcast which aims to give some extra attention to the outstanding work thatâ€™s being produced locally by folks at the hundreds of public radio stations around the country. This week, weâ€™re tuning in to WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where listeners wake up to the voice of local Morning Edition host Thibault Worth. Thibault also produces news spots for WFDD, and when time permits, he creates longer, more in-depth features for the station. One of those features is a recent story about the difficulties facing families where grandparents find themselves forced into the role of â€˜parentâ€™ for a second time. Hereâ€™s a brief Q & A with Thibault about his experience putting this piece together, and about his radio backgroundâ€¦
Tell us a bit about your radio background and what sort of work you do at WFDD…
I started off in radio at KPFA, the Pacifica radio station in Berkeley, CA. In exchange for a short radio training course, I volunteered my green reporting skills once a week for the better part of a year. I was having a blast, but also recognized my limitations and wanted to learn more about radio storytelling. I attended journalism graduate school at the University of Southern California. While there, I spent a summer in Hong Kong reporting for the Voice of America. I was lucky to have a great teacher in Judy Muller, an ABC News correspondent and frequent commentator on NPR. After school, I returned to my native North Carolina and started working at WFDD, an NPR affiliate station in Winston-Salem. I currently host Morning Edition and produce spots, features and the occasional series.
What kind of a station is WFDD, format-wise, and what sort of local programming comes out of there?
We have an all-talk format. After decades of a classical music format, we switched over about a year and half ago (much to the chagrin of some of our longtime listeners). We now have a daily show about the arts scene in the Triad (the name for the region encompasses by the cities of Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point). We also have a weekly program profiling local citizens who’ve achieved some form of national recognition. Our small news team works hard to cover as much local news as we can, and produce occasional features like this one.
What put this story on your radar?
Shirley Smith called the station. Unlike many grandparents in her situation, she’s fortunate to have a lot of extra energy. She’s spoken to many local politicians about this issue. After doing some research, I realized there were many interesting aspects to this story. It’s not just about a needed law; it’s about family dynamics and social breakdown. After working hard all their lives, these grandparents deserve a rest. Instead, they’ve had parenthood foisted upon them a second time.
You catch some very candid moments on tape when Ms. Smith is arguing with her grandson… was it awkward for you to be camped out in someone’s home with an audio recorder when there was domestic discord going on around you?
I never felt awkward in this case, although I know why you might think that I would have. I was so interested in what was going on that it erased any self-consciousness I might have felt. After interviewing Ms. Smith, I asked her to bring her two grandchildren into the room. Eric had already been banging on the drums in the kitchen which I caught on tape. Eric and Erica were shy, so I asked them about issues at school and home. That generated some lively interactions. It was a lot easier, in a way, than interviewing someone in a studio about something rather impersonal.
I think the most poignant and surprising moment in this piece is when Ms. Smith laments that she’s never been able to embrace the traditional ‘grandma’ role… she has to be the disciplinarian instead. I wonder, what was the most eye-opening moment for you when you went out to put this piece together?
I agree. That was the most heartbreaking aspect of this story for me. With my grandmother, I got to playcard games, swim in the ocean, and could always count on her to baking me a lemon merangue pie. These kids will get nothing like that. As Ms. Smith says in the story, she’ll never be able to express the kind of “mushy” love the she got from her own grandmother. Dr. Lenora Campell, who runs the Grandparenting Program at Winston-Salem State University has spoken with lawmakers about how a de facto custody law could help these grandparents. Unfortunately, many seem not to grasp that this is a serious social problem. Campbell told me many romanticize the notion of grandparents raising grandchildren.
How do you think Ms. Smith feels about her own daughter’s failure to be an effective mother? That seems like it’s got to be as hard as anything else she’s dealing with…
It’s very sensitive and painful, and I am grateful for Ms. Smith’s for her candor. Mind you, this is a woman who worked three jobs while raising three children. She told me she knows her daughter possesses the same strength that she does, but that that strength is clouded. She doesn’t blame her daughter for her failure, but does blame the free-wheeling 1960s accountable. For obvious emotional reasons, grandparents don’t want to sue their own children for custody. The problem could be solved if these grandparents got automatic custody after a certain period of time.
â€¦WFDD producer and reporter Thibault Worth. You can hear more work from WFDD 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.