About a month ago, I got the chance to sit down with one of KMUW’s on-air hosts and producers, Fletcher Powell. We talked a little bit about his journey to public radio and how KMUW supports and encourages education in the Wichita community. Listen to the recording of our conversation or read the transcript below!
What got you interested in Radio? Was this something you always wanted to do?
No, not at all. When I was doing my undergrad in college, my degree was in Psychology. But towards the end of it, I got really interested in video and filmmaking. I was really interested in the production side of it—all of the editing and so on. I worked a lot with that, but that kind of went away after I graduated, and I did some other things for awhile. For awhile, I was trading stocks. Which isn’t really like a thing I thought I’d ever be doing. I kind of wanted to get out of that and just change my career path, I guess. I kind of started thinking about journalism a little bit, but I was also interested in digital production.
So through a friend of mine here, I started volunteering at the radio station doing basic production work. It was a pretty easy transition from the stuff I knew from video production to just audio production. I started volunteering here just a few hours a week doing promos and that sort of thing. Then, at the point I decided to go to grad school, I had the choice between [Wichita State] or a couple of other places. [KMUW] told me if I would go [to WSU], they could hire me here at the station as a graduate intern, and I would actually get paid to do more production work–about 30 hours a week. I decided to do that. So I went to Wichita State for a Communications Masters and then got hired here at the radio station doing production work. After I graduated, I got hired as a reporter and then eventually got moved to a producer and being on the air. I don’t really report that much.
So I didn’t really have any intention of doing it. I always liked public radio, but I never really had any intention of going into it.
So where did you get your undergrad degree?
Are you from Kansas?
Yeah. I’ve lived here most of my life and a few other places.
Did you trade stocks in Lawrence?
No, that’s when I was here. That was also kind of out of the blue. After I graduated college, a friend of mine started working for a guy who was basically independently wealthy. Like a year later, they just called me up and said “Hey, we want you to come work here.” Because, I guess they knew I was sort of capable in general and that I would learn quickly. And I did. And I did it for about 5 years. I wouldn’t tell you that I liked it. I mean, I’m glad I have that knowledge now. It will help me for the rest of my life, but its just not a world I thought I would be in.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody that has traded stocks.
Well, we were doing it through the meltdown in 2008 and 2009, so that was pretty awesome.
Oh wow, that’s high drama.
It was pretty crazy.
Well that kind of answers my question about how you ended up at KMUW. So did you have to make any major adjustments to your personality, your work ethic…?
No, thankfully! I’m pretty easy going and I work relatively hard I guess. So I was pretty fortunate that I fit in really well here. I think I mesh pretty well with most of the people here. It certainly fits my personality a lot better than what I was doing before, which was the stock trading. So yeah. I certainly didn’t have to make any major adjustments. I don’t know if maybe anyone had to adjust to me…
How do you think your role at KMUW supports education in the Wichita community?
Well if you mean just general education and not like “the public schools,” then one of the core tenants or values of public radio is a belief in lifelong learning. And so for me, I’m a very curious person, and I always have been. Everything we put out there, everything we produce and everything we bring from NPR contributes to that. Satisfying people’s curiosity. Whether its bringing up issues that they haven’t thought about before or going a little more in-depth to issues they have thought about.
Obviously our whole world is built around time, and we don’t have a lot. Sometimes we have only a minute and forty seconds to tell you about something, but the hope is maybe you’ll find it interesting, and if you do, you’ll go and seek to learn more about that on your own. Our goal is to help people learn and to help people cultivate that curiosity curiosity…Hopefully people are learning more about Wichita or more about various historical matters or legal issues. Robin Henry does a lot with legal issues. We’ve started that and we also talk about the arts in Wichita as much as we can. So that’s constantly one of our goals—to help people learn and to want to know more.
Are there any commentaries that you would encourage Wichita community members to listen to? Is there any one that is particularly appealing to you?
I think that history one is great for bringing up topics that you could investigate a little more on your own. Lael Ewy has his “OnWards” commentary which is pretty interesting. Lael gets down into the weeds a little bit with that one. I personally like Zach Gingrich-Gaylord’s one about hip-hop, and before that he was doing one about graffiti, and I thought that was really cool. He has a different angle on things then you might hear in regular media. He’s really thought a lot about this stuff, and sometimes he’ll start talking about postmodernism and whatnot while he’s talking about hip-hop, which is cool. And it’s a different take on things.
Obviously, the right thing for me to say is “all of them are great.” Oh! And Mark Foley! Mark Foley’s “Musical Space” is fantastic every time. He is very good. I don’t want to say anyone is the best, but he’s one of the better ones we have.
Would you consider yourself or anyone here at KMUW an educator?
Well we certainly have at least one person who is an educator—Jedd Beaudoin teaches. But yes, I mean I think that is the job. That is what we are doing. Our music producers are amazing. Chris Heim has an incredible wealth of knowledge. It’s kind of ridiculous, and I think that anybody who listens to her shows is going to learn. I would hope that anyone who listens to anything is going to learn. Whether that means learning about things that happen in the world, or learning about themselves, listening to something like “This American Life” or “RadioLab.” It is a prime job of ours, for us to be educators.
Do you have any background in education?
Both my parents are teachers. So, that’s a lot of it. I’ve done substitute teaching. I did that for a couple of years.
Did you like it?
Yes and no. Some days it was horrible and some days it was a lot of fun. The little kids are amazing but also an incredible workout. But really I have my parents to thank for a lot of it. I wouldn’t say necessarily that the substitute teaching taught me a lot about education.
Are your parents educators here in Wichita?
Yes! They are both public school teachers.
What subjects did they teach?
My father taught mostly 4th grade. 4th, 5th, and 6th grade. My mom taught lots of stuff, really: Social Students, Language Arts, Math. Those are the prime things she taught. She taught Middle School for most of what I remember.
So talking specifically about Wichita State and their mission as a University, part of their mission is, “to value seizing opportunities, a community of diversity and thought, and do that with an adaptive approach and teamwork.” How would you say that KMUW exemplifies those kinds of ideas?
We work hard to bring in diverse voices. It’s not always the easiest thing to do. Depending on how diverse you want it to get, there are things like language barriers or even culture barriers. But I think we work hard to bring those voices in. Something NPR does very, very well is to have people in particular communities actually talking to people who live there. So you get those actual diverse voices. And we try to reflect that at KMUW.
Here at the station, everything is teamwork. It’s sort of like making a movie. There is no one person who does all of it. If there is a reporter, that reporter has probably gotten leads from another person here. That reporter is going to get edited by another person at the station. It’s going to be produced maybe by that reporter or maybe by someone else. Then it has to make its way on to the air, and that involves the host and anybody else in the pipeline. Maybe we could say—with the exception of the music hosts who pretty much do everything on their own—everything is done by a team in some capacity or another.
So then how do you feel that your specific role emphasizes those ideas about diversity?
My particular role? Well, I’m part of that team. I’m a producer here as well as being an on-air host. So as the host, I’m the final gatekeeper. Often, there is something that needs to be changed, or there is a fact or something or a question that might be incorrect, so I have to run back to the News Department. As a producer, I am the one who cleans things up. I also record a lot of the commentators and make them sound pretty. So, in my capacity, being part of that team those are the things that I do.
In terms of diversity, we’re always looking for new voices for our commentaries or new voices for special features. So it’s often up to me to go into the community and find people who can speak to whatever we’re looking for.
So what do you see for the future of KMUW? In general, for the whole station, and then directly for education as well.
Well with educating the community, I hope that we can continue to do what we’re doing but also get better at it. We’ve done a lot of expanding of our staff over the past couple of years and our plan is to continue to do that. I don’t think our core belief in lifelong learning and how we approach that is going to change. We just hope that we refine it and continue to learn. I don’t feel like we’re sitting on a bunch of knowledge and we’re sending it out. We’re learning along with everybody else. That will continue to happen and, like I said, hopefully improve.
For the station, we’re very excited to move downtown. The date on that has been shifted around, but it’s near term. So that will happen very soon. And then we’ll be down in the Old Town area, and we’ll have a lot more access to people in the community. I think it might change our perspective a little bit. It will be a little unfortunate to move away from the resources we have at Wichita State. Right now, they’re right across the street. Obviously, the resources will still be there. We have professors who can walk right across the street right now and often do, and so that will be a little trickier. But I think the benefits will be really good for us.
When are you guys actually moving?
Right now, it’s probably the beginning of the year. It was supposed to be October, but they had some structural problems. They’re also completely building a new studio for us. Do you know where the Wichita Business Journal is? Or the Brickyard?
So it’ll be the building directly west of that. Right across the alley.
Well that’s great. You guys will really be in the muck of it. Is there anything that you think deserves a special mention or shout out?
The first thing I always think of when I think of education is “RadioLab.” I think anybody who is interested in learning anything should listen to that show all the time. But we’re hoping to do that in any capacity with everything we’re doing.