Rocky Mountain West: Public radio stations form regional reporting team

Brie Ripley, a host of Yellowstone Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” is seen here in the main control booth. YPR is joining with five other public radio stations to produce stories about the Rocky Mountain West. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

(Last Best News) BILLINGS – The evolution of news in our region continues.

Billings-based Yellowstone Public Radio has joined with five other public radio stations to produce in-depth coverage of subjects unique to the Rocky Mountain West.

The Collaboration in the Mountain West, as it is called, was announced Wednesday in a letter to YPR listeners from station General Manager Kurt Wilson. The project received a start-up grant of $475,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, money that will be used to hire new reporters and a managing editor to oversee the collaborative.

“The Corporation for Public Broadcasting realized that the Rocky Mountain West, as a region, was missing from national coverage except for when something happened,” said Jackie Yamanaka, interim news director at YPR. “There was no voice from the Rocky Mountain West.”

Yamanaka said the corporation had already funded some other “regional journalism collaboration” projects, and in 2016 representatives of Boise State Public Radio in Idaho and KUNC, based in Greeley, Colo., started talking about a project in this region.

Yamanaka was soon called into the conversation, as were representatives of other regional public radio stations. They were all small to medium-size stations with small newsrooms, Yamanaka said, and they were all covering the same issues, including public lands, public monuments, old West vs. new West and energy development.

The collaborative that was ultimately awarded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant is made up of — in addition to YPR, KUNC and Boise State — KRCC in Colorado Springs, Colo., Wyoming Public Media in Laramie, and KUER in Salt Lake City, Utah.

YPR is a little ahead of the game, having already brought on a new reporter early in July. Nate Hegyi is based in Bozeman, from where he will report on stories in southwestern Montana and Yellowstone National Park, and traveling elsewhere in Montana as needed.

Yamanaka said YPR has wanted to add a reporter in Bozeman for a long time, and the collaboration grant made it possible to fund the new position for at least a couple of years, after which YPR will be responsible for keeping it going. She said Hegyi will devote about 70 percent of his time to work specifically for the the collaborative project and the rest working on stories aimed at YPR listeners.

YPR will provide the other 30 percent of the content for the collaboration, Yamanaka said, and she herself will probably do most of that reporting. Yamanaka has long been the news director for YPR, mixing in administrative duties with political and public affairs reporting.

Under the leadership of Wilson, who took over as general manager in July, YPR is hiring a new news director, who should be on board by Nov. 1, according to Wilson.

At that point, Yamanaka will move to full-time reporting, with the title of senior political correspondent. She said she plans to do more in-depth reporting, web-only reporting and working on special projects like public forums and debates. She will also continue reporting from Helena when the Legislature is in session.

YPR won’t be adding to the staff in Billings, technically, because the news director will be starting just about the time Brie Ripley’s one-year assignment to YPR ends. Ripley has been the host of the local version of the “All Things Considered” program.

Yamanaka said she didn’t know exactly when the six stations would start collaborating. Some of the stations still need to hire new reporters, and all of them will be involved in the hiring of a managing editor, who will be based in Boise.

The partner stations have already decided on the broad subjects they will be focusing on: land and water; growth in an expanding West; issues facing the rural West; and the region’s culture and heritage.

In a press release, Tom Michael, general manager of the Boise station, said, “Here in the West, we’re watching the fast growth of new American cities, but we’re also seeing significant changes in the rural outposts. This partnership will explore this national contrast and share these compelling news stories to a wide audience in the distinctive voice that is public radio today.”

Yamanaka said reporters assigned to the collaborative project will be working on long-form stories and in-depth investigations on subjects like the fate of public monuments and the effects of “dark money” on politics.

A major goal is to produce stories of interest to national audiences, she said, so that people on the coasts hear about the Rocky Mountain West on a regular basis, and hear about stories of lasting importance, as opposed to stereotypical stories like the Freeman standoff in Jordan or the arrest of the Unabomber in Lincoln.

And unlike some of the collaborative reporting projects funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Yamanaka said, stories will not be posted on a standalone website, but will be shared on the stations’ individual websites.

Wilson, the new general manager, came to Billings from a 15-year stint at a joint public radio and television station in Mount Pleasant, Mich. He said it’s hard to quantify the success of YPR, since it doesn’t subscribe to any ratings services, but based on conversations with listeners and the response to fundraising drives, it appears to be robust and growing.

Yamanaka agreed.

“When you talk about the future of journalism, public radio is hiring,” she said. “Journalism is alive and well in public media”