By Jordan Polk, Democracy & Me Intern
My name is Jordan Polk, and I am a recent graduate from the University of Cincinnati. During my time as a student, I was fortunate enough to embark on some amazing journeys: I was a Resident Advisor, the founder and president of the UC Milkshake Club (that sure was a sweet experience), a co-host and a facilitator for the internationally attended Environmental Justice Advocacy Symposium of 2021, and so much more. Yet, the most rewarding, humbling, and educational experience that I had, while I was enrolled at UC, was my time as a Democracy & Me intern, working with Cincinnati Public Radio to bring loads of diverse content to remarkable readers and listeners like you.
I have been a part of this educational outreach program for a year now, working alongside three different waves of college interns and high school apprentices over last fall, spring, and summer semesters. Unfortunately, my time with CPR is winding down now; in fact, this blog post will be the last morsel of content that I produce as a Democracy and Me intern (no, I am not crying, those are just tears from intently staring at my computer screen while I type for way too long). It’s okay though: all good things must come to an end—and, trust me, this was a good thing, a really good thing, a magnificent momentous thing… okay, you get the idea.
During my time with CPR, I grew creatively, and I learned a ton, especially about the arduous (and fun) process of publishing content, whether it be audio-based, written, visual, or a mixture of all three. It takes a lot of work and a bunch of brilliant minds to deliver these multimedia projects in cutesy digestible packages. For example, without our fantastic website manager and digital platforms coordinator, Jim Nolan, this post would not look so pretty; in fact, it probably would not exist in the first place. Now, Jim is cool and all, a hockey goalie and an amateur paleontologist, but he can’t do everything himself. Cincinnati Public Radio is made up of several dozen professional staff members who all play to their strengths, passing content around like a well-coordinated (and very large) basketball team.
I saw a great example of this collaborative action the day I got to watch the Cincinnati Edition squad—host Michael Monks, producer Selena Reder, assistant producer Nick Swartsell, and recording engineer Josh Elstro—execute one of their weekday episodes, with listeners calling in questions, social media coordinator Ronny Salerno posting updates, and so on. A lot of balls in the air!
The first project I took on myself as a Democracy & Me intern was curating and hosting one of their Democracy & Z podcasts on the topic of Avatar: the Last Airbender (Nickelodeon’s hit show from the early 2000s). Obviously, that was a pretty fun episode to cover, but it wasn’t entirely recreational; D&Z is rooted in youth-centered politics and social justice, meaning that I had to find a way to tie this cartoon series into something timely and impactful. I crafted starter questions on race, representation, and systems of power as seen in pop culture pieces like Avatar. I worked in jokes and ironic references while keeping the conversation enlightening—after all, Democracy & Me is an educational outreach program.
For the actual recording of the podcast episode, I was joined by three other students, Abi Doench from the Cincinnati School for Creative and Performing Arts, Jiahao Guo from Mason H.S., and, another Democracy & Me intern, Alex Bentley. Each of these intelligent students brought so much to the table, helping open the eyes of our listeners. Without the other members of the podcast panel and all of the preparation that they did on their own, the episode would not be nearly as strong as it was. Additionally, we had someone working behind the scenes and off-mic: Cincinnati Public Radio’s educational outreach coordinator, Julie Coppens, was recording the Zoom while sometimes nudging us back on track, or into a new direction we might not have considered, by dropping suggestions in the chat.
When the conversation was over, Julie also took the raw recording, trimmed out the dead air, “ummmms” or other awkward bits, and polished up the rest using audio-editing software, an arduous task that I was able to conduct myself for a different D&Z episode.
Toward the end of my internship, I had the privilege of working with one of WVXU’s remarkable reporters, Jolene Almendarez, on two separate stories requiring different kinds of research. One piece addressed the legal complications, and very real-world consequences for low-income renters, around eviction moratoriums in Cincinnati (https://www.wvxu.org/news/2021-08-18/no-eviction-moratorium-means-heartbreaking-scenes-of-families-on-the-streets). Using the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts online database, we went through court files, one by one, in order to figure out which early 2021 eviction cases included pleas to the CDC-issued order, providing temporary protection from eviction. I combed through well over a hundred different records, only finding perhaps four cases that met our search requirements. Meanwhile, Jolene had to track down and interview people directly affected by the issue—real families in real crisis, not just court officials or property owners—and handle their personal stories with respect and care.
The second report dealt with the dangers of lead piping, and our local government’s ongoing efforts to encourage homeowners to switch to safer alternatives, such as copper pipes, with financial incentives. We identified one neighborhood where lead pipes remain in many homes, and went in on foot, knocking on door after door, asking residents who answered if they’d be willing to talk with us about their plumbing. We documented the encounters with a handheld recording device, so that we could sift through the audio file for usable quotes at a later date, matching voices to our paper notes and photos, double-checking everything for accuracy—more steps and more work.
Even after all of the data-mining and story collection, Jolene still needs to write the article itself, linking external sources, fact-checking, emphasizing certain words and phrases, and breaking the piece up into easily digestible content. Then pictures need to be incorporated, voice-recorded summaries need to be made, sources need to be cited, etc. Back-breaking work, yes, but also exhilarating and rewarding, especially when a story shines a light on an issue that’s causing genuine hardship for some in our community. When Jolene’s eviction piece aired, many listeners reached out with offers to help the affected renters get back on their feet, and at least one local family’s eviction drama had a happy ending.
This internship wasn’t easy; there were late nights and hard work. I would sit up for hours, racking my brain, trying to make my various projects the best that they could be. I would rewrite drafts, workshop interview questions, and polish up recordings; I wanted to make sure that the content that I was putting out into the world was always the best representation of myself, whether it was for an audience of 1 or 100. What fueled me was seeing the people around me also pour their hearts into what they did. I was surrounded by so many other students, many of them younger than me but just as talented (if not more so), who inspired me, challenged me creatively, and forced me to grow just to keep up with them. Additionally, I was able to see other parts of Cincinnati Public Radio, outside of Democracy & Me, watching the professional staff members do work that I could only dream of, working fast and seamlessly to fill hours of airtime and feed all the digital platforms that make up the modern CPR universe—not to be confused with the MCU, except that both involve superheroes and special effects.
In closing, I want to thank the entire Cincinnati Public Radio team, especially Julie Coppens, Democracy & Me’s unimaginably talented producer, who has gifted me with a year’s worth of support, kindness, and priceless knowledge. I want to thank the Charles H. Dater Foundation for fully funding this program, giving Cincinnati-area students an opportunity to grow as thinkers, as storytellers, and as people.
Lastly, I want to encourage you, the beautiful soul who is still reading this, to be a part of Cincinnati Public Radio in any way that you can. If you are a local student, apply to be an intern! (If you miss this week’s deadline, consider applying for the spring program, subscribe to the newsletter, and keep an eye out for other ways to get involved.) Otherwise, listen in, read up, and support Democracy & Me, and CPR as a whole. Just as I did over this last year, you could gain an education beyond anything you might expect.