You are currently viewing Spotlight on Helen Chickering, host of BPR Morning Edition

Spotlight on Helen Chickering, host of BPR Morning Edition

Helen majored in science and health journalism and most recently served on the North Carolina task force on the future of local public health. She has spent most of her career in television news. Helen sat down with BPR intern Charlie Smith to reflect on her time here as well as the tranquility that comes from backyard times.

What is your life like inside and outside the station?

My day starts early! My alarm goes off at 4:15 a.m. I arrive at the station around 5:30. One of my big jobs is writing the local newscasts that we put on the morning edition of NPR. I start working on it the day before. I scan the news, look for local stories, and check with NPR member stations to see what they’re reporting. Once at the station, I finish writing then I organize the logs with the weather. We broadcast live from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. I love it, I feel like I’m listening with everyone.

Have you had different roles over the years? Because you’ve been here about 8 years, right? What was this experience like?

We have always listened to public radio. My family moved here from Chapel Hill. A few years after our arrival, my children learned that an announcer position was open at WCQS. I had no recording equipment with me and had little experience with radio. I ended up recording a demo on my phone and sending it. I was thrilled to get the afternoon announcer job. At the time, I was doing freelance health reporting and also working at a school. The announcer job was part-time and my shift started after I left school around 2:00 p.m. each day, where I did everything from car line to spelling lessons. Every afternoon I drove from playground duty to the station. I loved this contrast. I like working with students because they are honest and in the moment. I tried to remember it at the station where I was a novice and had a lot to learn, including how to operate the soundboard. I made a lot of mistakes along the way.

The students would grab them all and say, “Boy, Mrs. Helen, I heard you. You ruined the weather. Or “You mispronounced that word.” And I remember saying “I did it, and we got thousands of listeners. I blundered in front of them all. But life went on. We’re fine! So when you’re stressed about of this test or when you goof in front of your friends, just think of Mrs. Helen, we are all fine.

I loved that feeling and those days. I even had a student write down my weather forecast. It was great.

You have already been on TV. You mentioned what that transition was like, but what was the overall experience of having to go from video to strictly caring about audio?

I wish I had discovered radio years ago. The biggest challenge has been changing the way I describe things. On TV, you have graphics and visuals to back up what you’re saying. If you describe numbers, you have that support. Not with the radio. Your words have to help people visualize and some words don’t play well on the radio. I remember my first script here and it was stuffed full of numbers. It didn’t go well on the radio. Especially NPR, those driveway moments where you’re in your car or listening to your phone and you feel like you’re there. Understand how to write and speak in a way that will engage listeners and help them visualize a story. So that’s still my goal and I’m still working on it. I like to learn something new.

How do you approach reporting and stay grounded in these challenging times, from the pandemic to landmark Supreme Court rulings? And with the constant news cycle, how do you prepare to keep listeners informed of breaking news and ever-changing news events?

I have always listened to NPR. I know I will find balanced context and reporting here. We all have extreme emotions about something, whether it’s rage or elation. Our job is always to present the facts, present that important context, and then let the listeners make their decisions. It’s hard. I struggle with that. I know we all have personal experiences with many of these issues. Especially now with social media. Everyone is in the headlines. We grab something and vomit it to our neighbor, and it goes viral. It is more important than ever that we are a media organization where we do our homework. We check the facts. We do this substantive work. It motivates me. It’s deep inside me. This is why we are publicly supported. We don’t have a big institution or corporation funding us. They are listeners. I keep that in mind, and if we don’t do our job, they tell us.

And I guess those kinds of questions lead to this next question. Why did you choose to come and work for public radio? What are the things you enjoy here?

It’s my dream job. I was going to become a documentary filmmaker and it didn’t work out. I landed in a newsroom and found my home, then tuned into health stories. Along the way, I was always listening to NPR. It’s a place where you’ll hear a story you won’t get anywhere else. Public radio finds that angle incalculable, it gives you the context of the title, it gives you those “aisle moments.” I like all of that.

What is your favorite thing in life or work for you right now?

Times when the whole family is together. We are about to be empty nesters. Our son is going to be senior. My daughter is 20 and lives out of town. Recently, we were all sitting in the garden. We were watching the dogs play and I sat for a while and breathed it all in. I feel like I’ve been so busy for so long. As parents, getting the kids to school, getting to work, and everything in life. Now I feel like my brain has finally gotten to a point where I can enjoy it. Now I can hear the birds and it’s as corny and wonderful as it all sounds.

The last question, is there anything else you would like to add, or is there anything I didn’t ask you that you would like to share?

I really appreciate everything that happens behind the scenes here at BPR and the people who make it all come together. My voice is the end of a long chain of hard work that most people get very little credit for, and I’m very aware of that. I’m so grateful to be here.

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