The voices I regularly listen to on the radio are as familiar as friends. I’m a long-time fan of public radio, tuning in whenever I am in the car and frequently at home. These faceless voices provide a reliable source of amusement, news and intellectual stimulation. I value their opinions and thoughtful outlooks. It would be easy to identify any reporter by voice, but it would be pure guesswork if we met eye to eye.
One afternoon I was inspired to contact Austin Jenkins, the Olympia-based political reporter I have heard for years on KUOW and KNKX. I hunted on the net, made a few calls and sent a pleasant query. Would he be willing to sit on the other side of an interview? Call me a public radio nerd, but I was stoked when he wrote back and said, “Yes.” We set a time for coffee, with the caveat that our time might need to be rescheduled if there was breaking news. Fortunately for me, the news cycle was in a moment of quiet.
“I know my beat pretty well,” said Jenkins, who has been covering the Washington State Legislature for 14 years. His core mission, he explains, is to talk about what is going on in government and various state agencies and to keep tabs on campaign finance. In the early part of the calendar year, the bulk of Jenkins’ time is spent with the legislative session. There might be 2,200 bills filed at the beginning of the session, but only about 18-percent of the bills get approved. In part Jenkins’ work is about explaining what passes, but also asking, “Why didn’t others make it? What happens when bills are not revived?”
Jenkins continuously tracks how and where tax dollars are spent. He believes it is essential to hold state government accountable. Washington State has roughly a $40 billion budget. The state House and Senate include 147 lawmakers with approximately 1,000 lobbyists. That is a lot of ground to cover. He knows and appreciates that “local public radio has a commitment to state house coverage.” For Jenkins, the free press is about paying attention, challenging and fact checking.
Campaigns and elections are covered in the later part of the year. Jenkins also works on various long-term stories that require extensive research. He is always looking for a story that needs to be told. A recent airing of one of his stories, “How 11 Suicides Forced Change Inside Washington Prisons,” brought light to the issue of suicides in prison. You can read more of Jenkins’ award-winning reporting at NW News Network.
I wanted to get a glimpse of the glamor of radio broadcasting, so Jenkins graciously took me to his office adjacent to the capitol campus. It is a vintage house owned by the state and named after a reporter, a Mr. White, who used to have office space there. Hence, Jenkins can say he works at the White House! Really, it is an aging structure with views onto the campus. He and reporter, Tom Banse, share an office that was once a bedroom. The microphone on his desk is impressive, but there is no sound booth. The equipment is of high quality, but the rest of the space is no frills. When Jenkins is broadcasting live, it is a challenge to keep the background noise way down.
Jenkins’ typical work week includes three to five one-minute news spots. He also writes two to four features each month that last about four minutes each. The ambitious, long-term reporting projects are always in process. Months of work get boiled down to 40 minutes of on-air coverage, which is split into smaller segments. Then there is his regular Twitter feed to maintain. On Thursdays Jenkins also hosts TVW’s Inside Olympia with in-depth interviews and stories on a variety of legislative issues.
Jenkins explains one of his reporting goals is “telling the story and getting people to rethink their positions.” He finds his work both humbling and exciting. In a field where he has great familiarity, there is still unpredictability and often the need for a bit of detective work. If you know of a story that needs to be told, Jenkins welcomes your tips.
Jenkins lives in Olympia with his wife, Jennifer Huntley, who teaches Music Together at the Hands On Children’s Museum. They have two young children. “We love Olympia,” smiled Jenkins. Now when our paths happen to cross, I will be able to identify his smiling face.