Interlochen Radio Teaches the Ropes of Environmental Journalism

Michigan-native Maxwell Johnston, a journalism fifth-year senior, had never been farther north than Grand Rapids until last summer when he interned for Interlochen Public Radio, a small Northwest Michigan news organization. 

As a self-described “non-outdoorsy person”, Johnston felt a little out of sorts with the prospect of being surrounded by nothing but nature for four months. However, his recent experience taking classes with the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism inspired him to take a chance on the opportunity. Months later, he emerged with seasoned reporting skills, advice and even a little taste of “roughing it” in the great outdoors of Northern Michigan. 

Gaining Experience at Interlochen Radio 

As Johnston stepped into the role of environmental news intern, he discovered how a small staff of 5 reporters covered local and state news to keep the local community and surrounding areas well-informed. Johnston didn’t spend his summer fetching coffee— he was out in the field gathering story ideas, audio and writing scripts for himself and his colleagues. 

“I was an intern, but I was pitching my own stories,” Johnston said. “No one ever said ‘Oh no, you shouldn’t do that’, which is probably something you should say more often to a 22-year-old reporter.” 

According to Johnston, the station, located 25 minutes outside Traverse City in a small town called Interlochen, is the perfect location to learn hands-on environmental reporting. 

“You’re in the middle of the woods, in this beautiful part of our state, which also happens to be a very fragile part of our state,” Johnston said. “There’s a story wherever you look.” 

Starting a Career

Johnston heard about the opportunity through the Knight Center, and with the mentorship he received from Eric Freedman, director, and David Poulson, senior associate director, he fine-tuned his work samples and got the courage to apply.  

“I had a class with [Freedman] in the fall and [Poulson] in the spring,” said Johnston. “Being around them and getting positive feedback on my stories definitely pushed me towards going for the internship.”

Interlochen Radio has a close relationship with Michigan Radio and National Public Radio (NPR), a connection Johnston utilized to inquire about having his work aired on Michigan Radio’s Environment Report. After reaching out to the host Rebecca Williams and working on a story for several weeks, his story about carp missing from Grand Traverse Bay aired on the show. 

“It was a huge deal for me because I have listened to the show my whole life,” Johnston said. 

Staying Involved 

On campus, Johnston has been involved in MSU Telecasters, is a current contributor for Impact 89FM and works for Poulson on the Knight Center’s podcast, Food Fix, where he hosts and produces content about food scarcity and innovative techniques to solve world hunger. 

As a journalism student who was well-trained in writing basics for print news, Johnston went through an adjustment period to get his work oriented for broadcast. He learned to alter his focus from the deadline of the story to the quality of the content and developed an engaging, descriptive style. He also learned that planning out what kind of equipment a story requires is an essential component of broadcast work.

“The biggest adjustment is learning how to write like that, using narrative tools and AP style,” Johnston said. “The trick to that is to listen to a lot of radio stories and podcasts, so you get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.”

Johnston advises that students interested in radio look for opportunities outside of their comfort zones. He believes that getting your foot in the door at a station makes all of the difference, whether it is a volunteer or paid position. He also recommends getting used to industry-standard software and equipment, as well as the workspace and expectations. 

By Rianna N. Middleton