Longtime Madison journalist Molly Stentz on her shift from broadcast to podcast | Local Government

After more than two decades in journalism, most recently with Wisconsin Public Radio, Molly Stentz is heading into new, yet familiar, territory as a Madison-focused journalist with City Cast, a new company aimed at building a network of local journalism podcasts across the country.

Stentz started out as a freelance reporter filing stories to the “Free Speech Radio News,” a national daily news show, before becoming news director and manager for WORT radio in Madison. After that, she spent time as an executive producer with WPR and became the assistant director of the nationwide Ideas Network.

Can you tell me about what led you into your career in journalism?

I am drawn to journalism because you get to continuously learn new things. I love peeking around various corners to see how things work. I’ve also done a lot of other things along the way (ran a grocery store, worked in a restaurant and at an elementary school, was a farmworker, drove dump trucks on a municipal landscaping crew, worked as a bookkeeper, helped build a tech startup). I haven’t yet driven a cab or bartended professionally, the classic journalist side hustles. But in this town, who knows? It could happen.

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Can you tell me a little about your upcoming role with City Cast and some of the topics you hope to explore in the near future?

City Cast is a new company building a network of local journalism podcasts across the country. They’re in a handful of cities right now, including Chicago, and they’re growing quickly. It was born out of the pandemic with the idea to invest in local journalism and revive civic life, to be a friendly and informative source about life in your city at a time when so many of us became isolated and disconnected. We’ll put out a daily podcast, which is basically a radio show you can listen to whenever you want using your computer or phone, created by people you know and trust. We’ll tackle the issues that Madison is facing head-on — how to afford housing, find good work and child care, take care of our families, deal with the changing climate and entrenched structural problems like racism. And we’ll also introduce you to more of your neighbors — fascinating people making art and music, growing food, building new things, taking care of each other and trying to make the city a better place to live.

What are you most looking forward to in this new role?

I’m looking forward to building something new, to helping grow options for journalism in Madison. Dylan Brogan and I tried creating a local news podcast for Madison years ago when we were both working at WORT, but we didn’t have the right infrastructure at the time to support it. City Cast is owned by the former Washington Post publisher (Graham Holdings, as in Katharine Graham, first female publisher of a major US newspaper). They own several other media companies, including Slate and Foreign Policy magazine. So they’ve got the expertise, infrastructure and heft of an established media company, but with the agility and flexibility of a small-business startup.

It’s no secret that journalism has faced its share of challenges over the years — especially on the local level. What do you attribute to your ability to stay with it, while so many others move on to other fields?

I believe in the power of personal connection and in local democracy: people helping people. Everyone has stories to tell, they need skills and opportunities to do so. I have spent my entire career trying to build a more inclusive model of journalism because a free society demands it. We can only have a healthy society if we have a civically engaged and informed public.

What we need are systems that value reporting and critical thinking, not simply entertainment. It is good, needed work and has been gratifying to work with such a wide variety of people who are drawn to it — from high school and college students who have found their calling and inspiration, young reporters who have gone on to win Pulitzers, community members who have found love and meaning in the work.

You have a strong background in broadcast journalism. Are there any particular challenges that come to mind as you shift into the world of podcasting?

The challenge of podcasting right now is helping people find us and make listening a habit. Radio is very habitual — you hop in a car on your way to work and it’s there. … The internet provides so many more options, you can get buried in all the choices. There is also not equitable access to the internet, which is a shameful reality. But at the same time, there are so few daily podcasts rooted in a sense of place that talk about your community, that are reported and researched, and that are accessible, sound good and are engaging. We hope to do that for Madison.

Do you have a favorite Madison story?

Many years ago, I was on a trip to Bangladesh to interview an activist who was documenting garment factory fires that were occurring in the capital city of Dhaka. … It had taken a lot of logistical planning to arrange for the interview and when I arrived and introduced myself, he looked at me quizzically and said, “Another Molly from Madison? There was just one here last week!” It was surprising because he didn’t get a lot of foreign visitors and it’s not a very common name — and Madison is not a large enough city to be on the map for most people who have never been here. Sure enough, when I was back in Madison, I asked around and tracked down the other Molly who was researching global labor conditions. We compared notes and became friends. You can still do that in a city the size of Madison.

“What we need are systems that value reporting and critical thinking, not simply entertainment.”

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