WBEZ Wins Three Prestigious RTDNA Journalism Awards

Commended work ranged from a sound-rich personal profile to accountability stories that challenged state gambling policies and city towing practices.

RTDNA Awards 2020
Plaques for national Edward R. Murrow awards were on display at the Radio Television Digital News Association annual awards ceremony on Oct. 10, 2020. The awards are issued for outstanding achievements in electronic journalism, ranging from terrestrial radio and TV, to digital presentations and podcasts. Courtesy of RTDNA
RTDNA Awards 2020
Plaques for national Edward R. Murrow awards were on display at the Radio Television Digital News Association annual awards ceremony on Oct. 10, 2020. The awards are issued for outstanding achievements in electronic journalism, ranging from terrestrial radio and TV, to digital presentations and podcasts. Courtesy of RTDNA

WBEZ Wins Three Prestigious RTDNA Journalism Awards

Commended work ranged from a sound-rich personal profile to accountability stories that challenged state gambling policies and city towing practices.

Chicago Public Media has won three prestigious national Murrow Awards for its audio storytelling, investigative work and innovation in reporting in 2019.

Named in honor of legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, the awards recognize achievement in radio, TV and digital media. The WBEZ winning entries include: “Mexican Street Food in Pilsen Now Includes Sweet Potatoes” for use of sound, “Chicago’s Towing System is Broken” for innovation in presenting news, and “The Bad Bet,” for investigative reporting. The “Bad Bet” was co-reported and produced with ProPublica Illinois.

“This is a moment for all of WBEZ and Chicago Public Media to celebrate and take a bow for the honors and recognition from the Radio Television News Association,” said WBEZ Managing Editor Tracy Brown.

In “The Bad Bet,” WBEZ’s Dan Mihalopoulos and ProPublica Illinois’ Jason Grotto and Sandhya Kambhampati documented the state’s failure to increase funding for gambling addiction programs as it expanded the gaming industry. The package profiled Orville Dash, an elderly widower who had gambled away tens of thousands in savings.

Mihalopoulos says the team owes much to Mr. Dash, as well as members of a Downers Grove Gamblers Anonymous group.

“The most difficult thing was finding gambling addicts who could explain the pain that the gambling expansion in Illinois was causing them and their families,” he said.

Former WBEZ editor Cate Cahan added that complex investigations such as this need detailed data and analysis, “but we’ve also learned that the human experience and voice can lock in the message and help the numbers hit home.”

In “Mexican Street Food in Pilsen Now Includes Sweet Potatoes,” released in January of last year, Linda Lutton profiled Roberto Escalante, a street vendor selling Mexican-style roasted sweet potatoes and plantains from a cart set up in the Pilsen neighborhood.

Lutton’s story weaves the unique sound issued from Escalante’s traditional wood-fired cart (a sound she describes as a “cross between a teapot and a lunch whistle”) with testimonials from buyers and passersby. Lutton says the piece tells a story about immigrant ingenuity, but also speaks of nostalgia for the tastes and sounds of Mexico and home.

She says it was inspired by her own three-year stay in Michoacán, Mexico, where she became familiar with the whistle of the camoteros.

“I think it goes to show how embedded sound is in our memory and what a role it plays in emotion,” Lutton said. “I also tried to feature the sound of the Spanish language in this piece — I let a lot of Spanish play in the clear. I was definitely conscious that I was making a sort of ‘bonus track’ for Spanish-speakers.”

In his graphics-driven digital piece “Chicago’s Towing System is Broken,” former WBEZ data editor Elliott Ramos revealed city vehicle towing practices that cost tens of thousands of Chicago residents their cars.

Ramos pored over public records and cross-referenced dozens of datasets acquired through freedom of information requests. He then walked readers through a point-by-point argument that Chicago’s ticketing and towing policies were barely generating revenue, but regularly ensnared drivers in cycles of debt to the city.

“I wanted to highlight the scale of the operation, and make it easy for people to understand how big it was, how messed up it was, and a roadmap for officials to fix it,” Ramos said. “The story was a buildup from previous stories, and this story was meant to tie together the whole towing system.”

His ongoing coverage, often done in collaboration with ProPublica Illinois, led to reforms, including city policies that — among other things — capped storage fees. The city also halted collections of some impounded cars to assess whether drivers were overcharged.

WBEZ Chief Content Officer Steve Edwards says it’s an honor for CPM to be nationally recognized for both its audio and digital work.

“First and foremost, these awards reflect the talent, rigor, and dedication of the outstanding journalists in our newsroom,” he said. “They also reflect our collective belief in the importance of investing in local journalism. Robust, original reporting is essential to the health of local communities and our democracy.”