Photo by Sara Stathas
Is it a shrimp? A lobster?” The voice of a fascinated 5-year-old blends with plinks of stones in water as the girl’s mother lifts a crawfish from the Menomonee River. The family is exploring the new Three Bridges Park in the Menomonee Valley. WUWM environmental reporter Susan Bence is tagging along with an audio recorder and microphone, dodging and crouching to capture the sound.
The park’s opening last summer celebrated the valley’s transformation from polluted brownfield to lush public space. But Bence’s story wasn’t about the ribbon-cutting ceremony. She profiled South Side residents whose children are learning about fish, bugs and birds just a short walk from home.
“I go after the human interest, funky stuff,” she says.
Bence spotlights urban gardens, invasive species and controversial iron ore mining. She reduces complicated science, tiresome politics and clashing values to human scale.
“Susan is the go-to voice for people to understand key things going on in the region,” says Lynn Broaddus, director of the environment program at the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread.
Bence’s fan club is growing, but she’s an unlikely media star. For most of her life, she adored public radio, yet never imagined reporting and writing for a living. “I thought of it as another world,” she says.
Bence worked for Prevent Blindness Wisconsin for 19 years, rising to executive director. But the top job was a bad fit, and the board pushed her out. She had just gone through a divorce, and her two children were still at home. At that lowest of moments, Bence pledged to make big changes.
“I was so specific about what I wanted to do,” she says. “I wanted to work in public radio.”
When she was nearly 50, she went back to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a second bachelor’s degree in journalism and got an internship at WUWM. “I dyed my hair for a while because it made me think I looked a little younger,” Bence says with a laugh. “But I got over that.”
She graduated in 2007, and WUWM hired her soon after. The environmental reporter position, funded by a grant, requires knowledge of complex science and policy. “Fortunately, we need to get it down to an understandable level, which is where I’m at,” she says. In her audio pieces, casual narration and vivid description mingle with on-location sound – wind, water and conversation.
As executive director of Menomonee Valley Partners, Laura Bray works with dozens of Milwaukee reporters. Bence stands out. “She’ll call,” Bray explains, “and say, ‘Let’s go on site. You never know what you’re going to hear.’”
Earlier this year, Susan Bence turned 60, dream job in hand.
“I didn’t know if I could do it,” she says. “Gradually, you just learn that you can do it.”
Susan Bence talks with Jane Hampden about her transition
to a career in public radio.