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Ben Calhoun sees the world, including his beloved Milwaukee, through the eyes of a top-notch storyteller. He’s a producer for This American Life, one of the most popular podcasts in the country with more than a million listeners downloading each episode. The show draws legions of devoted fans with its signature tell-it-like-it-is ethos. Host and […]

Ben Calhoun sees the world, including his beloved Milwaukee,
through the eyes of a top-notch storyteller. He’s a producer for This
American Life
, one of the most popular podcasts in the country with
more than a million listeners downloading each episode. The show draws legions
of devoted fans with its signature tell-it-like-it-is ethos. Host and public
radio star Ira Glass is also executive producer, leading a team of about a
dozen producers. Calhoun earned a spot in 2010 after covering politics for
Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ-FM.


Ben Calhoun


Calhoun grew up in Washington Heights and attended the
Milwaukee High School of the Arts in the mid-1990s. He remembers the place as a
happy mix of racial and economic diversity. “It was a real expression of some
of the best things Milwaukee has to offer,” he says. Recently,
when he came back to speak to an English class, he was struck by the jammed
classroom. “You could feel the strain of what the school district is trying to
find its way through financially,” he recalls.

Calhoun was part of a team that won a 2013 Peabody Award for
coverage of a much more troubled school, Harper High in Chicago. Twenty-nine
current or former Harper students were shot in a single year, inspiring This American Life to produce a gritty documentary
on guns, death and life at Harper. Calhoun traced the birth of an angry teenage
gang formed in memory of a slain 16-year-old boy.

The elite journalists at This
American Life
are shaking up the business side of radio as well as the
storytelling side. Over the summer, the show ditched its long-time distributor,
Public Radio International. Now it delivers audio files to 500 public radio
stations via PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Listeners won’t know the
difference, but the move spotlights a new digital playpen where content
producers don’t need big corporate partners. “In a way, it’s really empowering
for anyone who wants to try their hand at radio,” Calhoun observes. At the same
time, upstarts without a sea of followers must compete with heavyweights like Radiolab
and “a gazillion” quality podcasts, he says.

Although Calhoun now hangs out in progressive New York media
circles, he grew up in an extended Wisconsin family with a kaleidoscope of
political views. He has a cousin who’s a Wauwatosa firefighter and another
who’s into organic farming. They’re all close, he says, reflecting the cooperative
civic spirit of a lost era. He returns to Milwaukee often with his wife, New York Times editor Catrin Einhorn,
and their two young children. Leon’s Frozen Custard is the same (he’s a huge
fan), but lots of other things are different. Calhoun has chronicled
political chaos in Wisconsin for TAL’s
national radio audience. “The kind of complexity I would see in my own family
and that ability to have a real conversation across political divides, I saw
that evaporate,” he says.

Last year he profiled
Josh Inglett, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville student who was appointed
to the UW System Board of Regents, only to be kicked off after the Gov. Scott Walker’s
administration discovered Inglett had signed a recall petition. “If you took a
wholesome, storybook version of the state of Wisconsin and you turned it into a
person, you might get a college student named Josh Inglett,” Calhoun says at
the start of the story. His narration is casual and unassuming. Hearing his
voice, you can almost see the boyish face and smiling
eyes. He believes his job is to help listeners understand unpredictable humans
and the places they live – like the Midwest hometown that remains an enigma to
some of Calhoun’s Brooklyn neighbors.

“People
don’t know that Milwaukee is a diverse city. Whenever I encounter that, I find
it so odd because the complexity of the place is such a part of my experience
there,” he says. “There’s provincialism all over this country. The better
angels of journalism can shrink those distances.”

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