“I’m fundamentally an autodidact. I don’t really learn something until I figure it out myself.”
Adam Ragusea is a journalist, professor, musician and host of The Pub podcast. He has nearly 10 years of experience writing, producing and hosting local and national radio. He currently lives in Macon, Georgia with his wife Lauren, son Freddie and dog Lucy.
I became familiar with his work by reading Current and listening to The Pub. Both are robust resources about all things public media. The kinds of resources I was looking for when I've asked Barnes and Noble employees, "Do you have any books about public media?" Which was typically followed by blank stares.
I interviewed Adam via phone on a rainy Sunday afternoon in November, and early in our conversation, he introduced me to a recording app called Ringr. I was thrilled to learn about such a great resource and even more thrilled to listen back to the conversation as I wrote this post. His natural curiosity about such tools, and “generally how things work," was immediately evident and a common thread throughout our conversation.
Adam first moved to Georgia to work as the Macon Bureau Chief for Georgia Public Broadcasting. When Mercer University's Center for Collaborative Journalism began with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, GPB got its own grant from the foundation to facilitate it's participation in the center. Adam ran the Macon bureau and locally hosted Morning Edition from 2012-14, then switched over to Mercer in the 2014-15 academic year.
Prior to these adventures, Adam worked as an Associate Producer / Reporter / Host in Boston, Massachusetts and an Interim News Director in Bloomington, Indiana. He continues to report for a wide variety of institutions, including NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Moving cities was a multi-faceted decision, grounded by a desire to affect change in the field.
"I’m deeply concerned about lack of diversity in public media. And one of the biggest impediments to having a more diverse workforce in public media is what you could call the 'internship barrier.' Our society has come up with a lot of ways to make college accessible to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s still not perfect at all, but there’s lots of ways that we are getting people into college. Where we’ve really failed so far is getting people from graduation to the workforce.”
Grants like the one that funds Mercer's Center for Collaborative Journalism are used to address concerning gaps in journalism education. The Macon Telegraph (a former Knight paper) and Georgia Public Broadcasting (Macon Bureau) are all housed in the same complex with Mercer’s Journalism and Media Studies program. Students work directly with professional partners while pursuing degrees and building portfolios. The goal of the grant is to create a mutually beneficial partnership where institutions benefit from more feet on the ground and successful students graduate with a body of published work.
The primary way people get into media production is by enduring what Adam calls “a wilderness period.” This is how he defines the one to four years spent doing unpaid internships, temporary jobs and free gigs with the intention of proving your worth and getting experience you probably should've gotten in college. “It effectively closes off the profession to anyone who isn’t privileged enough to be able to endure that period.” He sees tremendous value in being part of a program that allows students to get their education and apprenticeship simultaneously. Insert clapping emoji here.
Mercer remains a liberal arts school at its core, but this particular model is inspired by teaching hospitals in the medical field. The ultimate goal is to produce multi-disciplinary journalists with a breadth of work to take into the post-graduation phase. It’s a balance between embracing the liberal arts model and trying new techniques to fill those historical gaps. “So these are the things that we’re playing with. And it’s successful some days and some days it’s not so successful, but it’s an experiment. That’s literally why we have the grant. The grant is to do an experiment. If it was a model that didn’t require experimentation, then it wouldn’t require a grant, it would just work. The money gives us time and space to fail and to succeed."
These invaluable student portfolios span print and broadcast, profit and nonprofit. Being in an intimate learning environment like Mercer allows professors to give time and attention to the students’ work and explain why editing decisions are made. Instead of a mysterious final grade, students gain a greater understanding of the reporting and writing process. “I personally don’t believe this model is infinitely scalable. It just requires way too much hands-on involvement for faculty to take student work and make it publishable.”
When asked how he describes his work to people outside of the industry, Adam said, “Oh, dear God, I should probably have an answer to that.” But don’t be fooled, he has a great answer:
"The position in which I currently am, which is Journalist in Residence and Visiting Assistant Professor is defined as: a professional journalist, a working journalist who teaches classes at Mercer, but also continues to be a working professional. So that our students can get both the perspective of actual scholars and the perspective of someone who is still in the field. I’m not someone who used to be the field and now I teach and my connections are old and getting older. I’m working now, I’m filing now. I have freelance income coming in now as part of the income stream that supports my family. I’m dealing with all of that now and it directly informs my teaching. My students see me working and are able to talk to me and ask me questions about how I work. They’re able to get involved.”
Adam’s work on The Pub is relaxed, conversational and informative. In preparation for each episode, he spends time writing a 10-12 page script of his research and opinions on current events in the public media sphere. Even in the details of producing show, he strives to demonstrate ways in which public media could improve. "It's a very meta exercise in some ways." He is a commentator, but still strives to be objective. Here's a look at how he defines that distinction.
As the logo indicates, "pub" refers to public media and a bar. “The kind of vibe that I kind of wanted to try to create, at least in the interview portions of the show, is the way that people talk with their colleagues after work. When you go out for drinks at the end of the week and you’re still talking shop and you’re still kind of on the clock, but you’re much more relaxed. You’re saying stuff that maybe you shouldn’t even be saying. That’s the vibe that I try to create with the show."
I was really interested to hear how Adam works in "guerrilla ways” and how the production of the show mirrors its voice and tone. Off the cuff, no fancy setup, no rigid rules. Just writing, recording and producing during pockets of time in the day and night. He does very little prep for interviews and he takes the calls whenever the interviewee has time. Sometimes he even takes his academic regalia from the wall and tents it over his head for diffusion. “I don’t look back. I think that gives the show a vibe that is…when it works, I think it’s kind of exciting. It gives it this sort of liveliness. This DIY, punk rock vibe that I like.”
He likes the sincerity of that style and dislikes the growing trend that the only valuable form of content is "highly wrought and meticulously fussed over narrative storytelling." He uses narrative structures to move the story along, but describes his tone as crackly, live and tossed off. “I like riffs, rants, monologues. I like stand up comedy.” A few of his inspirations include: Dan Savage, Alton Brown, and Mike Pesca.
The best way for him to think about something complicated is in the context of an argument. However, he is careful not to let his positions calcify. “I’m making this argument now, not necessarily to persuade you of a point of view, but just as a thought experiment. My arguments are more like thought experiments. I’m testing out a thesis.” Even if he gets to the end and it feels like he hasn’t proven his point, that’s okay. Opinions evolve and it’s all process.
And speaking of process, here is a glimpse at Adam’s typical week. He spends the beginning writing and the latter producing the show. A day usually includes:
- Going to work for University duties
- Pockets of time for The Pub: interviews, promotion, booking and social media
- Being a dad
- More work on The Pub after Freddie goes to sleep (sometimes until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.)
It was around this time in the conversation when Freddie needed a diaper change, but Adam continued to talk and say insightful things. Impressive, right?
“I’ve learned a lot about multitasking in the last year. Doing that show while I do everything else. Learning how to be a professor and having an infant and doing a weekly, rather highly produced podcast entirely by myself (laughs) has involved me getting much better at time management and multi-tasking.”