Radio watchdogs

A look (and listen) at Reveal, public radio's first investigative reporting show

On Saturday, the Public Radio Exchange and the Center for Investigative Reporting launched the pilot episode of Reveal, public radio’s first program dedicated to investigative journalism and the work that goes into producing it.

The hourlong show opened with an optimistic mission statement: “This is Reveal, where investigative journalism and you help change our world for the better.” Journalists are the “canaries in the coalmine,” alerting us to the dangers in our path, host Al Letson told listeners. “There’s always more to the story and that is what this show is all about. Pulling back the curtain to show you what’s really going on behind the scenes.”

First up was CIR reporter Kendall Taggart, talking about her work exposing America’s 50 worst charities. She takes listeners through her reporting process, from identifying which nonprofits were giving the majority of their donations to telemarketers, to discovering that the same Kansas City-based law firm was listed as a return address for many of these charities. “If there is a call being made to raise money for charity across the country, the chances that that law firm had a role in creating, registering, or advising one of the parties involved is incredibly high,” Taggart said. She has a flair for description, and her first impressions of Errol Copilevitz, a lawyer who represents several dubious charities, are particularly fun.

Next, Reveal tackled whistleblowing and secrecy with an interview with Ben Wisner, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is coordinating Edward Snowden’s defense. Although Wisner makes some interesting comments about the growth of the surveillance state, and how we define whistleblowing, there was little that listeners might not have heard before. Far more interesting was the brief piece on the Declassification Engine: a team of historians, statisticians, and journalists who are sorting through millions of declassified documents and mining them for hidden patterns that reveal the history of official secrecy.

The show’s centerpiece was its segment on the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been over-prescribing strong, addictive painkillers to veterans, even if doctors already knew they were addicts. It’s an important, far-reaching story, and presumably the sort that Reveal will continue to break if it launches as a full-fledged program next year.

Jake Shapiro, executive director of PRX, believes Reveal is an important addition to public radio because of the investigative reporting it features.

“There’s a real gap in public radio,” he said, “in terms of a consistent voice and presence for [investigative journalism].” Not only do we live in an age where good investigative reporting is vital, he said, but public radio is the perfect platform for it because it connects viscerally with audiences.

“For a long time it felt [like] there was a great public radio show in us,” said Joaquin Alvarado, CIR’s chief strategy officer. The Center already produces animation, infographics, data apps, and videos, and radio seemed the natural next step. Remarkably, Reveal only took 10 weeks to make. “We had to challenge the conventional wisdom of how to make a great show,” Alvarado said. CIR is also keen on engaging the program’s audience in the reporting process. “We want them to see the mechanics, understand the procedural aspects, so they can get behind the story,” Alvarado said.

The next episode of Reveal will air in early 2014.

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Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu