How a newspaper veteran returned to journalism with a public radio station

Nancy Klingener rides the WLRN bicycle through Key West. Photo by Amy Lynch

One day last week, Nancy Klingener updated her Facebook profile to feature a picture of herself, in sunhat and sandals, biking down a street in Key West, Florida. It might be an image of sun-drenched contentment, but for Klingener, it’s also something of a professional milestone. The bike sports the logo of WLRN, a Miami-based public radio station that opened a Key West bureau complete with studio-quality equipment this spring–and Klingener, a veteran newspaper reporter who was mostly out of journalism for nearly a decade, is staffing it.

WLRN’s expansion into Keys news is important to the island chain, which can often feel isolated from the mainland. It’s also an important step for Klingener, one she feels like she spent 24 years preparing for.

Klingener landed at the Miami Herald’s Key West bureau in 1991, after joining the Herald in 1989, and stayed for nine years–a longer tenure than anyone else in a job that demanded logging more than 400 bylines per year, taking your own photos, and constantly hustling up and down the one road that connects the 100-mile-long archipelago. (I’m a Herald veteran too, and though we didn’t overlap, we’ve become good friends over the years.)

Burned out by that hustle, Klingener left the Herald in 2000. “Since then, I felt like I’d been jumping from ice floe to ice floe,” she said.

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She stayed in Key West, and tried a few other ways to remain in journalism before she gave in to economic realities and got a job at the local library. She expected to work there, she said, “for the rest of my life.”

But in 2013, she started contributing the occasional freelance piece to WLRN. That turned into a part-time gig, then full-time work–and now Klingener, a storyteller by nature, has come in from the cold.

Her stories are often the localest of local, like one about a Key Largo-based artist whose family donated some of his work to a local museum after he died. But things happen in the Florida Keys that are nationally important, too. Klingener’s recent piece on the debate over the use of genetically modified mosquitoes to try to lower the risk of dengue fever, chikungunya, and Zika virus was featured on All Things Considered.

“People are really psyched to think that public radio is paying attention to the Keys, not just that we are receiving the coverage, but that stories about the Keys are going to the mainland,” she said. “We’re part of the conversation now.”

She’s especially thrilled that her return to journalism is with an organization “that is in an expansive mode, not a defensive crouch.” WLRN, a NPR member station, set out on a growth path several years ago, when the station was granted a license to broadcast in the Keys. (The station’s main broadcast frequency in Miami already reached into the Keys, but not all the way to the county seat and only major city, Key West.) The station has also recently leased a frequency in Palm Beach County, at the northern end of its range, that will carry its signal to West Palm Beach, and is looking to hire a reporter to cover Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Tom Hudson, WLRN’s vice president for news, says the station is seeking to fill a void, responding to the retreat of other media outlets. He has reasons beyond just finding more listeners and potential donors. WLRN is part of a 13-station consortium of public radio stations across the state that have vowed to continue broadcasting during an emergency–in Florida, it’s most likely to be a hurricane–to make sure people anywhere in the state have access to important information.

“That’s what keeps me up at night,” Hudson told me. “Terrestrial radio is a significant source of emergency information. We have to be there for people.”

The station is in a better position to be a valuable source in an emergency, of course, if people are already tuning in regularly for local news coverage. In Key West, Hudson says, Klingener’s work, and connection to the community, is making a difference.

“She is such a treasure,” he said. “It’s been a journalistic match made in heaven.”

It did take some time and patience. Klingener started out freelancing for WLRN a few years ago with an audio “Letter from Key West” she proposed to the station as an occasional feature. Then, when the distance swimmer Diana Nyad again tried to cross the Florida Straits between Cuba and Key West–and suddenly it looked like she might finally do it–WLRN called Klingener to cover the story.

As much as she enjoyed her calm Keys life working for the library and volunteering with a local literary seminar, Klingener realized while covering Nyad that she missed the rush of a big story. So she started freelancing more for WLRN, and she sent herself to the Transom Radio Workshop to study the differences between written and spoken storytelling.

“I’d never done radio 101 in college and this was like radio grad school,” she said. But she realized her reporting skills, honed over the past couple decades, mattered.

“I was very nervous about the technical stuff,” she said. “But the millennials there were all worried about going up to people and asking questions. I thought, well, I know how to do that.”

By July last year, WLRN had found the money in the budget to bring her on full-time, after paying her half-time for six months. It made more sense for the station to help an experienced local reporter learn to tell stories on the radio, Hudson said, than to try to train a reporter with less experience in how to cover news from a distance.

And it turns out a veteran newspaper reporter can learn some new skills. Klingener says she is most proud of a piece she did last year that is quintessentially radio, told by the subject, with no voice-over. It’s an only-in-the-Keys tale about a local man who raises racing pigeons and rescues a few who blow off course from Cuba, 90 miles away, where pigeon racing is very popular. That’s good radio.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.