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Meet A Member: Rachel Otwell

Our regular series of INBA member profiles continues with a conversation with a public radio reporter who's also part of ProPublica's Local Reporting Network this year. Meet Rachel Otwell. Here's her most recent story on sexual harassment issues at the University of Illinois.

Rachel Otwell

Photo Credit: Matthew Penning/for NPR Illinois

What’s your current station/employer and position?

I am a reporter for NPR Illinois (WUIS-FM in Springfield) & ProPublica's 2019 Local Reporting Network.

How did you develop an interest in reporting or broadcasting?

I have always been interested in reading and listening to stories in whatever shape or form they may take. As soon as I could, I would read whatever was in sight front to back. Before I could read and write, my grandmother would transcribe stories I'd dream up and I'd illustrate the little books she helped me make. Journalism runs in my family. My grandfather was editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and before that, as students at Medill, my grandmother was HIS editor. I've had a somewhat meandering path toward a journalism career, but it seemed inevitable, and it doesn't feel like work for me to speak with people and help them tell their stories. 

What was your first broadcasting job?

Intern for NPR's Tell Me More with Michel Martin. It was the best possible start I could imagine.

Why do you love being a news broadcaster?

I love the ability to portray visceral feelings and sentiments through sound. I love the art of conversation and active listening; parsing out the surprising elements of a story, and the elements that are relatable on a basic human level. I've listened to public radio since I was a kid, and the diversity of coverage and voices especially draws me in.

What broadcast or story you’ve done makes you most proud?

I've been proud of stories related to the local arts scene because I think I have told them in a way that was not being done otherwise, and I'm an advocate in general for local news and the arts. I've broadened that this year with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network, now using investigative story-telling methods, and I'm also proud of the series we are working on, none of which would be possible without collaboration. I am grateful for the sense of camaraderie and for all the people who have shared their knowledge with me. I'm proud of any story that brings to the surface a marginalized voice or voices and makes our airwaves more inclusive and our audience think in a new way.

What’s the hardest story or broadcast you’ve had to do?

I've covered a number of vigils and those are always tough, it can be hard to try and keep your emotions on lock when the point of an event is to collectively mourn. Any story that involves survivors also comes with particular responsibilities that can be difficult to navigate. I am always seeking thoughts on how to be as compassionate as possible when pursuing those stories. I don't know if it will ever, or even should, become easy. 

What’s your most embarrassing broadcast moment?

One time, early in my career, I started voicing a story not knowing I was on air. So listeners got to hear me stumble through a feature script with no quotes or bites. I still have no idea how much they heard and I try to block that part of my memory bank out. I'll never voice in a live booth again, however!

Why did you join INBA?

I became a member through NPR Illinois, and it's been a great way to explore local issues and what we should be considering as journalists in Illinois. It's such a diverse state, and any time reporters can get together and talk shop while considering best practices is a service to the collective audience we serve.