We The Journalists: Greg Allen
Greg Allen is the Florida correspondent for National Public Radio. He is based in Miami, working out of his Palmetto Bay home office.
By Dina Weinstein
Allen has spent more than three decades in radio news, the first ten as a reporter in Ohio and Philadelphia and the last as an editor, producer and reporter at NPR. Before moving into reporting, Allen served as the executive producer of NPR’s national daily live call-in show, Talk of the Nation.
As executive producer he handled the day-to-day operations of the program as well as developed and produced remote broadcasts with live audiences and special breaking news coverage. He was with Talk of the Nation from 2000 to 2002. Prior to that position, Allen spent three years as a senior editor for NPR’s Morning Edition, developing stories and interviews, shaping the program’s editorial direction, and supervising the program’s staff.
In 1993, he started a four year stint as an editor with Morning Edition just after working as Morning Edition’s swing editor, providing editorial and production supervision in the early morning hours. Allen also worked for a time as the editor of NPR’s National Desk. Before coming to NPR, Allen was a reporter with NPR member station WHYY-FM in Philadelphia from 1987 to 1990. Miami-based journalist and FL SPJ board member Dina Weinstein spoke to him recently.
Follow Greg Allen on Twitter.
SPJ Florida: What brought you to Florida?
Greg Allen: I always liked Florida. I grew up in Philly. What I love about Florida is being close to the beach. When I was growing up the Jersey Shore was a big thing but it was seasonal. Here it’s not. When we first came here in in the ‘80s as a reporter we did documentaries on homelessness and later on immigration. I spent a lot of time in Miami and I was intrigued by the blend of people.
I did early radio documentaries on ethnicity. It was on NPR and they focused on a lot of cities — New Orleans, Baltimore, Philly. Here the ethnic blend focused on Cubans and Haitians.
In the mid-80s I was in a Haitian club in Miami and I was amazed I was still in America.
It was much different from Kansas City. (laughs) I came from Kansas City where I covered six states. This is much easier. There’s more going on in Florida than in Kansas.
What have been the highlights in covering and being based in Florida?
Definitely covering the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina. The Zimmerman trial. For us journalists, it’s hard to know, when you’re covering a story, how big it is. I usually pitch story ideas to editors. For the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story, it went national. That was the biggest story of the year. Now I’m covering an echo of that with the Michael Dunn trial. And it’s interesting (to reflect on this in) that the Stand Your Ground Law has more interest nationally than in Tallahassee where there is a lot of support for it. It’s funny that the national take on the law is a lot different from the state take on it.
How do you work with NPR member stations?
Staff reporters with NPR are totally independent. I have a good relationship with WLRN and rely a lot on public radio stations in Florida — WLRN, FSU, Florida Public Radio in Tallahassee, Orlando and Tampa. What happens is something will break somewhere in the state, I’m in Miami. I’m expected to cover it. Those guys [public radio staffers] are working their tails off covering this stuff.
What have been the big stories?
The graves at the Florida Industrial School for Boys in Marianna. The story was broken by the Tampa Bay Times. They’re called the White House Boys. It was a reform school. They wanted to find out who they were. They are believable. There, children are buried in unmarked graves. There are no records. The only way to find out where they are is with ground penetrating radar that was used in Bosnia. To me it is mindboggling. In another country, we’d be talking about war crimes.
What now for you?
I’m doing a bunch of stories on politics and a special election here in Florida. NPR is a national organization. That’s what’s nice about the job. We dip into big stories and don’t generally come back until the end. I’ll be doing more stories on the governor’s race, but I’m waiting for the democratic primary.
How would you describe Florida in the eyes of the rest of the country and the world?
I don’t want to play into stereotypes but now Florida is about the Stand Your Ground law.
Because of the shootings we’ve had from Aurora (CO) to Sandy Hook (CT), there’s a national focus on gun violence. There are a more than a million concealed weapon permits.
I’m also interested in the changing Cuban community and the relaxed travel restrictions on the U.S. and the Cuba side. It changes a lot of things with the Cuban Adjustment Act. It raises a lot of questions. It is not enough to report on travel back and forth. But there’s also a flow of goods. When I’m at the airport, I see people with flat screen Plasma TVs and microwaves. Goods are flowing. Are people using it to make money. What about the special treatment Cubans receive?
Has radio changed over the years?
What we do has changed a lot but a lot has not changed. I’ve gotten better at it. NPR has an emphasis on telling stories. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is some production and techniques. A lot of people don’t own radios these days and NPR is aware of it. We don’t say “National Public Radio.” We say NPR because people get it on the internet and other ways. Our listenership is strong. The way we produce stories has changed dramatically. When I started, we were using razor blades to cut magnetic tape. Now we file pieces over the internet. When I worked at NPR we had to go to the airport to pick up tape reporters had to send from other places like Kansas. The internet has made news more immediate. The cuts are shorter. The stories are shorter. The sound is mixed differently.
Do you use social media in your reporting?
I find Twitter invaluable. I’m amazed at journalists who tweet non-stop. I have on headphones. I’m listening, taking notes, looking at levels, listening and monitoring. I find it difficult to juggle all those things plus tweeting. I find it useful to follow reporters who are covering stories of breaking news anywhere. I benefit more than I contribute.
What advice do you have for students and journalists who want to work in radio?
Best thing students and journalists can do is get involved with a station. As an undergraduate I started working at my college station. Most stations have room for volunteers. There are still community stations. You can volunteer there. Also, interning is key. NPR is run by interns and they hire them. Many of the top reporters were interns. But internships are competitive.
You play the fiddle. How does that play into your journalism?
I’ve done a lot of work on music. I started out as a disk jockey and I realized early on that the more interesting work is in news. What’s great about working at NPR is that I can report on arts, politics, news. I mostly keep the fiddle separate. It’s an avocation.
Throughout February, March and April, SPJ Florida will feature Q&As every Friday with Florida’s most prominent journalists. Want to see someone featured? Want to conduct your own Q&A? Want to join SPJ? Email us.
Dina Weinstein is a board member for SPJ Florida. Follow us on Twitter.