Not Your Typical Women in Radio
What do a concert violist and an actress have in common? Performance, of course, but these two have also found a home on public radio.
By Ann Mary Quarandillo
For Jamala Henderson ’98, a concert violist, it’s a life calling—one that started when she first got behind a soundboard and knew it was where she was meant to be. For Michelle (Hosterman) Borodin ’91, it’s a creative and exciting place to work that allows her to pursue her first loves of acting and comedy. But for both, careers in public radio have provided a way to tell stories, reach out and educate listeners in ways they never expected.
Jamala Henderson behind the mike at KUOW, where she produces the popular arts and culture show KUOW Presents. Photo by Phyllis Fletcher.
Henderson had planned a career in music from a young age. She began playing the viola in middle school, became involved in orchestra, and wanted to become a concert violist. She was part of an award-winning orchestra at Seattle’s Garfield High School, and after graduation, was accepted at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
“I got to Eastman in the fall of 1990,” Henderson recalls, “and I absolutely hated it.”
As one of the country’s top music conservatories, Eastman was very competitive, and she practiced so much that she developed tendinitis in her left hand, which effectively ended her hopes of playing professionally. “I was devastated,” she says. “I had always identified myself first as a violist. I had to realize that you can’t equate who you are with what you do as much as we all do. I needed to find another way to use my abilities.”
She returned to Seattle, and began working and attending Seattle Central Community College, then moved on to Highline Community College.
“It took me eight years, but when I got to Evergreen,” she says, “I knew that’s where I was supposed to be.”
Henderson was interested in video production, and after so many years out front as a performer, she thought she would be happier working behind the scenes. But after studying with faculty like Sally Cloninger, Ruth Hayes and Peter Randlette she says, “I left Evergreen knowing I couldn’t just do that.
I had the potential for more.”
After graduation, she took a job at UWTV, the University of Washington’s public television station, doing media streaming for its research channel. Her office happened to be next door to KCMU (now KEXP), UW’s community public radio station. One night, they asked if she wanted to fill in and babysit the soundboard, “and I had that ‘a-ha’ moment,” she says. “I knew I wanted to be in radio.” She took a six-week class at Bellevue College, where she worked at KBCS, learning how to talk and run the equipment.
Henderson began working as a broadcaster at the Evergreen Radio Reading Service, part of the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library, whose audio book readings for the visually impaired were carried on most public radio stations. A number of KUOW people worked there, and she kept her ears open for an opportunity to join them. “I chased down KUOW station manager Jeff Hansen to ask him about internships, and volunteered on the pledge drives,” she says. A friend from high school had begun working at the station, and let her know when a job as an announcer for KUOW’s 24-7 online stream, KUOW-2, opened up.
Henderson was hired, and in a short time, started filling in at KUOW and announcing on weekends. She became a full-time backup announcer in 2004, working every single shift at the station. Although she had no formal journalism training, she learned quickly on the job, and soon became a weekend announcer and reporter.
Reporting those stories helped her realize that producing and storytelling were what she really wanted to do. Today, as producer of “KUOW Presents” on Seattle’s flagship NPR station, she’s still digging into stories that resonate with the community. She’s explored Seattle’s segregated past, violence in films, claiming queer space, and youth violence intervention. She’s interviewed poets, a naturopathic doctor and a Vietnam veteran priest, and fascinating people like Starcia Ague, a UW researcher who, after going to prison at age 15, turned her life around by fighting for the right to take college courses in jail.
Although she took a winding path, Henderson says that all her experiences, in music, video and production, have led to her success as a producer. “There are so many decisions to make—information, pacing, learning ways to prompt people to talk based on the right question,” she says. “Everything I was as a musician I use in radio—pacing, timing, listening, rhythm. Storytelling is an art, and telling someone’s story is really a privilege. I try to respect that as much as I can.”
Her work on “Marketplace” keeps Michelle
Borodin (Michelle Philippe on the air) in the
middle of the action in downtown L.A.
Photo by Kirby Lee.
A different kind of storyteller, Michelle Borodin has self-produced a number of projects in various venues around Los Angeles. She is a member of “The Quarterly Report,” a performance collective of essayists, where she offers a comedic take on her life—experiences like deviating from a decade of meat-free meals one evening at a hotdog buffet, her love of Clorox, buying a mattress, and meeting and marrying her husband, Misha. “One of the cool things and one of the hardest things about acting is creating your own projects—if you’re waiting for the phone to ring, that can lead to frustration,” she says. “If you can build the resources to create your own work, that’s a good thing to focus on. You can build something from the ground up —something I did a lot
Borodin can’t remember when she wasn’t interested in acting. Her small Catholic high school didn’t have much of a theater department, and her most memorable role then was the alcoholic mother in “The Late Great Me,” which had also been an ABC Afterschool Special. But it got her started. “The idea of getting to play characters and disappear behind them on stage was very appealing,” she says. So at Evergreen, she dove into performing arts, taking programs that included dance and theater studies, then spending her third year at New York’s Hunter College in an intensive program dedicated solely to theater.
After graduation, Borodin packed up her car and drove to L.A. to get serious about being in the arts. “I didn’t really know anyone, and I needed a job, so I answered an ad to work as assistant to the executive producer at Marketplace.” Her background in acting led quickly to announcing and production, and she started writing and recording Marketplace’s daily 30-second “Datebook” segment. Today, under her professional name, Michelle Philippe, she is the production office coordinator for the entire Marketplace portfolio of programs, and she continues to write and produce “Datebook.” She can also be heard on American Public Media’s The Dinner Party—“an hour-long celebration of culture, food, and conversation designed to help you dazzle your friends at this weekend’s get-together”—where she gives lessons on the week in history.
“Working here has allowed me to also be an actor, because I work with a lot of people with creative interests who are supportive of what I do,” she says. Marketplace has doubled in size since she started, and she’s been able to work on a number of different programs, while continuing to act both in theater and on camera. “California is an expensive place to live, so I have to pay my rent,” she laughs. “Marketplace is a very fun place to work, with something different going on every day. It gives me a nice creative outlet. I’m not just behind a desk on the phone or computer all the time.”
Both Henderson and Borodin believe in the value of public radio, and the numbers back them up. Listenership is up over the past few years, with more than 65 million people in the U.S. listening to nearly a thousand public radio stations to keep up with news, culture, politics, or as Borodin says of Marketplace, business “for the rest of us.”
Marketplace fulfills a critical mission, she says, especially as people try to understand the continuing struggles of the U.S. economy, their own personal finances, and how to solve financial problems in their communities. “You don’t have to have a finance degree or be a stock market whiz to tune in,” she says. “Breaking things down in a way that’s interesting and relatable is what the show does best. It’s lots of different voices from different industries, walks of life, and backgrounds discussing how things affect them at the human level.”
Stories that matter in people’s daily lives, whether cultural, environmental, economic or personal, are the focus of “KUOW Presents,” and for Henderson, those are the kinds of stories that matter. “I always ask, ‘What am I going to learn from this? What do we need to know?’” she says. “I go after what I think is interesting. The more perspectives we have, the more holistic picture we have of the world.”
As for the future of her business, Henderson sees it as bright and clear. “I believe in what we do,” she says. “We serve a valuable purpose: to educate the public. Our listeners know that and know the importance of that. Exposing people to stories they’ve never heard before—there will always be a need for something like that. And no matter what, I’ll find a way to do it.”
— Michelle Borodin