Bringing a community together through storytelling


Emma Melling

courtesy of Emma Melling 8 Emma Melling, with the help of her journalism teacher Reid Westrem, created a podcast that featured interviews with various people from Minnehaha Academy who were on campus Aug. 2, 2017, when a natural gas explosion occurred, killing two people. Melling, an Inver Grove Heights resident, submitted a shortened version of her podcast to a contest held by The New York Times and was one of 10 winners.

Local student’s podcast recognized by The New York Times

 

Journalists are there to cover stories, but what happens when a student journalist finds herself having to cover a story that directly impacted her school community? 

That was the question Emma Melling and her journalism teacher Reid Westrem found themselves having to answer after Aug. 2, 2017.

On that day, a natural gas explosion caused a building to collapse at Minnehaha Academy’s north campus, killing two employees and injuring nine other people. The blast destroyed the space used by the upper school, which Melling attended.

The now 19-year-old Inver Grove Heights resident and Westrem decided the best way to tell the story of that tragic day was to let people tell their own stories through a podcast.

Melling submitted a shortened version of one of the “August 2 Stories” podcast episodes to The New York Times for its inaugural Student Podcast Contest, and she was one of 10 winners out of 675 submissions.

 

Covering tragedy

Westrem says everyone’s first reaction after the explosion happened was the normal shock and trauma of disbelief. 

“This was a really unusual situation, where the tragedy that you’re writing about is something you’re also a part of, and you’re experiencing it yourself,” he says.

The question of how to adequately cover what Westrem describes as probably the biggest tragedy in the 105-year history of the school was something he and Melling debated for a long time before settling on a podcast.

“We knew it was something that would need significant coverage and there were a lot of unique stories to tell,” says Melling, who will be attending Bethel University this fall.

Much of the inspiration for the podcast came from an interview Melling had previously done with John Carlson, a custodian who died in the explosion.

Melling says that listening to that 2016 interview with him was a reminder of how powerful people’s stories are, especially when told by themselves.

Westrem says they ended up editing that recording into a 15-minute segment, which was posted online for the school community.

“He was so proud of the work he did and he loved the kids so much,” Westrem says, “and just hearing him express all those things was more powerful than any story anybody could write about him.”

 

Coming together

It was in September or October of 2017 that the pair decided to do a podcast series, where Melling would try to talk to as many people who were at the school the day of the explosion as possible, giving them a chance to talk about their experiences.

Westrem says initially they were worried people’s stories would be the same — if every story was the similar people would lose interest and the stories would lose power.

“For me, one of the most fascinating things was the degree to which every person’s story was different,” he says. “The stories themselves were even more powerful than we imagined they would be.”

When she set out to do the project, Melling says she didn’t think about whom the audience would be or who would listen. Her thought process with doing the work was to cover the event from a journalistic standpoint, documenting it for historical purposes.

Melling says throughout the project her main thought was just to let whoever was on the grounds that day be able to tell their story and not feel overlooked.

“It was kind of passed over, because I think everybody had a super unique story that day. With all the different news accounts coming out of how it all played out, I thought it was important to get the truth of what happened,” Melling says, adding the project allowed people to process what happened that day.

Melling says she thinks the podcast did become part of the healing process for some people. She says many told her that was the most they had talked about what happened that day, and she was honored to have folks open up to her.

“I also think for the individuals who listened to it, I think that it has been healing in some way just to hear some of those really hard stories from people that are key figures in our community,” Melling says. 

 

Picking a submission

Westrem says when he heard about The New York Times contest at the end of the year, he encouraged Melling to enter, adding he tries to emphasize with his students that journalism isn’t about them, but rather other people’s stories. It’s a point Melling always understood, he says.

Melling says the two talked about what she should submit, keeping in mind the five-minute limit of submissions. “We wanted it to be intentional and not shorten anyone’s story,” she says.

Melling had conducted an emotional interview with Laura DuBois, one of the head chefs at the school. DuBois’ husband is the school maintenance manager and he was at the north campus the day of the explosion. 

DuBois says she was in the kitchen when the explosion happened and she heard her husband over the radio yelling about the gas leak. He survived the blast.

Melling says because of having to shorten the conversation down to five minutes for it to be submitted, she discussed the edit with DuBois, because she wanted to be sensitive to her story and not exploit it in any way.

 

Deserving recognition

Melling says she was working on something for the podcast when she remembered she’d entered the contest. She decided to go check out the website and discovered she was a winner.  

Being one of the 10 winners was validating, she says, since the past year was so difficult for her school community.

“I think that in a lot of ways I have carried around the weight of these stories ever since I started doing the project,” Melling says, pointing out some of the interviews were heartbreaking and difficult to listen to.

Melling says covering the school community this last year at Minnehaha, including trying to put together a yearbook, was difficult. And while the podcast was her project, she says in a lot of ways it belonged to more than just her.

“I think of it as something for our community, and also something that I definitely would not have done if I didn’t have the support and guidance of my journalism teacher,” Melling says, adding that Westrem played a key role in just being there to support her, especially with how hard it was at times to listen to the interviews.

Melling says both of them figured out how the podcast process worked together. “I think The New York Times award is just as much for him as it is for me,” she says.

Westrem says since the podcast wasn’t really intended for anyone outside of the school audience, it was interesting the Times found it interesting and compelling. 

“I thought it was an excellent award for her because it validated the work she had done, from a source that is unbiased,” he says. “They have no reason to tell her she’s doing a great job, [but they did].”

Melling says more interviews are in her future; she thinks it would be fun to do a new podcast at Bethel.

The podcasts can be listened to at www.spreaker.com/show/august-2-stories.

 

– Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com

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