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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

NPR's Alex Cohen: Journalist, Author, and Derby Doll Extraordinaire

by Lorinda Toledo

This Sunday, Feb. 20 at 6 p.m., Alex Cohen of NPR will join Jeffrey Kaye of PBS Newshour and Deborah Vankin of LA Times to talk about building a career in journalism at Writing Pad. Best known as the host of "All Things Considered" and "Marketplace" on KPCC, Alex has been a host and reporter of the national radio programs "Day to Day," "Morning Edition" and "Weekend America" and was the LA Bureau Chief for NPR member station KQED. She also co-wrote the nonfiction hit, Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby, with Jennifer Barbee.

You can study with Alex at the upcoming Writing Pad Ojai Retreat on March 25-27. Reserve a spot by calling 323-333-2954 before it is full!

I had the chance to ask Alex a few questions about her path to success. Here's what she has to say.

1) Why did you decide to become a journalist? Did you always know that you wanted radio to be your primary medium?
I first started listening to public radio in my senior year of college. I thought to myself it would be amazing to work in NPR, but at the time I was an Eastern religions major with no broadcast experience whatsoever, so I chalked it up to a pipe dream. A few years later, I was teaching English in a remote region of Japan where I was cut off from the news. I began to realize how important the news was to me and decided to apply to journalism school. From there, I attended UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism That's where I took my first class in radio. It was love at first listen, and I've been doing it every since.

2) You have become an expert on roller derby and co-authored the book, Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby. How did you become a Derby Doll and what inspired you to write the book?
I was planning a trip to Austin, Texas and, being a frugal traveler, wanted to find a story to do there so I could write off the trip as a tax expense. A friend of mine had just joined the newly formed Texas roller derby league. I spent a good chunk of my trip interviewing roller girls and going to their practices. I quickly became smitten with the sport. A few months later, my husband spotted a flyer for the LA Derby Dolls who were recruiting for their newly formed league. I went to a practice in November of 2003 and instantly became a derby junkie.

Fast forward to 2008 when I had the amazing opportunity to work as a choreographer and consultant on the Drew Barrymore film "Whip It!" The moreI told non-derby people about the sport, the more I realized that most people really didn't have a clue about it. Also, my co-author and I felt that the sport was evolving so quickly that it was important to chronicle what had been happening and how 21st century women revitalized the sport. Once "Whip It!" wrapped up, we put together a book proposal and the rest is history!

3) Whether at KPCC or on your blog, you are adept at picking out major trends and presenting them with a fresh perspective. Do you have any tips for aspiring journalists on how to do this in a world saturated with information?
The most important advice I can give is look out for topics and trends that interest YOU. If you aren't truly excited about the topic, chances are it will be impossible for you to fake enthusiasm when you are writing about it. Always keep your ears and eyes open. You never know where or when you'll hear about the next big thing. To me, the most interesting stories are the ones that come from simple human observation. My friend and fellow radio reporter, Sean Cole, noticed a few years back that the size of food containers was getting smaller while the prices remained the same. It lead to a great piece that aired on "Marketplace."

4) Do you have any stories that you are particularly proud of? And how do you maintain the journalistic integrity of a topic you are passionate about?
I think that I'm mostly proud of moments in story. . . I once got the chief editor of EBONY magazine to admit that he sometimes uses the n-word. I got Ed Harris to sing acapella at the end of an interview. I once did a story about Guitar Hero, and there was a great moment at a contest for the video game where I described the reigning champion. I think listeners pictured some long-haired white guy in his thirties. Then they heard the voice - it was an 8 year-old Asian kid. Those are the sorts of moments I love.

It's tough to maintain journalistic integrity when it comes to topics you feel strongly about - especially when they're controversial ones like gay marriage, abortion, or the death penalty. But I think that the role of journalism is to give people the information they need and then let them decide for themselves. I once had a great teacher who said the best job she could do is if parties from both sides of the issue thank her for representing them well That's always my goal.

5) What are the challenges of being a journalist?
Sadly, right now the toughest challenge is finding a job. With cutbacks in newsrooms, it's definitely a tough time to be a journalist, especially a newer one trying to break into the business. But I do think opportunities are out there. The other big challenge I think is getting an audience in an era where there are so many things competing for your attention. The amount of media out there now is overwhelming to many and sometimes it's hard to get people to notice you and your work.

6)What advice do you want to impart on fledgling journalists (and maybe those going through a tough time) in this uncertain age of media?
Don't give up hope!! Though there may be fewer spots open in "traditional" newsrooms, this is an exciting era for new journalists. There are so many ways to get your story out now, be it tweets or podcasts or youtube videos. Look at the recent pay scandals in the city of Bell. . . or the uprising in Egypt. . . good journalism still plays a crucial role in our society and I believe it always will.

Thanks for granting us an interview, Alex! I can't wait to study with you at the Ojai Retreat! I hope to see you there and at the Journalism 2011 talk on Sunday.

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