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. 

Brian O'Keefe

One of the greatest benefits for me has been getting to see and know other parts of the state. I’m not from Illinois and traveling to spring and fall conventions over the years has transformed dots on a map to memories of places that enhance my story telling process.

Alexis McAdams

INBA played a huge part in preparing me for my broadcasting career. The INBA conventions connect students with on-air talent and news directors who give feedback on now to improve your work. Through relationships I made at those conventions, I was able to obtain my first on air reporting job.

Aaron Eades

As a student, it's often difficult to picture what working in the real world will be like. For me, the INBA bridged that gap by giving me the chance to talk to professionals who used to be in the same shoes I'm in now.

Bob Roberts

INBA is as much about friendship and as it is about achieving common goals. It provides two things individual newsrooms cannot: in-service training, and the ability to speak out on issues affecting the profession. But most of all, it brings newspeople together.

Jennifer Fuller

INBA is not only a great networking tool, it also provides advocacy and support for journalists in an ever-changing world.

Mike Miletich

Joining the INBA was one of my best life decisions. I met some of the best broadcast journalists while I was still a college student. Plus, I ended up getting a job through the connections I made!

Michelle Eccles McLaughlin

INBA is an organization that really caters to continuing education for professionals. It offers a relatively inexpensive way to learn new things, reinforce best practices and network.

Andrew Tanielian

INBA taught me how to network in a meaningful way. The scholarship process taught me how to endure a hard job interview and thrive.

Jeff Bossert

When I was working in radio for the first time, I had no idea whether I could truly handle the demands. But INBA made me curious and want to improve. Even now, when I’ve maybe worked a lot of hours or planned some stories that didn’t come together for one reason or another, what I learn from an INBA conference gets me re-invigorated about the business.

Nora Baldner

The support INBA gives to student journalists is vitally important as we all discover how technology is changing news dissemination, INBA monitors and actively encourages truth, transparency and accountability from students and their universities.

Molly Jirasek

One of my top goals in my career was to get to Chicago. Thanks to INBA I met Margaret Larkin. She remembered our great conversations about Chicago and first alerted me to a job opening in the city I might be interested in. Lo and behold, I got that job! INBA helped me reach my dream.

Ryan Denham

“I recently attended my first INBA conference—and it won’t be my last. The combination of professional and student journalists learning together is electric. Everyone learns from each other and walks away with new friends (and LinkedIn connections). I know I did.”

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