Sometimes, Austin's predictable. There are issues faced by this city and our neighbors that just won't go away – issues like expansion and growth and inequity. They're bedrock-issues in any city, sure. But, in Austin, 2019 cut to the quick, exposing that bedrock.
We debated systemic inequality while the city's school district moved to shutter schools; we debated the fates of our least fortunate neighbors; and we debated the city's bedrock itself – how we want it to look and how design could help reconcile missteps of the past with the promise of a future.
Here are the favorite stories KUT reporters covered this year – stories that reflect 2019.
Over the course of 10 months, a man named John Contreras left me nearly 40 voicemails telling me what it was like to be the last of the original homeowners on Rainey Street. Contreras was the only person who stayed while the street became an active nightlife district. He let me interview him in person only once.
Telling his story through the voicemails he left felt more intimate – as if he were talking to each and every one of our listeners instead of to me.
I worked on a series this summer called "Diving Lines," which took a look at the history of school segregation in Austin and what modern school segregation looks like in the district. I learned a lot reporting these stories, but my favorite piece was the profile of a family who took their children out of an affluent elementary school and transferred them to a school with fewer resources.
I interviewed Ali Takata, the mom, about how she made this decision after thinking a lot about how privileged families automatically have access to better education in the public school system. I also talked with the kids about their experiences at both schools.
I love stories where I can tell a story about one person and their experience; I hope it helps others understand an issue in a different way
I was happy with a handful of features I did this year. But my favorite story of 2019 is probably this explainer on how the Texas electric grid works.
Stay with me.
I spent a lot of time over the last couple years asking grid experts what metaphors they would use to describe how electrons flow through the state. I was trying to find an engaging way to report on something complicated on the radio. One day, a source kind of blurted out "Led Zeppelin." The seeds of the story took root.
I think it's fun to listen to; I know it was fun to produce. To top it all off, it educates people about what triggers blackouts – that way, if a blackout happens, listeners won't be left dazed and confused.
Runners up include: the race I officiated through downtown Austin during SXSW, my hunt for feral hogs on the city's East Side, and this play-by-play on an eminent domain hearing for a property in the path of the Permian Highway Pipeline.
Ever since I moved to Austin and tell people what I do, people inevitably ask whether there will be a new train line or more transit to help ease traffic. The conversations about that among city leaders began to pick up in earnest this year.
This story broke down Capital Metro's new projections on how many people proposed new transit lines would carry and how much they would cost. It depends on whether the new lines would be buses or trains. Either way, the cost would be in the billions. To compare, the current estimated cost to revamp I-35 through the heart of Austin alone would be $4.5 billion.
Surprise medical billing has become one of the few issues Republicans and Democrats actually agree on in Texas. That’s why earlier this year state lawmakers decided to tackle surprise billing during the legislative session. They passed a bill outlawing the practice for people with state-regulated plans by creating a new system that forces providers and insurers to settle pricing disputes amongst themselves.
It’s a rare sight in Texas to see bipartisan agreement around a health care issue. Lawmakers and policy experts also told me they think media attention played a big role in getting lawmakers to address this issue.
Journalism doesn’t always have this much impact and the Texas Legislature doesn’t always have this much consensus – which is why this was my favorite story to cover this year.
This story meant a lot to me because it's a perfect encapsulation of the issue of homelessness writ large. There's a kind of solipsism that's come with all the attention heaped on the issue this year.
Many people think they know the solution – and that their solution is the only solution. While reporting out this story, a lot of those sides and solutions sort of collided all at once – police, officials at the ARCH, people protesting the removal of homeless folks, city workers trying to connect homeless folks with services. At the center was Every Walls, a stalwart man who refused to leave his home.
What was more illustrative about this story was the confusion surrounding city ordinances on homelessness. Walls didn't know he was violating rules. City workers were telling people to go to campsites that, if folks headed there to camp, would've been in violation of the city's new law. Police weren't sure what to do with Walls' things.
Then, someone handed him a piece of paper, and we talked through the rules. He immediately realized he was in the wrong. He agreed to be on his way. He didn't seem defeated or deflated. He just wanted to know what was going on, and it was a rare instance in which the storytelling, the reporting, informed the story in a way you couldn't have planned.
Another reason this story's (maybe most) illustrative: Walls is still living outdoors. (I talked to him Dec. 18.) That's not a criticism; it is what it is. People looking for an overnight solution to homelessness in Austin aren't taking into account how hard it really is to house people – and how dedicated the people who are trying to do that really are.
It's an issue that's intersectional and entrenched and divisive, sure. But this is also an issue that's been here. People are just paying more attention now.
My favorite story of 2019 was this series on why it's so hard to prosecute sexual assault cases in Austin. This was a months-long investigation that taught me so much about an extremely difficult issue.
After speaking with survivors, law enforcement, prosecutors and scholars, I was exposed to the important – yet often overlooked – nuance surrounding this crime. It was incredibly humbling to be trusted to tell these women's stories and to speak with the people in the criminal justice system doing the work each day.
When we finally published, listeners reached out telling us they learned something new about a subject they thought they understood. As a journalist, it's a privilege to know I've made even a small difference in the way we as a community think about rape and sexual assault.
I love getting to work with audio every day, and one story I produced this year gave me a chance to bring in some of the sound design techniques I use outside KUT into the newsroom. The feature was about the margin of error in polling, how it’s so often ignored in news reporting, and how that’s harmful both to news consumers and pollsters who are trying to measure public opinion.
In using audio tools like reverse reverb, delays, echoes and pitch shifting, I tried to take what is a rather dry subject and hopefully illustrate it in a compelling way, creating a fever dream scenario and using psychedelic repetition to highlight how representations of things – both in audio and in polling – are often deceptively presented as the things they are trying to represent.
My favorite story of 2019 was this one about Susan Morrison, who in 1983 led an effort to get compulsory child support payments into the Texas Constitution. What I love about her story is that it’s personal – her efforts were born out of her own experience with a father who left when she was a child and didn’t pay child support.
But there’s also redemption and forgiveness.
I’m also really attracted to stories where a single person makes a difference. Too often, problems in society can seem overwhelming. But sometimes one person can make meaningful change.