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English department hosts women journalism organization

Sarah Varney, a radio journalist for KQED, addresses students, alumnae and fellow journalists during the JAWS event at Mills. (Anna Corson)

For the first time, the Mills Journalism department collaborated with JAWS (Journalism and Women Symposium), an organization of female journalists ranging from rookie reporters to life-long journalists aimed at creating a networking space of female writers.

“The Art of Audio” event on April 28 brought together a variety of participants – both undergraduate and graduate students studying a range of literary topics, alumnae and professional journalists from all over the country.

The main purpose of event at Mills was to allow those who cannot attend the group’s annual conference to make connections with other female writers and, more specifically, to learn more about the art of radio, according to Sarah Pollock, Journalism Professor at Mills and member of JAWS.

“There is a real need for a women’s network in journalism,” Pollock said, noting that women are particularly underrepresented in upper-editorial positions in the field of journalism.

The National Press Club, for instance, did not allow women to become members until 1971. Today, women make up 36.62 percent of full-time journalists in the United States, according to the American Society of News Editors.

Much of what JAWS offers women journalists is a network of supportive peers.

“We wanted to bring this great collaborative energy to Mills,” Pollock said.

Two distinguished radio journalists, Rachel Louise Snyder of NPR and Sarah Varney of KQED, presented their experiences in radio and their tips and tricks for breaking into the business of radio. Both speakers discussed their different strategies for creating interesting radio pieces.

Though the speakers came from completely different backgrounds, Snyder studied English and History in college and began writing and reporting early on in her career while Varney began her professional career as a management consultant before taking up radio, both have made names for themselves as radio journalists.

Snyder is the host of “Global Guru”, a weekly public radio segment broadcast from American University’s radio station, WAMU in Washington D.C. on different cultures around the world, and is an Assistant Professor at American University. She also published her first book in 2009, Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade, a book that chronicles how a simple item of clothing, such as jeans, can have an effect on economies, environments and politics around the world.

For her, writing for radio is like writing poetry. A colleague of hers was reminded of Robert Bly’s 6 elements of poetry by one of Snyder’s radio scripts. When she looked into it herself, Snyder remarked: “Oh, hell yeah, this is just like radio!”

For her presentation at Mills, Snyder explored just how similar the two art forms are by reworking Bly’s guide to poetry for radio writing and then deconstructed her own work as an example.

Snyder’s radio version of Bly’s elements of poetry lists Image, (or “placing audiences in a particular scene” Snyder said), Rhythm, Poignancy, Structure, Beat and Narrative as the most crucial aspects of each radio story.

Narrative is the most crucial element of any story, Snyder said.

“We all have a story to tell,” she said.

For Varney, narrative is also crucial. In her case, however, it is necessary because she has to draw her audience towards generally confusing or complex topics

“I try to create scenes with people from my life to bring energy to the story,” said Varney, who currently reports on healthcare in California for KQED radio.

“With healthcare, you are telling stories that are very complex, so you have to simplify,” she said.

Though many attendees were there to incorporate the experiences of Snyder and Varney into their pursuit of a journalism career, some students were just curious to learn more about the journalism field in general.

Mills MFA students Michelle Louise Geck and Shay Belisle said their interests were piqued by an Audio Journal project in their Creative Non-Fiction class with Pollock.

“It’s an exciting new process,” Belisle said of audio work.

For Kat Rowlands, incoming JAWS President and Assistant Managing Editor for the Contra Costa Times, and Bay Area News Group, East Bay, radio allows information to reach the greatest number of people, spanning all kinds of different demographics.

Rowlands said radio is a medium that can reach audiences through the world, both developed and developing nations have access to the art of radio.

“Radio is a cool way of unifying those two worlds.”