by Michael Popham
“Radio news isn’t anything I ever imagined doing,” Emma Sapong says. “It was the furthest thing from my mind.”
She grins and shakes her head as she says this, seemingly amazed at the path she’s taken. A lot of twists and turns brought her to APMG – as well as some arm-twisting from an MPR editor, the late Toni Randolph.
Sapong was the youngest of eight children. Her parents are Liberian, and she was born while her father was in the U.S. attending university in Brooklyn. After he graduated, the family moved back to Liberia. She was one year old at the time, and they lived overseas until she was seven.
The family returned to Brooklyn, where they stayed until she was 17. She went to college at the University of Toledo, and found herself torn between her two big interests: cultural anthropology and journalism. She wound up choosing the latter for a very simple reason.
“On campus, I discovered all these fascinating lectures and clubs and cultural events surrounding students of color,” she says. “There’s nothing surprising about that, because the student enrollment was 30 percent people of color. But the student newspaper, the Collegian, never seemed to cover them. One day I gathered up the courage to go into the Collegian office, and told the features editor that I wanted to do some reporting, but admitted that I didn’t have any experience. She suggested an Irish Dance event that was coming up, but I said I wanted to cover what was going on in the Black Student Union, the Latino Student Union, and all these other student organizations. She said that was fine; they had never had anyone to cover those groups before.”
After graduation, she spent a year at the Sandusky Register before moving on to the Buffalo News. It was there that she found a mentor in Margaret Sullivan, and honed her skills at feature writing.
“Margaret Sullivan had suggested that I try my hand at business writing,” she says. “She explained that it’s a specialized skill, and as the internet continued to eat away at newspaper revenue, people with business writing skills will continue to be in demand. But writing business stories just seemed incredibly boring to me.”
After a stint in feature writing she found herself assigned to the business desk anyway. Once again, she found a way to focus on communities that are often overlooked in predominantly white papers.
A story on Bangladeshi immigrants revitalizing a previously blighted stretch of Buffalo’s east side reflected Sapong’s commitment to tell the stories of communities of color. But too often, she felt, her editor wasn’t interested in the stories she was pitching. Eventually she considered relocating to the Twin Cities, where a lot of her family members lived.
In early 2015 she was ready to launch her job search and began searching online for Twin Cities National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) members to network with. Randolph, a Buffalo native who had done reporting in Liberia, seemed perfect. And Randolph was receptive and eager to bring Sapong to the Twin Cities and MPR.
“I asked her if she had any contacts over at the Star Tribune or Pioneer Press. She said she did, but then asked me if I’d consider working at Minnesota Public Radio.”
“I knew of NPR, but wasn’t familiar with MPR. And I was a print journalist. I was comfortable hiding behind a byline. And I tended to see radio and TV — especially TV – as lacking depth in reporting.”
But Toni Randolph was nothing if not persistent. She invited Sapong to MPR during the NABJ convention in Minneapolis that summer, trying to convince her that radio was a place where she could do important work. She kept in touch, consistently sending MPR job openings emails to Sapong.
Almost a year later, Sapong came over to MPR, and she has been learning the craft of radio production ever since.
“It’s a big change for me,” she says. “When you’re a print reporter, you just write the story — other people worry about the layout and the placement of photos. In radio, you write a script and then build the equivalent of the layout yourself – you have to make the whole audio landscape that surrounds the story.
“At first I didn’t think it was a medium I could work in,” she says. “I still don’t feel I’m quite there yet.” But Randolph had believed in her work. That, she says, gave her confidence. And it still does.
Here are some of Emma Sapong’s favorite MPR stories: