After more than two decades in journalism, most recently at Wisconsin Public Radio, Molly Stentz embarks on new but familiar territory as a Madison journalist at City Cast, a new venture dedicated to building a network of local journalistic podcasts Country.
Stentz began as a freelance reporter submitting stories for Free Speech Radio News, a national daily news program, before becoming news director and manager for WORT Radio in Madison. She then spent time as an executive producer at WPR and became associate director of the nationwide Ideas Network.
Can you tell me what led you to your career in journalism?
I am attracted to journalism because you are constantly learning new things. I love peeking around different corners to see how things work. I’ve done a lot of other things on the side (run a grocery store, worked in a restaurant and an elementary school, worked as a farmhand, drove a dump truck at a community landscaper, worked as an accountant, built a tech startup). I haven’t yet driven a taxi or worked professionally as a bartender, the classic journalistic sideline. But in this town, who knows? It could happen.
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Can you tell me about your upcoming role on City Cast and some of the themes you hope to explore in the near future?
City Cast is a new venture that is building a network of local journalism podcasts across the country. They’re currently in a handful of cities, including Chicago, and they’re growing fast. It was born out of the pandemic with the idea of investing in local journalism and reviving civic life to be a friendly and informative source about life in your city at a time when so many of us are isolated and disconnected became. We publish a daily podcast, which is basically a radio show you can listen to anytime on your computer or phone, created by people you know and trust. We will tackle head-on the issues Madison faces — how to afford housing, find good jobs and child care, take care of our families, deal with the changing climate and deep-rooted structural issues like racism. And we also introduce you to more of your neighbors – amazing people who make art and music, grow food, build new things, take care of each other and try to make the city a better place to live.
What are you looking forward to most in this new role?
I look forward to building something new and helping expand options for journalism in Madison. Dylan Brogan and I tried to create a local news podcast for Madison years ago when we both worked at WORT, but we didn’t have the right infrastructure to support it at the time. City Cast is owned by the former editor of the Washington Post (Graham Holdings, as in Katharine Graham, first woman editor of a major US newspaper). They own several other media companies, including Slate magazine and Foreign Policy. So you have the expertise, infrastructure and weight of an established media company, but with the agility and flexibility of a small startup.
It’s no secret that journalism has faced numerous challenges over the years – especially at the local level. What do you attribute to your ability to stay with it while so many others are moving into other areas?
I believe in the power of personal connections and in local democracy: people helping people. Everyone has stories to tell, they need skills and opportunities to tell. I’ve spent my entire career building a more inclusive model of journalism because a free society demands it. We can only have a healthy society if we have a committed and informed public.
What we need are systems that enhance reporting and critical thinking, not just entertainment. It’s good, necessary work, and it’s been rewarding to work with such a wide variety of people who are attracted to it—from high school and college students who have found their calling and inspiration, to young reporters who later become Pulitzers -Award winning community members who have found love and meaning in their work.
You have a strong background in broadcast journalism. Are there any particular challenges that come to mind as you step into the world of podcasting?
The challenge with podcasting right now is helping people find us and making listening a habit. Radio is very habitual – you get in a car on your way to work and it’s there. … The Internet offers so many more possibilities that you can bury yourself in all the possibilities. There is also no equal access to the Internet, which is a shameful reality. But at the same time, there are so few daily podcasts that are rooted in a sense of place and talk about your community, are reported and researched, are accessible, sound good, and are engaging. We hope to do that for Madison.
Do you have a favorite Madison story?
Many years ago I was on a trip to Bangladesh to interview an activist who was documenting fires in garment factories in the capital, Dhaka. … It took a lot of logistical planning to arrange the interview, and when I arrived and introduced myself, he gave me a quizzical look and said, “Another Molly from Madison? There was only one here last week!” It was surprising because it didn’t get many foreign visitors and it’s not a very common name — and Madison isn’t big enough to get on the map for most people who’ve never been here stand. When I got back to Madison, I actually asked around and tracked down the other Molly who was on global labor conditions. We exchanged ideas and became friends. That’s still possible in a city the size of Madison.
“What we need are systems that enhance reporting and critical thinking, not just entertainment.”