Orchestrating Michigan Radio's Stateside
by John Hilton
From the November, 2019 issue
In 1998, Joe Linstroth graduated from the U-M with a degree in history, test scores that would get him into medical school, and an urgent need to see the world before he committed himself to it. So he and a friend got in touch with an outfit that placed English teachers in the former Communist Bloc.
Budapest and Prague, "the cool places to go," had more than enough applicants. Their contact "realistically said, 'We just don't have any opportunities for you--but I know someone in Bulgaria who does.'"
His year there changed his career trajectory. By the time he moved back to the U.S. his test scores had lapsed. "I actually went back to study for them," he says, "and just kind of went, ehh."
His father's legal education and career had taken the family--he's the oldest of three children--around the eastern U.S. Even after they settled in Edina, Minnesota, outside Minneapolis, he visited friends in Chicago every summer, and now he moved in with some there.
He spent time in Chicago volunteering at a Franciscan soup kitchen, and was later hired to do case management for the order's homeless shelter. It was in one of the city's worst neighborhoods, and he saw a lot. "I've had a nine-millimeter [pistol] pointed six inches from my nose. I've seen my clients laid out dead with their chalk [outlined] bodies on the street. I've visited my clients in Cook County jail many times and seen them after they got thrown down the metal stairs [by guards] after having a seizure ... I've had my client not show up because the day before he stabbed someone in the neck to death.
"It's a tough area. But these people were amazing, and they became my friends, my confidants, my protectors, depending on where it was."
He took restaurant jobs on weekends to help cover his living expenses and medical bills after a "horrible" bike accident--for eight or ten years, he didn't have
a car. But after three years, the Franciscans "wanted me to take the job to run the shelter--and I just couldn't do it." Though the nun who hired him remains a "dear friend," he moved on.
His first job in journalism was as an editorial assistant at the Evanston Roundtable, an every-two-weeks paper in the suburb north of Chicago. Still car-less, he "took two trains and then walked a mile and a half to go to this little part-time job ... and I just loved it."
Publisher Mary Garvin "let me do whatever I wanted." That turned out to include "this long investigation of this really shitty building that was leaking, and people with cancer had to leave their condos."
The developer didn't respond to his calls--but did have his "big highfalutin lawyers sending cease and desist letters to my sources," trying to scare them into silence. But Garvin stood by him and published the article. As far as he knows, that was the end of the developer's career. "And I just kinda went, 'Wow!'"
"Joe brings a great passion" to his work, says Michigan Radio executive director Steve Schram. "He's tireless."
Linstroth is executive producer of Stateside, an hour-long news-and-interviews show that runs every weekday at 3 p.m. Schram says nearly a million people listen to Michigan Radio in a given month, and a quarter of those tune in to Stateside.
While hosts Cynthia Canty and Lester Graham are known across much of Lower Michigan, Linstroth is much less visible. He compares his role to a conductor, synchronizing the work of the hosts, three full-time producers, and three or four interns.
He followed a winding road from Evanston to Ann Arbor. After the Roundtable, he got a master's in journalism from Indiana. A decade older than most of his classmates, he'd joke that he "was the only student with male pattern baldness." But he learned new skills, including editing audio that he used after graduation to return to the Balkans, where he produced freelance radio spots. There, he leveraged a meeting with Bulgaria's defense minister into entree into a security conference, where he sat next to an American arms dealer. Across the table was a Kosovar Albanian who was "in the New York Times the next week, picked up on Interpol for war crimes.
"I expended a lot of student loans to do that trip," he says. "But it helped me land a really great internship at WBEZ," the Chicago public radio giant. "That turned into two years as kind of a contract producer."
He led the station's coverage of Syria, "which early on, people didn't know it was going to be Syria. And I was like, 'It's going to be serious.' " He still treasures a thank-you note he received--along with a box of fancy soap--from the Syrian community in Chicago.
When his contract ran out, a connection with a WBEZ alum led to a job at MSU's radio station WKAR. "I started Current State with Mark Bayshore, which ran for a couple of years," Linstroth says. "That was an amazing opportunity to lead the start of a new show from scratch, from nothing." It also led to "getting to know people here at Michigan Radio, that's how I ended up here."
Tamar Charney, then the station's program director, says she needed "a kick-ass editor" to work on a special project. That got Linstroth contributing to Stateside, which at the time was run by Zoe Clark.
Once again, he was in the right place at the right time: when Charney took a job with NPR, Clark moved up to program director, and Linstroth took over as executive producer.
It's a job sized for his passion. With commercial news sources continuing to decline, audience-supported media like Michigan Radio are more vital than ever.
Center for Michigan CEO John Bebow says the state has about 40 percent fewer reporters than it did just fifteen years ago. He doesn't know Linstroth well, but counts himself a "huge fan" of Stateside. He points out that the center's online Bridge Magazine is consciously emulating the public radio model, building a base of committed reader-supporters to support its dozen full-time journalists.
"The citizens of this state need good information," says Charney, "and there was a time I was really worried they were not going to have it. And I am just so glad that Stateside was able to fill a big part of that gap."
"There are fewer and fewer Ghostbusters to cross the streams to, to melt the marshmallow man, if you know what I mean," Linstroth says. "We just need more journalists, and I love showcasing great work of other journalists."
He's currently excited about a program recorded in October at a state prison near Coldwater. The entire Stateside team got permission to talk to prisoners there--the first time it's ever been done in Michigan.
Almost half of the residents are serving life sentences, which means they've committed terrible crimes. Yet some of the interviews, he says, were amazing.
"I think it just shakes people's brains a little bit," he says. "You know, this isn't a black-and-white world."
[Originally published in November, 2019.]
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