Winter in Utah is a serious news story — which is why the four members of the City Cast Salt Lake staff were having a serious conversation recently about how they removed snow off their cars that morning.
The quartet — host Ali Vallarta, lead producer Emily Means, audio producer Ivana Martinez and newsletter editor Terina Ria — are responsible for a daily podcast and accompanying newsletter that deliver hyperlocal news in a humorous and often fun way. So talking honestly about their snow-removal headaches on this mid-December day demonstrated the sort of friendly, chatty, honest dynamic that their listeners want to hear.
During this particular pitch session, the four of them talk about doing a story on winter illnesses — the so-called “triple-demic” of RSV, the flu and COVID-19 — and how to identify and prepare for them. They plan to interview Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department who was Utah’s voice of scientific reason when she was the state epidemiologist during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps, they joked, they could have Dunn play a game: Identify the illness by the sound of the cough or sniffle.
Underlying the humor, though, is a drive to explore interesting stories.
“This is a serious group of women,” Means said. “We are so committed to this work, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
The evidence, Means said, is the fact that they showed up to the Great Salt Lake Gala last year dressed as brine shrimp.
A professional podcast
The team that now creates City Cast Salt Lake (part of a national network of hyperlocal news podcasts) is likely the only all-women news team in Utah. Three of the four staffers are women of color.
“We got an email yesterday from someone who said, ‘Do you accept male contributors or is it only a girl’s club?’,’’ Vallarta said.
They’re often asked if they create the podcast as a hobby, they said — based on misconceptions that podcasting isn’t professional or doesn’t require hard work, or that the show’s guests aren’t vetted news sources.
Some of that, the women say, is attributable to the format, which presents hard news from a less-traditional angle. But it’s also true, Martinez said, that women aren’t taken seriously.
“One of the biggest questions I get asked the most is, ‘Is this your full-time job?,’’ Vallarta said. “So introducing this medium in a news format, I think it’s something that people are kind of wrapping their heads around.”
Means said the City Cast process is similar to what other journalists do: “We throw something at the wall and see if it sticks.”
They bristle at the misperception that anyone can make a podcast. A lot of their work, they said, centers on the nuts and bolts of podcasting: Writing, recording, editing and producing a shiny new episode that runs between 15 and 20 minutes. Rinse and repeat, every single day.
“It’s a lot easier to make a podcast that isn’t edited than to make a podcast that is edited,” Vallarta said. “It makes a world of difference.”
There’s a certain beauty to that, too, Vallarta said. “It’s a lot more nuanced and complicated to maneuver around someone’s words in audio than on paper.” Often, she added, podcasting can be more intimate than other formats, because her voice is directly in the listener’s ears.
The podcast format, they noted, allows them the freedom to try different things. “We have a little bit more room to play around and be creative and find the best way to tell the story,” Means said.
One example: Last summer, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the ruling that safeguarded a women’s right to an abortion, the podcast found an angle other Utah news outlets didn’t think of: Going to Salt Lake City bars to ask young women if the ruling would change the way they thought about hookups with guys.
Means and Martinez have backgrounds in hard news; both came to City Cast Salt Lake after stints at public radio station KUER. Vallarta worked for the Sundance Film Festival, and Ria in social media and communications. Each of them is thoughtful about the content they put in the podcast and in the newsletters.
“We’re not like breaking news,” Ria said. “We really enjoy talking to Salt Lake characters and getting behind the heart of Salt Lake City and the people in it.”
Means added, “We’re really straightforward about how we perceive this city, our experience in it and what we’d like to see improved upon. … We’re not afraid to call a spade a spade.”
Ria said she initially was intimidated by her colleagues’ hard news backgrounds, but now, she said, she learns so much from them.
What makes the job, and the newsletter, so fresh is that it’s different every day, Ria said. “A fun part of the job is being able to, like, brainstorm, and kind of soundboard off of each other, and come up with really cool concepts for the newsletter,” she said.
What City Cast does is “community-based journalism,” Means said, “because we are members of our community, reporting on our community.” (Means grew up in Layton, Martinez in Provo, and Ria has lived in the Salt Lake Valley. Vallarta is from Florida, but moved to Utah in 2017 to work with Sundance.)
The foursome have, Means said, “that perspective as insiders, as residents, who are impacted by the decisions of our local and state leaders … we’re serious about this and about making our communities better.”
Martinez agreed, saying that the group’s strength is exploring different ways “of telling stories about Salt Lake, the city we love.”
City Cast Salt Lake hit its first anniversary in mid-December, something Vallarta — the most veteran member of the team — said was “auspicious and powerful.” She said that the current team has room to grow the podcast beyond where it started.
“That’s one of our goals, too,” Means said. “We see a Salt Lake that is more than just what you think at a surface level. I always feel like a lot of people might dip their toe in Salt Lake, … but if you look deeper, you’ll find that there are a lot of people working to make this city and state a better place.”
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