Mellon Public Humanities Fellow Alumni Spotlight: Richelle Wilson, Producer, WPR

Richelle Wilson is a producer at Wisconsin Public Radio and a PhD candidate in the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic+, where she is writing a dissertation about IKEA. During her time at UW-Madison, she has worked as a Swedish language instructor and literature TA, managing editor of the Edge Effects magazine and podcast, producer of A Public Affair at community radio station WORT 89.9 FM, and producer of season one of the Collegeland podcast. She joined Midwest Environmental Advocates in August 2022 as the Public Narratives Fellow.

Podcast Miniseries Highlights Stories of Wisconsin Communities Impacted by PFAS Pollution

Last month, Midwest Environmental Advocates and the Wisconsin Sea Grant launched Public Trust, a podcast miniseries that investigates Wisconsin’s response to PFAS contamination. Hosted and co-produced by Richelle Wilson, former Mellon Public Humanities Fellow with the Center for the Humanities, Public Trust explores the stories of Wisconsin communities impacted by these toxic “forever chemicals” to understand how residents have been affected and the steps they’re taking to secure their rights to clean water.

Watch a video here.

The Power of Community Engagement:A Conversation with Richelle Wilson

Recently, Public Humanities Program Coordinator Danielle Weindling caught up with Richelle to discuss her role in bringing this podcast to life.

Danielle Weindling: Congratulations, Richelle! What an incredible accomplishment. Can you share a bit about your role proposing Public Trust to Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) and producing alongside Wisconsin Sea Grant?

Richelle Wilson, Producer (WPR): Thank you! It’s so exciting to see the podcast out in the world. When I first arrived at MEA, we talked about how we wanted the fellowship project to highlight the voices of community members affected by environmental issues in Wisconsin. After a lot of thought and discussion, we decided to produce a narrative nonfiction podcast series about PFAS, an area of concern for MEA’s clients and communities. From there, I dived headfirst into the process of figuring out what it would look like to do such an ambitious project in nine months. I knew we would need a project partner to make the podcast happen, so I was thrilled when Bonnie Willison, of Wisconsin Sea Grant, offered to be a co-producer. In so many ways, we couldn’t have done this without resources and support from Sea Grant—including things like professional field mics for recording on-site and, of course, Bonnie’s photography skills and expert ear for sound mixing.

DW: Collaboration is key to any project that bridges organizations and creates meaningful connections with local communities. How did you build relationships with your co-creators and podcast guests?

RW: One of the great things about the Public Humanities Fellowships is that they place fellows in organizations with deep ties to the community. This meant that I didn’t have to “cold call” sources—most of the community members we interviewed in Peshtigo and on French Island were introduced to us by people who already knew and trusted MEA. Another important component of relationship building for this project was our commitment to traveling to the places we talk about in the podcast and conducting interviews in person. It’s so easy nowadays to just set up a video chat, but if you have the resources to meet people where they are, it’s 100 percent worth it. In addition to the human connection, on-site interviews also make for better audio storytelling.

DW: What advice would you share with other public humanities professionals interested in working in audio production, whether that be radio, podcasts, or other formats?

RW: In a nutshell: go for it! A lot of audio producers are self-taught, so there’s room to try it on for size and see if you like it. Plus, there are many departments on campus and organizations in the community that are eager to start a podcast or do an audio project but don’t know where to start. Even being willing to learn about audio production can sometimes be enough to get your foot in the door—and it’s not as intimidating as it may look, I promise! For more guidance on how to get started, I recommend checking out A Guide to Academic Podcasting by Stacey Copeland and Hannah McGregor (it’s open source and free to download). You can also join a community of practice like Podcasting@UW, which meets monthly to highlight new podcast projects on campus and share best practices.

DW: How has your experience as a Mellon Public Humanities Fellow shaped your career interests and professional goals moving forward?

RW: I was so thrilled to be given the chance to participate in the program and to partner with MEA. Throughout the fellowship, I was able to bring existing skills to the project and develop new ones, which boosted my confidence in pursuing a career in media and journalism. Shortly after the fellowship I started a full-time job at Wisconsin Public Radio, where I am a producer for Central Time, an afternoon call-in talk show on the Ideas Network. Even though my focus now is live radio, I have a feeling this podcast will open doors for me in my current role and beyond—especially the opportunity to host and narrate the series, which was a first for me. I truly hope the podcast does justice to the community members who were so generous to share their time and stories with us and with listeners all over the country.

Photos by Bonnie Willison (2023)

Public Trust is presented as part of the award-winning The Water We Swim In podcast. You can watch a video trailer of the podcast on YouTube and access full episodes and show notes on MEA’s website.