Three lessons from a three-part radio series on housing as health care

Published on
November 10, 2021

One of the first lessons I learned from reporting a recent three-part series on the health care case for housing took place quite early on in my reporting process. 

I originally got the idea to report how unhoused seniors were aging in the Bay Area after a simple background phone call with Dr. Josh Bamberger. He’s a family physician who takes care of people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. I was trying to get some new ideas after having spent the last year reporting almost strictly on COVID-19 related stories, and I had called him up just to talk about what he was paying attention to this year outside of the pandemic, and what he felt the media wasn’t paying enough attention to. 

We got to talking about the amount of folks aging on the streets and how San Francisco didn’t have an adequate system in place to care for their specific needs. He told me how the median age of San Francisco’s unhoused population is quickly increasing and more and more people are entering homelessness at an older age. He mentioned how there’s very little specialized care for unhoused people with serious age-related illnesses like incontinence or dementia. After that call, I did more research, and realized that this issue would be more than one story. I pitched a three-part series to the Center for Health Journalism’s California Fellowship, looking at the problem and exploring potential solutions for KALW Public Media.

Find your main characters

Still, one of the more difficult aspects of my reporting was finding the people who would sever as main characters in each story. I wanted to illustrate the problems and issues through real people’s stories, highlighting the experience of dealing with homelessness as a senior through the voices of unhoused seniors themselves. The pandemic made it more challenging to do field reporting and sourcing, since I wanted to be safe while also recording audio up close. 

What paid off in the end was continuing to check-in over the phone with Dr. Bamberger, nurturing that connection and building trust. Eventually, he connected me to a public health nurse practitioner taking care of unhoused seniors in San Francisco’s shelter-in-place hotels, which are tourist hotels the city leased to house the most vulnerable, including many unhoused seniors, during the worst of the pandemic. 

I was able to spend hours shadowing Rory Caygill-Walsh doing rounds at the COVA hotel, and it was there we met Kittrell Wallace. Both Rory and Kittrell’s stories are the bulk of the first piece in the series. And, Dr. Bamberger even became a character in my second piece. All of their experiences really worked to highlight some of the issues unhoused seniors face in the Bay Area. But it took me almost four months to find them, and I learned to continue asking around for “dream” tape or characters, even if it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. In the end, taking time to find characters and sources paid off.

In radio, sometimes simpler is better

Once I found my characters, I was able to go out and interview and gather sound in person. After almost a year and half of reporting from my bedroom and Zoom, I was so happy to get real scene tape and sound — so much so that I ended up getting almost too much. When I started to write my first draft of the first piece, I realized the first mix was almost 20 minutes long, twice as long as it should be. 

After talking to my editor, we realized that because I had captured so much sound-rich tape, I could create two stories out of one rather than try to tackle so much in the first piece. Instead of trying to combine the stories from the shelter-in-place hotels with context and history of senior permanent supportive housing and the health care system, I decided to divide it up. 

The first piece was almost one continuous scene of nurse practitioner Rory Caygill-Walsh doing rounds, and I was able to structure it this way because I didn’t turn my recorder off! I’ve learned that especially in radio, when your tape and characters are strong, sometimes a single scene can carry a story, and often less is more.

When reporting on health policy, fact-checking is your friend

In the last piece in my series, I looked at a possible solution to homelessness among aging seniors. Specifically, I told the story of how San Mateo County is reimagining its public health insurance program to keep seniors out of nursing homes and off the streets. The story touched on Medicaid, Medicare, public health plans, and a new restructuring of California’s Medicaid program called CalAIM –– all complicated and complex topics. And because this was going on the radio, I needed to explain things in the simplest, most understandable way possible. 

During the writing process, I did my best to summarize the info I got from my interviews –– trying to describe how San Mateo County was able to use dollars from a Medicaid pilot program to try to transition folks from nursing homes back into the community through wraparound services and supports. But because these concepts were so new to me, and so particular, I did more fact-checking than I usually do, and it paid off. 

I used primary sources to verify much of my information, but I also had hour-long fact-checking phone calls with my sources. I never let them see my story, but I read isolated sentences aloud to make sure my explanations were correct, and that I wasn’t leaving anything out. I also made sure to fact-check the quotes from my sources, and I am glad I did this because some sources had misstated some info in my first interview. I also reached out to a few experts who weren’t featured in the story to triple-check some facts. 

All of this made me feel confident I was broadcasting something airtight. Next time I take on a similarly ambitious project, I’ll leave at least a week to fact-check!