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Local stations respond to The Uprising

This episode of Wavelength explores local public radio stations’ coverage and response to the Baltimore Uprising following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

Production and support for this podcast was brought to you in part by PNC Bank.


[WEAA newswrap] Beverly Burke: Taken from the day’s headlines, national attention is turning to Baltimore as the justice department looks into whether police violated the civil rights of a man who died after he was arrested. Baltimore Police arrested Freddie Gray on April 12. He died from a spinal cord injury a week later. Six Baltimore police officers have been suspended while the investigation goes forward.

Maria Broom: This is Wavelength: Baltimore’s Public Radio Journey from Your Public Studios, a monthly podcast series made possible by PNC Bank. I’m your host Maria Broom.

You just heard the voice of former WEAA host and anchor Beverly Burke. On this episode, we’ll hear how local stations covered the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody and the subsequent uprising.

Gray suffered a severe spinal injury in the back of a police van on April 12, 2015. He died a week later. Baltimore radio stations devoted newscasts, hour-long shows, and online stories to Gray’s death and how it was impacting our city.

Former WEAA news director Carla Wills and former WEAA General Manager Michele Williams say the station’s coverage plans evolved the day of Gray’s funeral, April 27.

Carla Wills: The dean of the school at the time, who was Dewayne Wickham, also a veteran journalist, had decided that we, because we were WEAA, needed to be at the funeral of Freddie Gray.

Michele Williams: Carla Wills, Marcellus Shepard “The Baseman”, Sean Yoes, Marc Steiner, Anthony McCarthy, Martha Jews, we all were contributing because everyone had a position on the field. If this was your home, you already had a position on the field even though you may not be active at that moment but if this is your home, then you already have a perspective about when things like this happen. You have a point of view. We cobbled together equipment and with Carla’s direction and guidance, we went out and figured out if we have three of these, we can put a person here. If we have one of these, we can put a person there. We didn't have a lot of equipment, but our chief engineer, Ed, at the time made sure that we could get sound back to the studio.

Carla Wills: We thought we were going to just do maybe an hour or two of the funeral. We're talking with Beverly Burke outside of the church. She was our news anchor at the time.

[WEAA live coverage] Beverly Burke: We are going to be bringing you the commentary inside and outside of the program going on today. You’re inside the Marc Steiner Show. And Marc, as I bring you into this, let me just tell you that after the arrivals of Jesse Jackson and several other dignitaries as I saw come into through this particular entrance…including NAACP City President Tessa Hill Aston, everyone really carries a very somber look. This morning’s news as you probably will recall, pointed to comments made by justice department people and Congressman Elijah Cumings about the coming investigation. Everyone wanting this to be a day of peace until a report is released and that’s supposed to happen later this week. 

Carla Wills: And we ended up covering all 4 hours. And then afterward, along with talk inside the studio, that was moderated by Marc Steiner at the time.

[Live coverage] Marc Steiner: So anyway, still here in the studio with Dominique Stevenson and D. Watkins and we’ll get some final thoughts here I guess as we’ll be rounding out here in a few minutes, maybe we can get a call or two if we can but if not, we’ll just come in here. Ya know, this is–I’m glad, first of all, that the station made the decision to cover this funeral with such depth for all this time. From our show at 10 in the morning and all the way going through the funeral starting at 11, now going on 2 o’clock and we’re still here because other media is not doing this and people need to hear and feel what’s going out in front of the community which is really very critical at this point. 

Michele Williams: Sean Yoes went to the funeral. And he did a magnificent job.

[Live coverage] Sean Yoes: The burden of injustice is heavy in the city. It’s palpable, I believe. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. I think it’s very real and unfortunately, I don’t think that people have a lot of answers as far as what to do next, where do you we go to now? And I think there’s a lot of pessimism as well. People thinking that it’s inevitable that this type of scenario will repeat itself. That is, that is–it’s a sad commentary but I think it’s a very real commentary. I wish I could shed more of an optimistic light on the situation, but I would be disingenuous if I did, I think. 

Michele Williams: And our phones were blowing up. We had to open up our streaming lines. And, you know, because of that, that's a technical thing. But all of a sudden you’ll hit a wall and no one else can get in. And we had to expand and open all of that because we sort of became a repository for emotion and comments and people.

Carla Wills: Beverly, she had gone up toward Mondawmin–and I'm trying to remember why, this is after she had stopped–she calls me and she says, it looks like something's about to go off here. And so I'm on the phone with her. And then we bring her back on the air and she's describing what's happening.

[Live coverage] Beverly Burke: The mall itself is closing and I am really watching as cars are leaving the parking lot. Like I said I’m positioned in front of Target and they’re heading out to the exit that leads to Liberty Road. Again nothing has been disclaimed. I have seen a couple of helicopters overhead. The strange thing is that I’m not seeing any patrol cars, no city police cars, not one. And I’m not even seeing anything allegedly unmarked. But I am seeing people getting in their cars and they are leaving. Marc Steiner: Beverly Burke, thank you for all your coverage today and we’re [intelligible] to know what you’ve seen at Mondawmin Mall and so we want to be very clear as we end our program today that, that–nobody knows what’s going on. These are all kind of rumors floating. Beverly Burke: They are rumors, yes. And we want to be clear about that. Marc Steiner: I just want to make sure people are not in a panic and don’t get into a panic over this because we just do not know exactly what’s going on. WEAA will fill you in with updates as the afternoon goes on. 

Carla Wills: And nothing had really blown up yet but she knew things were kind of simmering. And so at that point, you know, we were like, there on the ground when it was starting to unfold. And then I'm like, All right, Beverly, I'm a little concerned. Maybe you should get out of there. And she left. But then we had a student journalist. And this is the other important thing about WEAA, you know, its partnership with the students because it's housed at a university. We had a student who we ended up sending down because he lived in the area and then he would call with updates and we had him on the air. He actually now works at WBAL television. So shout out to Tramon Lucas. But it was just like we were there on the ground the whole time as the situation unfolded and followed it all evening.

Maria Broom: When listeners tuned to WEAA and WYPR, they found the stations providing coverage like they had never done before, and collaborating like they had never done before. Michele Williams, former WEAA GM and now WYPR Director of Underwriting, explains a station partnership that was formed not long after Gray’s death.

Michele Williams: We had a conversation with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and said, hey, you know, can you help us? And they did come and help us and paired us with WYPR.

Carla Wills: We knew we needed to do more and like I said, we didn't necessarily have the infrastructure. WYPR, of course, had a far more robust infrastructure as far as its news department. And, you know, we were like, yeah, you know, and WYPR was like, you know, honestly, we don't have the same kinds of relationships in the community that WEAA has. So if we partner, we could probably do more together as far as, you know, really covering this situation. And so we had one of WYPR’s reporters was often reporting with us on our evening public affairs programs. And then, you know, we had people who would speak at WYPR’s–on their programs. And so it was really a moment that we saw the power of this media, especially when the community is involved. I mean, not just–it's not about giving voice to the voiceless. It's about passing the mic. You know, people aren't voiceless. They just don't have the platform.

Maria Broom: WYPR News Director Joel McCord says he recognized that the news team needed to respond to the moment.

Joel McCord: Well, at the time, you know, as we were concentrating on more on long term deep dive kinds of stories, we didn't have connections in the police department that would have helped. So I was more interested in looking into the, the kinds of conditions that created a Freddie Gray and his relationship with the Baltimore Police Department or maybe even, you know, the relationship of a good part of the city's population with the police department. But then as tensions escalated, as the day of the funeral approached, you might remember the violence near Camden Yards downtown, around the time of, of an Orioles–Red Sox game and the eruption. After the funeral, that's when I said, well, you know, we can't we, we can't take time to do these deep dives. We actually have to be out there covering it. Chris Connolly was our state house and political reporter, he was living in West Baltimore. So I had him covering the action that night that the CVS was burned at Penn North. And Mary Rose was out the next day.

Mary Rose: I started going out and started collecting stories and honestly, truthfully, my life has never been the same. It was an unforgettable experience. My name is Mary Rose Madden, and I was a reporter and producer for WYPR for 15 years from around 2003 to 2020. People were furious. And, you know, calling for their city's leaders and this, you know, I'm walking around with my mic and I'm kind of introducing myself to people and saying, I'm, I'm here to try to, like, capture what's happening. And if you want to talk, I'm– I want to listen. And so this woman takes me by the shoulder and whips me around. And she's probably about maybe 50, 60 years old. And she's just, like, just full of emotion. And she just yells at me–

Protestor: “Where’s our mayor that ‘posed to be out here? Where she at? She ain’t here.”

Mary Rose Madden: ‘Cause Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hadn't been out. This woman, it had not slipped by her, you know, she was like, she should be out here. This is her city. But her friend took the mic, like, you know, was like I–you know, I've got something to say. So her friend was, like, crying, and she started saying–

Protestor: They hate us so much. We’re tired of it! 

Mary Rose Madden: People were sharing with me these traumatic experiences of how they would be walking down the street to go to the corner store to get a cup of ice, and they'd be stopped by the police. And this is like a common occurrence. This is not a random thing. So stories like that, again and again and again. And little kids afraid to talk to the police. Parents afraid of their kids having interactions with the police. Not just on this night or at this time, but this is how they felt for years. And honestly, I'd been reporting on, like, issues related to poverty for years and years. So I'd done stories about jobs and homelessness and housing prices and rents and all kinds of stories. And this topic somehow never crossed my path. And I'm sad to say, it's something I never, I never asked about it because it's almost unimaginable that this would be happening to people. And, but it's just such a common part of their lives. And I had never, like I've never heard it. So in a way, it really, like opened my eyes as a reporter to like really trying to remember that there is so much you don't know. And no matter how many times you've gone out to this neighborhood or a certain community, there is still so much you don't know.

Carla Wills: We were always in the community. And so people who were community leaders, you know, were comfortable coming to WEAA and sharing what they knew about the community in their solutions and what we needed to have happen and what the issues were with the police and how the, you know, police were had a long standing, long, contentious relationship with many of these communities. And so, you know, it was a conversation and dialogue we'd already had before Freddie Gray continued through Freddie Gray and afterward and so I think that’s why we became a go-to source for this kind of information.

Michele Williams: You know, the two the two audiences that the radio stations serve, I mean, in any radio community and all communities have a radio community. You may not think of it that way, but specific formats serve different kinds of audiences and different kinds of people. We could infiltrate a lot better than WYPR could. It was whatever, whatever the station did, it was not going to have the same kind of sort of emotive feel that an African-American station that's talking to its community and that is really being looked upon to hold a beacon about this whole situation and try to guide the sentiment and the feeling that's happening. So it's not that one station is better than the other. They're just, you know, every every radio station has its sort of specialty. And it might be about music, it might be about the audience. It could be a combination of both.

Maria Broom: This is Wavelength. More in a minute.

Maria Broom: This is Wavelength: Baltimore’s Public Radio Journey. I’m your host Maria Broom. We’re continuing our exploration of station coverage of the Baltimore Uprising following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Here’s former WYPR news reporter Mary Rose Madden.

Mary Rose: The day after the unrest was also like a really meaningful day. So Chris Ervin I had met, he had heard my stories, you know, from the the night after night of protests. So he calls me around 3:00 and he's like, Mary Rose, you got to come down here. Oh, we're out at North Avenue on the West Side, and there's like. Couple of hundred people out here. I'm like, okay, all right, you know what's going on? And he's like, well, we're it's like it's like a rebirth. And I was like, okay, all right. I grabbed my mic, I grab my kit, I’m like alright let’s go. And I get down there and it is like a rebirth there’s like everyone is out in the street and the sun is setting and there's like these, you know, everyone is like singing and praying and talking and trying to, like, sort out all the feelings and everything that they've learned in the past couple of weeks about their city and the news and just everything that they've, like, ingested. They're just like processing it now.

Lauren Haymen: This is a wonderful reflection of the core of Baltimore, where a community that’s actually unified for goodness and I think this situation that we have right here reflects that. Mary Rose: Behind her a brass band of six was just getting going with ‘When the saints go marching in.’ 

Mary Rose: There's like, saxophone players and drummers and incredible singers, and everyone is like, just taking a moment to, like grieve the death of this man and also what they've all been through. For years and years and also the like, explosion of emotion that happened the night before.

Rernard Parks: No, nobody here wants the violence to be going on. We from Baltimore City, we see enough violence going on. But at the end of the day we need to come together and it’s as simple as that. 

Aaron Henkin: My name is Aaron Henkin. I'm a producer here at WYPR and I’ve been here since 2001. Obviously, when the unrest was at its most. Cinematic, shall we say. All of the media outlets nationally were hovering around in their helicopters, capturing the footage of the CVS on fire, the windows being broken, etc., etc.. The National Guard vehicles. I went down to the intersection of Pennsylvania North Avenue a couple of days later when the camera crews had cleared out. And what I saw was all of the locals who lived around there. Cleaning up the broken glass. Cleaning up the rubber bullets that were on the street. Boarding up the broken windows. And very openly grieving. In a very raw way. In the streets and communing with each other in confusion and horror about everything that was going on. And for Out of the Blocks, we did that special episode, obviously on very short turnaround. And the premise of that episode was that I just went to that intersection of Pennsylvania North Avenue and then just walk basically in spirals outward in the three or four block radius around there with–I remember I had a clipboard with me and front of the clipboard I wrote “local public radio reporter” and on the back of the clipboard I wrote “Let Your Voice be Heard.” And I just wandered around and just held my clipboard up and let people self-select to come talk to me. And people wanted to talk.

[Out of the Blocks “Priscilla” episode] Priscilla: My name is Priscilla, I live in this community. Aaron: What do you fear is the worst possible thing that can happen from here? Priscilla: No conviction, no justice, no trial. Just sit back and wait, world. The best is yet to come. And that’s scary and it frightens me. My mom lives in another city and state and um because I live right here at ground zero. I did tell her–me and my family–we might have to flee. If it comes to that. I’m actually kinda crying here. We might have to flee because of the fear in our community. 

Aaron Henkin: People obviously had a lot weighing on them and a lot on their minds and. It ended up being an audio snapshot of a moment in time that obviously was poignant at the moment. But, you know, to listen to it now, this many years later, it's interesting how quickly that first draft of history actually becomes kind of a historical document. Everybody on the programming side at WYPR was trying to figure out how to contribute, how to help the conversation along in the wake of the unrest.

[Maryland Morning show] Sheilah Kast: On WYPR, Maryland Morning, that’s Chief Ganeisha Martin, she leads community relations for the Baltimore police department. I’m Sheilah Kast. We’re talking about how police can repair frayed relationships they have in some Baltimore neighborhoods.

[Midday show] Dan Rodricks: And welcome back to Midday everyone, Dan Rodricks here. Thanks again for joining us. In this hour, we continue our conversation on Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. The neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up. A neighborhood–a part of town profoundly affected by poverty, unemployment, incarceration, drug abuse and violence.

Aaron Henkin: I think a week or two later on Out of the Blocks, we broke format again and did a special episode where we brought in musicians and poets here locally that we had known over the years and featured in various ways, because just like everybody else, this was on their mind and they were writing poetry about it, they were writing songs about it. And so we just turned over our episode for a week to anybody who is having a, you know, creative response to that traumatic moment in history as well.

Sam Sessa: My name is Sam Sessa. I started at the WTMD in 2006, as the host of Baltimore Unsigned, which later became Baltimore Hit Parade. And then I became full time at the station around 2015 as the Baltimore Music and Community Outreach Manager. And I'm currently the director of events for WYPR and WTMD. A week or two after the uprising, Kenny Liner who ran this program called Believe in Music at Living Classrooms reached out and said that he'd asked some of his children who I believe were 11,12, 13 years old. And they had lived in the neighborhoods where the uprising was happening. They were terrified by what they saw. And also hopeful about what it meant for the city that people were giving voice and really standing up for Freddie Gray and what they believed in. And so we had them write song lyrics. And he said, “Sam, is there anything we can do with these lyrics?” And so I reached out to Cara Sedalino, this Baltimore singer and songwriter, I said, “Can you set these to some music? Could you write a melody?” And she did. And it was incredible. It was called Believe in Baltimore.

“Believe in Baltimore”: “The city is where we live, the city is where we come from. Won’t let it crumble into mass destruction. The city is where we live, the city is where we come from. Won’t let it crumble into mass destruction. Who's gonna save Baltimore?” 

Sam Sessa: And we thought, let's see how many Baltimore musicians we can get in the room with these kids to show them what it's like to record a song. And we got members of Future Islands and Celebration, Lower Dens, Chris Jacobs. Just some of the biggest musicians in Baltimore at the time were part of this project. And they all donated their time. And they came in and coached the kids and kind of helped them through the process. And it was so heartwarming. I knew a producer who worked for the Meredith Vieira show, and we were able to get the kids to go up to New York and some of these kids have never even been out of Baltimore before, to experience that and perform it live on national television. It was just such a wonderful byproduct of this very tumultuous time, and I was so thrilled that TMD could help contribute something to the conversation.

"Believe in Baltimore": “Now let’s stop the violence and bring the peace. We’re tired and injustice and wish our love to increase. We stand united for Freddie Gray.”

Sam Sessa: WTMD’s First Thursday festival, on May 1 of 2015, was the first big event that Baltimore city held after the uprising after Freddie Gray in, which was in mid April of 2015, so it was like two weeks after the uprising we had First Thursdays. And honestly, we were a little nervous about it. We didn't know how it would go. We didn't know if people would show up protesting at First Thursdays, which would have been a first for us. But it ended up being a really joyous and therapeutic coming together of our community. And I think it was really reaffirming for us that we are all in this together. And yes, that was really tumultuous and emotional and terrible, what happened in April. But that's not all of who we are as a community. I think it showed the power that music and art has to speak to people and bring people together.

Judith Krummeck: My name is Judith Krummeck. I am the evening drive time host for WBJC 91.5 FM, and I've been with the station since February of 1998, which makes it, I think, 24 plus years. We found during the Freddie Gray tragedy sort of what we had found really with 9/11 and then more latterly with COVID and the invasion of Ukraine, people tend to find that we are kind of like an oasis. You know, they get bombarded with this really terrible news and we do keep them abreast and we do, as I say, try to be sensitive about our programming around these issues. But it also can be sort of like a sanctuary just to, to have time to reflect on these things rather than to have them in your face all the time.

Michele Williams: When you step back and you saw the national coverage, it appeared that the whole city was in flames. And that just was not true. And that was you know, it was, it was a little bit offensive because that's that's not true. The whole world is looking at Baltimore like it's an inferno and that and then what didn't get necessarily showcased or told was how the people in the community sort of sheltered their community and their young and their old and put a barricade, human barricade between themselves and police presence. And the adults in the community stood together, arms locked and kept their community back and, you know, and stood down the police, like we got this, we got this. Just you stay over there. And it was just really, really so encouraging to see people that walk those blocks every single day, how much they love no matter what. You might think about my neighborhood. I love my neighborhood. And this is, this is a part of me.

Carla Wills: National media were parachuting in and, you know, shoving their mics in the face of people. And, you know, it's just without really understanding what was going on on the ground and, you know, why Baltimore had its reaction. So I think WEAA has a really important role in media–and stations like it across the country because it is really part of the community and it takes that responsibility very seriously. And, you see how it can be effective when–in situations like that.

Maria Broom: Six police officers were charged in the death of Freddie Gray. Counts included misconduct in office, manslaughter, and one officer was charged with second degree murder. A judge acquitted three of the officers and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby dropped the charges against the other three officers. Local public radio stations covered the trials, the decisions, and the community response.

You’ve been listening to Wavelength: Baltimore’s Public Radio Journey from Your Public Studios. I’m Maria Broom.

Production and support for this podcast and WYPR’s 20th Anniversary was brought to you in part by the PNC Bank.

Jamyla Krempel is the executive producer of Wavelength. Anne Kramer is our producer. Katie Marquette is our audio editor. Production and engineering support by Spencer Bryant. Research and production assistance by Maddie Bristowe.

Andy Bienstock is WYPR’s Vice President and Program Director. Michele Williams is the Director of Underwriting.

You can learn more about the podcast and listen to the stories and shows featured in this episode at wypr.org/wavelength.

New episodes of Wavelength are released on the last Wednesday of the month. Please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a review.

Thanks for listening.

Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.
Maddie is WYPR’s Digital Communications Associate, helping with all things digital for the station. She is a recent graduate of Fordham University where she studied Communications and Economics. Maddie started in public radio during her time at Fordham at 90.7 FM WFUV, New York’s music discovery station. She produced the weekly radio show/podcast Cityscape, an exploration of the people, places, and spirit of New York City. She also produced two award-winning audio documentaries for WFUV, Back to the Garden: Remembering Woodstock and You Should Know Their Names.