Merge history, public radio and a 300-year-old city with a million hidden stories and here’s what you get: “TriPod: New Orleans at 300,” an award-winning radio show and podcast that brings local history to listeners every week.
On July 8, TriPod won the New Orleans Press Club award for best radio show. It has also taken home two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards. And now a recent episode has been picked up by BackStory, a popular history podcast.
Since it started airing on WWNO 89.9 FM in October 2015, the weekly TriPod segment hosted by producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson has, in the span of 12- to 15-minute mini-documentaries, lifted the veil on dozens of forgotten stories and, on occasion, sought to bust local myths that drive some historians bonkers.
With organizational support from the University of New Orleans’ Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies and financial backing from the Historic New Orleans Collection, the show marks an unusual collaboration between journalists and historians. The resulting stories are the product of a rigorous and highly unusual editing process that both the academics and Kaplan-Levenson say took some time to grow comfortable with.
Mary Niall Mitchell, a UNO historian who already has numerous titles—co-director at Midlo Center, Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Endowed Chair and the Joseph Tregle Professor of Early American History—took on yet another role after WWNO General Manager Paul Maassen approached her and leaders from the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2015 about the idea of producing a radio show drawing on the city’s storied history in commemoration of New Orleans’ 300th birthday.
As chair and senior editor for the TriPod Editorial Board, Mitchell leads an eight-member panel of historians, archivists and researchers who serve on the board. The team helps generate story ideas, share information on expert sources and even provide detailed line editing on Kaplan-Levenson’s scripts. Supporting the project is an even larger team of advisers—36 historians, archivists, researchers and curators from across the country who also give of their time, expertise and resources.
Kaplan-Levenson said that she works most closely with Mitchell and Jessica Dorman, director of public relations for the Historic New Orleans Collection, who holds a doctorate in American history from Harvard University.
Kaplan-Levenson calls the pair the “guardian angels of TriPod,” because they make themselves available to her round-the-clock. “They’re the people who, when it’s not a designated time for anyone to be doing anything for the show, I can email and they are there for me.”
Mitchell, who before getting her Ph.D. in history from New York University also received a master’s degree in journalism there, said it’s been refreshing to work on quick-turnaround pieces that are steeped in history but are written for a wider audience. But both Mitchell and Kaplan-Levenson say it’s taken some time for the academics to become more comfortable with perhaps more general language that journalists use to make stories more translatable for a typical listening audience.
“I think we’ve all learned how to do that better,” Mitchell said. “We’ve learned from Laine what engages listeners. And at the same time I think she’s gotten more comfortable with accommodating the questions that scholars bring to the story, while still speaking to a broad audience.”
As a narrator, Kaplan-Levenson’s style is far more casual than anything that would ever be found in an academic journal. In a recent piece about Oscar James Dunn, the first black lieutenant governor of Louisiana from 1868-1871, who was incredibly popular during his time despite being born a slave, Kaplan-Levenson sums up his untimely death by what some people believe may be poisoning by calling him “dude.”
“So,” she says to the listener, “mystery number one: dude dies unexpectedly.”
But the story works. The Oscar Dunn tale gives listeners a delightfully new take on a forgotten figure in history who might have been remembered if ever the state had followed through on its plans to erect a monument in his honor. It’s one of Mitchell’s favorite shows along with an episode from the first season on a global shrimp drying business founded in New Orleans by Chinese immigrants.
“I think what I like about both of them is they offer a fresh take on history and get people to see the city they live in a little differently,” Mitchell said.
And that is essentially the goal of the program.
Kaplan-Levenson, who holds a degree in American studies from Brandeis University, said her aim is always to draw the story into the personal by finding interview subjects whose lives were in some way impacted by the event on which she is reporting. When the tale is 200 or 300 years old, that’s not always possible. But with a little digging and the help of the TriPod team, it becomes reality surprisingly often. In the case of the Dunn story, that modern-day link was UNO alumnus Brian Keith Mitchell, a descendant of Dunn’s, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Dunn while studying history at UNO with Mitchell as one of the members of his Ph.D. committee.
Kaplan-Levenson said it’s not easy seeing your scripts torn apart by eight or more people at once. After the editorial board is finished with its review, she submits her script revisions to yet another editor for radio (currently radio producer Eve Abrams). Kaplan-Levenson's take is that collaboration is just hard sometimes, but the show's success owes a lot to that partnership.
“I think it took me understanding that everything the committee was saying was for my benefit and for me to basically not get in trouble and that they had my back,” Kaplan-Levenson said. “And it took the committee trusting that even though I sounded like I was skateboarding down the street eating a slice of pizza, I was really serious about my job. Once we all really got on the same page in terms of trusting each other, that’s when we really started to thrive because the styles and the sensibilities could really flourish.”
TriPod will kick off its third season in October, when Kaplan-Levenson presents an hour-long special on Haiti and the perspective of Haitians on the nation's connections with New Orleans. The show airs Thursdays during “Morning Edition” at 8:30 a.m. on 89.9 FM, repeats on Mondays during “All Things Considered,” and is available anytime on WWNO.org and as a podcast on iTunes.