Nora Saks (Salt ’13)
We were very excited to catch up with Nora Saks about her new podcast, ‘Richest Hill‘. A Salt Writing student back in the early teens, Nora has built a career in public radio and podcasting. Nora shared some of her reflections on her life as an audio storyteller and her experience at Salt.
Can you tell us a a bit about your new podcast project, Richest Hill?
Richest Hill is a new single season podcast and public radio show from Montana Public Radio exploring the past, present and future of one of America’s most notorious Superfund sites in Butte, Montana.
I never set out to do a podcast on Superfund – it tends to be opaque, technocratic, and a confusing tangle of science and politics. Superfund is the federal program run by the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at cleaning up the country’s worst contaminated, abandoned toxic sites.
But then I started reporting on Butte’s Superfund cleanup a couple of years ago for Montana Public Radio while I was still in graduate journalism school at the University of Montana.
I had heard that Butte, Montana’s most historic copper mining city, had been living with Superfund for 35+ years, and the cleanup was more or less stagnant. But when I started spending time on the ground in Butte, and it seemed the winds of change were blowing hard. Community activists were holding rallies, circulating petitions, calling for the cleanup to be done, and done right. Simultaneously, leaders in President Trump’s EPA were coming to town, claiming that Superfund was a priority for the administration, and that Butte was one of their top priority sites, one they were targeting for immediate attention. And that they were intent on helping Butte reach a final legal and financial Superfund cleanup deal, and finishing the job of cleaning up one of the biggest and most intractable Superfund sites in the nation.
Given the EPA’s agenda of environmental deregulation, naturally, this raised a lot of questions in my mind. I came to really care about Butte, about the real people being affected by these big and lasting decisions, and I was really curious about how this was all going to turn out. My curiosity and affection for Butte dovetailed with MTPR’s hunger for another podcast project. Our station had a great opportunity to shape the project at NPR’s Story Lab Workshop in May 2017, and Richest Hill was born.
I moved to Butte last year in order to embed in the community, and report on the trajectory of this cleanup deal in real time, and try to explain and explore out how we got here, what’s going on right now, and where Butte might be headed.
The major challenges have been living and working in a small town, trying to make a very complicated subject both entertaining and informative, and continuing to report on and tell a story about something without a clear outcome, and on the EPA’s constantly changing timeline.
Superfund is a tough thing for the general public to engage with – so my real hope is that this project will demystify the cleanup, and help locals, and a wider audience, find a way to connect with it.
The more time I spend in Butte, the more I find myself wrestling with the uneven costs and benefits of resource extraction. I wonder if it’s really possible to undo and heal some of the harm we’ve done to our land and water, and what “clean” means in this day and age. I hope our listeners will find themselves asking those hard questions too.
How can people follow-up or learn more about the podcast— and other stories you’ve worked on?
Our first episode dropped March 5. You can subscribe at buttepodcast.org, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Also, here’s a radio documentary I made for my master’s thesis called The Last First Mile, all about Butte’s fight to restore the first mile of Silver Bow Creek.
Has Salt had a positive influence on your career?
Salt has guided me in ways I would have never anticipated. I was a creative non-fiction writing student at Salt back in 2013, not radio. But Salt was my first real jump headfirst into storytelling, and I found myself naturally drawn to doing a feature on some activists in Downeast Maine hellbent on bringing back wild Atlantic salmon by any means possible. I realized I wanted to develop my reporting chops, and that semester at Salt gave me the confidence to apply to journalism school, and I ended up at one focused on environmental science and natural resource reporting in Montana.
When I got to Montana, I got involved with public radio. But my love of and appreciation for documentary never left, and I think I bring into that forward into the journalism that I do.
Professionally, a lot of great connections were forged too. Anne Bailey, my Salt multi-media instructor, now works at a new Media Lab at the University of Montana. And Michael May, a former Salt radio instructor, leads up NPR’s Story Lab, where we really shaped our podcast. So it all comes full circle, or keeps spiraling out.
What have been your biggest takeaways from your time as a student at Salt?
My biggest takeaways from Salt have been around approaching stories and characters with deference, and with an understanding of the complicated ethical relationship/bond forged between reporters/storytellers and their subjects.
Especially with this long form podcast project, I find myself leaning on a lot of things I learned at Salt – about having patience, playing the long game, and building trust with subjects. This is all magnified when you are embedded full-time in the community you’re reporting on, and a part of.
I also feel more permission to be playful, take risks, and step outside of the news box. I would have had less of a foundation/model for how to do that without Salt, and all the great work we were exposed to, and that our classmates produced.
Are there any stories/projects by Salt alums that you’ve been particularly excited to see out in the world?