A North Country Public Radio reporter talks about life inside the Blue Line
It was a raw, overcast Friday in early April when Brian Mann, Adirondack bureau chief for North Country Public Radio, got the call: NPR needed a reporter to cover a mass shooting at an immigrant center in downtown Binghamton, New York.
Binghamton — for anyone in need of a geography lesson — is nowhere near the Adirondacks. Moreover, NCPR was in the midst of its spring membership drive. Nevertheless, Mann jumped into his car and made the five-hour drive from his home in Saranac Lake to the scene of the carnage.
Standing outside Binghamton’s American Civic Association shortly before nightfall, Mann met Omri Yigal, a man anxiously awaiting word about the fate of his wife, Delores. The 53-year-old Filipino woman had been taking an English class inside when a mentally deranged man killed 13 people and wounded four others before taking his own life.
Most of the center’s other occupants were already accounted for when Mann interviewed Yigal, who’d been told by police to go home and await their call. Only later did he learn that Delores was among the dead.
“Are you really OK to just go home right now?” Mann asked Yigal on the air, in a tone of genuine concern. “I mean, seriously!”
NPR reporters rarely insert themselves so personally into their stories, but for Mann, it came naturally. And that brief display of compassion helped make it a compelling piece of journalism.
Months later, Mann returned to Binghamton and spent hours interviewing Yigal about how he was coping with his wife’s death. On the drive home, Mann remembers dreading the thought of listening to all that “horrible dark stuff again.” But his efforts paid off in another story that garnered national acclaim, including praise from several NPR bigwigs.
“This is what it’s like when the shooting stops, when the sirens stop blaring,” Mann reported in his seven-minute follow-up story on “All Things Considered.” “This is what’s left when the TV trucks pull away and the funerals and press conferences are over. This is the wound.”
Shooting deaths aren’t Mann’s typical fodder — he’s more likely to be reporting on the death of the Adirondacks’ bat population, or the steady demise of local public schools. But Mann’s personal style of storytelling has earned him, and NCPR, a reputation that extends well beyond the North Country.
“My interviews are really long, and I come back with crazy amounts of tape,” Mann explains. “But what I find is, those conversations are the most meaningful things I do.”
This month, NCPR celebrates the 10th anniversary of its Adirondack bureau. Its mission is to give a voice to the people who live, work and recreate “inside the Blue Line” — a term that delineates not only the geographic but the political and cultural boundaries of Adirondack Park.
Over that decade, Mann has become one of the Adirondacks’ most recognized voices, listened to by a diverse audience ranging from loggers to wilderness guides to affluent second-home owners now retiring to the region in droves.
In the process, Mann has earned a reputation as one of NPR’s most trusted field reporters, which explains why he’s often sent far afield from his high-country beat. As NCPR News Director Martha Foley points out, “There aren’t many station-based freelancers who get seven minutes on ‘All Things Considered.’”
“I have a great deal of affection for Brian’s reporting. There’s a real humanity about it,” Vogelzang says. “One of the things about a good reporter is, there’s always a sense of place … and I think that’s what Brian does so very well.”
Ironically, the man who founded the Adirondack bureau and still does most of its reporting admits that he came into the job with “an almost pure ignorance” of the region. As Mann puts it, “If you’d said the word ‘Adirondack’ to me before this all happened, I would have said ‘chair,’ and that would have been the end of it.”
Yet in many respects, Mann, 44, was uniquely suited for the job. Born in Wichita, Kansas, he grew up in the small logging town of Sitka, Alaska, where he lived from age 10 until well into his thirties. Unlike many of his fellow journalists, he never attended college — he couldn’t afford it — but spent 10 years working as a fish butcher up and down the Alaskan coast.
Mann got started in public radio at age 20, volunteering to cover local school board meetings. He freelanced for several different stations before getting hired by Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN) shortly before the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.
Mann’s reporting on that disaster earned him a much-coveted assignment as APRN’s “bush correspondent.” Based in Fairbanks, he flew all over the Alaskan backcountry filing stories about the wilderness and Alaskans’ relationship to it. Looking back, he recalls, the job was “a perfect tutorial” for the kinds of rural issues he’s attracted to in the Adirondacks.
Alas, that post was short lived, and Mann gave up what he calls “the greatest job in public radio” to climb the corporate ladder and become a producer for APRN. Like many journalists ill-suited to the unglamorous duties of management, he hated the job, performed it poorly and left shortly thereafter.
Years later, Mann was living in Columbia, Missouri, and working as a full-time dad to his 3-year-old son, Nicholas, when his wife, Susan, asked for “her turn” raising their child. Mann agreed, provided he could find a job in the north country — “any north country.” He started applying for jobs from Maine to Washington.
It was around this time, says NCPR’s Foley, that the station was seeking a self-motivated reporter who could work alone in Saranac Lake, a solid 90 minutes from NCPR’s offices at St. Lawrence University in Canton. By far the smallest, budget-wise, of the three NPR affiliates heard in the Adirondacks — the others being Vermont Public Radio and Northeast Public Radio — NCPR couldn’t afford to staff an entire office.
The fact that Mann hadn’t worked in journalism for more than three years raised some red flags, Foley admits, but after meeting him, she realized he was perfect for the job.
At first, Mann wasn’t sure he was delivering the kinds of stories his bosses expected. An outdoor enthusiast, he wrote first-person accounts of rock climbing and paddling in the Adirondacks — “Time I was stealing from my bosses,” he says, only partly in jest. That raised an eyebrow or two in Canton. But when those stories got enthusiastic responses from NCPR’s listeners — according to Station Manager Ellen Rocco, NCPR tracks to a slightly younger demographic than does VPR — Mann was allowed to keep doing his thing.
Over time, Mann’s range — geographic and subject-wise — expanded considerably to include the politics and culture of the park itself, which he calls “one of the greatest experiments in human history.
“I know that sounds melodramatic,” he adds. But Adirondack Park isn’t like Yellowstone or Yosemite, where the government protected the ecology by kicking out all the people. Instead, he explains, it’s a place where the state created an additional layer of laws, restrictions and bureaucracy — the Adirondack Park Agency — to preserve the region’s natural beauty while allowing people to coexist with it.
To a large extent, Mann says, the ecological side of that experiment has been a success. What was a desolate wasteland 100 years ago is now the largest publicly protected wilderness area in the lower 48 states — at about 6 million acres, it’s larger than Yellowstone, Glacier, Everglades and Grand Canyon national parks combined.
At the same time, Mann points out, it’s also a region where longtime traditional communities are struggling, schools are closing and working-class families with roots going back generations are having trouble making ends meet. Inside the Blue Line, he notes, New York State has been acquiring hundreds of thousands of acres; some towns are now as much as 90 percent state owned. Besides having a tremendous impact on development and job opportunities, this shift has fueled a strong, conservative push for property rights.
Mann calls this “the failure of the experiment,” and it’s something he tries to document in his daily reporting. As he puts it, “How many of the towns in Adirondack Park will exist in 50 or 100 years?”
Mann sees the cultural dynamic playing out in the Adirondacks as part of a larger national trend he wrote about in his 2006 book Welcome to the Homeland: A Journey to the Rural Heart of America’s Conservative Revolution. In it, Mann used his relationship with his ultraconservative older brother, Allen, to explore the cultural divide between America’s place-bound social conservatives — or “homelanders”— and its more progressive, left-leaning urban elites, or “metros.”
That culture clash has been unfolding in the Adirondacks for nearly a century. What’s different now, Mann says, is that baby boomers who used to spend just one or two months a year in their Adirondack second homes are now living there for stretches of eight or nine months, or retiring there full time. This new long-term population of “metros” is dramatically reshaping the political landscape — no longer just influencing communities with its spending habits, but getting elected to local school and village boards.
In fact, Mann’s wife was recently elected to the village board in Saranac Lake, where a significant percentage of her Democratic support came from second-home owners. “Ten years ago, when I moved here, that was unheard of,” Mann says.
He sees his ongoing reporting on this trend as just one facet of NCPR’s overall mission: to continue being a strong local voice of the people and culture of the region.
“I go into truck-stop diners, and they have North Country Public Radio on, and I talk to guys hauling gravel, and they have North Country Public Radio on,” he says. “That’s the stuff that’s important to me.”
For his part, Mann has sunk his roots deep. Two years ago, he and his wife bought an 85-acre farm in Westport. And, while he never envisioned NCPR as a long-term post, now he says he feels a visceral connection to this place and his work. North Country Public Radio, Mann says, “is the golden dead-end. It’s so great, you just can’t leave.”