Arielle Stevenson recently returned to WMNF, now as Senior News Reporter. Arielle sat down with Seán Kinane on Tuesday Café to catch up. You can listen to the show or read a transcript of their conversation below.
This transcription has been edited for clarity.
Seán – You may have heard that WMNF has hired a new Senior Reporter and it’s a name that will be familiar to longtime listeners of WMNF. It’s Arielle Stevenson. She’s joining me in the studio right now, so we can introduce her to the community. Welcome back to the WMNF airwaves
Arielle – Thank you so much it’s good to be back here. It’s good to be on this microphone again.
Seán – It’s great to have you here. You’re going to be reporting stories for us as well as anchoring most of the morning news headline newscasts. So we want to let people know a little bit of your background.
How old were you when you got started here at WMNF?
I was fifteen. Technically my first day, but my next day was my sixteenth birthday. And so when i officially started here, I was sixteen. I couldn’t drive here yet, I had head to bum rides from Largo to Tampa. And as soon as I got my license, you saw in here as often as they’d let me be. And always got to cover the Friday evening newscast when we had the hour long newscast. So it’s been a long, weird, ride, but it’s been good.
Do you remember any of the stories that you would have been covering back when you were sixteen years old?
I remember my first story with Andrew Stelzer, one of the first days here at WMNF we went chasing, Katherine Harris … from the hanging chad debacle. She was stumping for school vouchers at a public school. All these reporters gathered outside with all these angry parents. That was like my first week. But I got to cover a lot of really cool protests, a lot of really interesting news stories across the entire area, and it exposed me to the whole world that I had no idea about, and the journalist bug bit and it never stopped.
And you went from there to your next full time job which would have been a Creative Loafing. One of the things you did there was being the food editor for a while, but you had a different approach to to food articles rather than just plugging certain businesses.
Yeah, So I was a food editor and staff writer for Creative Loafing for a couple years, and in that position I had a a pretty big section I got to play around with, so I delegated the food review kind of stuff to a proper food reviewer, because, as much as I love to eat, that’s not my expertise, and I really tried to focus on highlighting people who made food in the community that probably would never have been heard of otherwise if I hadn’t written about them. These were places that were definitely word of mouth. I remember a really cool so soul food restaurant that I’m not. sure is still around in West Tampa. A lot of the like old school Vietnamese eateries over in Pinellas park. So I really tried to focus my coverage on the stories of the people that were making the food, and you know, do as much news coverage as possible through that lens.
And then I also got to cover the RNC for Creative Loafing, which was a wild ride in Tampa in 2012. I also got to cover a lot of election coverage during that time, abortion legislation, so it was a really great opportunity to cover a wide variety of topics and I worked under Mitch Perry there, as I worked under Mitch Perry here back when I first started. So it was a really incredible a place to to get my writing down.
You also have been a stringer for the New York Times for several years. What’s that been like writing for the New York Times and seeing your your stories in print?
It was surreal. It really was surreal. I never expected an opportunity like that to come along, and I actually started freelancing for them in 2012 as a result of the RNC. They randomly contacted me and they wanted a food story about Tampa that wasn’t well known. You know, to people who aren’t from here, we may be known for maybe Cuban Sandwiches or steak houses, or you know, fried shrimp baskets, but, you know, I focused on the Cuban Chinese food at Arco Iris. There’s an interesting story there and then from there in 2013 and 2014 I started stringing for the New York Times and basically, I cover all of central Florida for them. And so when any news breaks – which Florida is notorious for newsbreaking – pretty often, they would send me out and I would go hunt down interviews and information for other reporters to use for their reporting. but often those reporters would be out of the country and I would get to work on some really interesting stories.
One of the first big stories I worked on was the Cob Theatre shooting, where the former police officer, a security officer, had shot a Veteran in the Cobb theatre and it was a pretty interesting case, and at the time they were just at the start of that whole a story, and it was, basically like a mini trial just to determine bond. And so that was one of my first big breaks for the Times and it was a heck of a ride to get to cover in a really strange interesting story in terms of a Stand Your Ground coming into the full just to determine bond. So that was one of the first bigger stories I got to do for them, and that was because another correspondent happened to be in the Caribbean. So you know Florida’s a a really great place to be a journalist because you know, all the roads lead here somehow.
Seán – and Florida Man…
Arielle – I always argue that Florida man’s usually from somewhere else. But I think our public records laws have more to do with why big stories come out of this place. We just have the best public records laws. You can find out just about anything. And then from there, the the next big story I worked on was about a Cuban American relations, and kind of the delineations between the Miami Cuban community and the Tampa Cuban community and their attitudes towards the Cuban revolution. That was really interesting work. I’ve really enjoyed the the wide spectrum of stuff. I’ve got to cover for them from crime to culture. It’s really really been a rewarding a journey and it takes me all over the state from like Beverly Hills, Florida, to you know Boca Raton. And somehow that’s all still considered Central Florida. You know, Daytona Beach is still considered Central Florida. I end up in Orlando, a lot. But it’s been a really really rewarding kind of work to get to do. Even if it doesn’t always have my name at the top of those the story. I like getting to see what reporters do with the work I send them as well
Your work lately hasn’t just been in the news business, you also own a a mobile record store.
Hello Darlin’ Records was kind of like a fever dream I came up with with wanting to marry my love of vinyl, with my love of Volkswagens, or my addictions, rather to those two things. So after grad school, obviously work is kind of hard to find. When you get right out of grad school you’re kind of a little dazed and confused, and I had just finished up my master’s degree at the Florida Studies program and I’d been researching Capital Punishment history in the state of Florida pretty heavily, so I was looking for something light, and I was able to start my own business, where I DJed vinyl, out of my 1972 Volkswagen camper bus, and eventually sold vinyl and did lot of huge events in the indie market when we were still on Balm Avenue, and you know, got to play music. Taking from my experience here at a WMNF because, I did music and news. I started in news, but I eventually had a music show, Ah, artful dodgings, which is a billion years ago now, but, I really enjoyed getting to kind of be in. I built like a mini radio station, essentially with a very low bandwidth. And I really really loved getting to do that again. And I loved getting to be on the mic again and play music for folks, and just the kind of impact that work has. So that was a lot of fun and a great challenge, an analog car, and an analog musicality certainly keeps you busy while you’re working.
And your family has a musical history.
Ya, both My parents are jazz musicians and some of my earliest memories – I think I wrote when I applied for the job – was at the old radio station. I would come on the Nick Lagos, Charles Van Memorial Jazz Show on the Mother’s Day special. Because he would always bring his mom on, my mom would always bring me along and one of the funny instances of them being there was my dad’s upright base taking out a ceiling tile in the little house studio. I remember seeing the tub in the bathroom I remember it was full of records. I just remember seeing a bath tub full of records and being like okay, I’m home. This is where I want to be.
How do you describe the music that you played on Artful Dodgings?
Well the, whole idea of the show which I named while I was still a teenager it was the idea of genre is artfully dodged, and I kind of stand by that credo still because I always want to play something at least once in a set list that hits everybody. Everyone’s got lots of different tastes – coming up here at the radio station. I got exposed to so much music. The Friday Night Soul Party.. -after we would do the news- I mean that music made such a huge impression on me and I play a lot of that with Hello Darlin’, but on artful dodgings, I was constantly vacillating between current stuff I was listening to -that was more Indie oriented- to straight out jazz, to old Motown, to you know, really weird deep cut raggee -because I grew up listening to the Caribbean Cruise- and so I really was pulling from a lot of places and trying to make a playlist that would satisfy as many people as possible, because I like people to feel as included as they possibly can. If the kid hears something they like and the grandpa hears something they like, and the mom and dad hears something they like… you know that that’s a success story in terms of playlist politics, as far as I’m concerned. So it’s been a lot of fun, and hearing Scott Elliott again the other day my husband was like “Okay, I see where you got all your stuff from.” I was like. Oh yeah, totally totally.
You mentioned earlier, your graduate degree in Florida studies at USF St. Pete, What’s Florida’s studies?
It’s a weird little program for folks that are just hot and bothered about the sunshine’s state. We go all the way back in history. We do Spanish paleography, and I studied a lot of the early indigenous cultures of the state all the way until current times and we pull from literature, we pull from environmental science, and we pull from history. So that’s really where I got my feet on the ground in terms of the kind of stories I wanted to tell. So I spent a lot of time working with Ray Arsenault on his most recent project, which was about Arthur Ashe. So that was a really incredible experience because I am not a sports person at all, so getting to learn the history of tennis and specifically Arthur Ashe’s impact was pretty incredible. I also got to study with of course Gary Mormino, who’s like Mr. Florida as far as I’m concerned.
My thesis focused on a capital punishment case from the 1960s, where two black men were wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to die, and they served twelve years on death row before it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they hadn’t done these crimes. And it was through the reporting at the Miami Herald of Jean Miller, H. that really helped their case move along. And they, they were freed after twelve years on Death-row. I definitely go into the light and the dark of the state of Florida. I try not to shy away from either, and that, program was really vital into getting those skills. So really interesting stuff, I’m I’m hopelessly in love with this state despite all of its flaws, so am excited to continue covering all of the stuff that comes along the pipeline with being a journalist, as you know.
Part of your reporters training was a special program for young reporters, I believe it was in Washington DC, is that right? What made you think about applying for that and then what was that experience Like?
Well, I wasn’t even officially a college student. But I applied to this program that was four college students and I went to USF St. Pete, and I basically told the journalism program -hey, I’m going to do this are you guys… can you, you know, sponsor me?- Basically, can you vouch for me and say that I’ll be a student here in the fall. It was through the Nation and the Center for American Progress, and I got to spend four days with Jeremy Scahill, with Helen Thomas, with Eric Schlosser, from a fast food nation… I’m missing a few, but Jeremy Scahill made an incredible impression on me. And it wasn’t like a huge, huge conference, the journalism portion it was like thirty people in a room for four days, so he definitely, I would say, radicalized my reporting and the kind of work I wanted to do as a reporter and the kind of fearless kind of coverage that those reporters do. David Corn was there as well, and Helen Thomas, she was definitely in full form – like spicy, you know.
So I felt really honored to get to spend time with those individuals. And I also got to spend time with Free Speech Radio News in the Senate building with Leanne Caldwell and we got to cover a Mel Martinez doing emigration reform -or lack there of, rather- and it was quite an experience. At that time the Sami Al-Arian trial was also still going on and that was in the mix pretty heavily up there, as as it was still here, because that was one of the stories I covered for WMNF in my early years, because that case went on forever. So it was a priceless experience getting to spend time in the Capital with those people. And obviously it kept me going for quite a long time.
Seán -So just a reminder to people, Free Speech Radio News, also called FSRN, is a show that used to be on the WMNF airwaves and it was a half an hour national and international news story with kind of freelance reporters from all over the globe who would would contribute to this newscast. But part of it was really based in the WMNF Newsroom. Because we had at least two -over the years- paid employees of FRSN who were were working here at WMNF and Leeann Caldwell, who you mentioned, was with FSRN, now she’s with NBC and MSNBZ.
So recently you have been involved in reporting on some local issues in Saint Petersburg, especially this Banyon tree that was getting removed. What’s going on with that?
It was just kind of this beloved, kind of iconic Banyon tree. And you know every one was kind of stuck at home last summer to a certain extent trying to navigate, -you know, we had Black Lives Matter happening in St. Pete where I was living at the time, you know you would hear it every night- so I was trying to use my my voice for good and we didn’t end up saving the tree because of many reasons, one of which is a piece of a law passed in Florida very recently, which doesn’t matter if a tree is protected or not. If you can get an arborist to basically sign off on it. They can remove it and there’s a lot of controversy as to whether Banyon trees should be allowed to grow at all. You know they were brought here by Ford in hopes of a rubber substitute, -it didn’t work out I guess- but they’re super enchanting, so I got very caught up in in the story of this tree and trying to save it.
And in the story I wrote it kind of became like a Banyon tree where it kept popping up and then growing down, and the cycles just kind of kept continuing and trying to understand why this tree was so dangerous after it had been in this neighborhood for so many years. So it was a very hard story to cover. Because Florida destruction is part of being a Floridian. Is watching the place here from get torn down -usually by people that just got here- so it definitely made an impression on how I report on the environment moving forward, but it’s something to consider as we as we move forward. Just how precious our resources are and how hard it is to protect them.