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Which Way the Wind Blows - A Q&A with Dave Malkoff

Dave Malkoff
Photo courtesy of Dave Malkoff

Weather Channel correspondent Dave Malkoff puts a human face to climate change in the 2016 Hosokawa Lecture.

In April, Weather Channel reporter and national correspondent Dave Malkoff came to Whitman to deliver the 2016 Hosokawa Endowed Lecture, titled “Covering Climate Change.” Malkoff, who works for NBC’s The Weather Channel, makes frequent appearances on The Today Show and MSNBC, covering science and technology as well as major weather events. His reporting has ranged across the United States and beyond. Malkoff is the producer, writer and presenter of documentaries including the Emmy Award-winning Assignment: Iraq (2010) and Alaska: State of Emergency (2015), which tells the story of climate change in the country’s largest state. In Malkoff’s Alaska documentary, he visits smokejumpers parachuting into wildfires, examines melting permafrost below Alaskan soil and visits the island of Kivalina, which is in danger due to dramatically rising sea levels. Previously, Malkoff was a science and technology reporter in Champaign, Illinois, Miami and Los Angeles. He is now based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Whitman Magazine: Let’s go back to the beginning. When you were a kid, you set up a pirate radio station in your basement. How did you manage to do that?

Dave Malkoff: My dad had an intercom system in his dental office and it transmitted AM through the ground of the system, so it would transmit through the ground of whatever building you were in through a low-powered AM signal. I figured that out and I pulled the ground out of the power cable—which is probably not a great thing for a little kid to do—and I attached it to a CB antenna that I had installed on the roof (I was really into CBs as well)! I put this antenna on the roof and I would send that ground up there and transmit it through AM102 to whole neighborhood.

WM: What did you broadcast out of the basement?

DM: I would do my stepmom’s albums that she would have in the basement, and I would bring in the neighbors and talk to them. And sometimes I would take a walkie-talkie and I would tape it on to the talk mode, then I would take the walkie-talkie and put it in next to the microphone inside the radio station, and I would go outside and do live reports.

WM: Where did that love of broadcasting come from?

DM: I don’t know. I’ve always been interested in microphones and transmission and the tech side of it. I still am, and I still have all the [tech] stuff in my bag that I carry around with me. I was real interested in the technical side of it, and that’s what got me into the journalism side of it.

WM: Speaking of technology, you are primarily a science and tech reporter. How did you transition from your science and tech reporting to the Weather Channel?

DM: I started covering the tech industry in Las Vegas. I would go to all the different conventions, because I have this theory that you can go to any convention and come out with a great television news story, no matter what it is. We went to the “convention convention”—the convention for new technology to put up conventions, lights and posters and different things that make your booth look better—we went to the vending machine convention, but no matter what convention you go to, it’s always the cutting edge technology of that industry, and you can always come up with a fun piece. Then I moved that to a franchise in Miami, and then Los Angeles, and I did a marriage between technology and feature stories. A lot of times when people do technology stories, they’re not so people-centric, they’re just, “look at this product, here’s what it does,” but I approach it differently, where I do a people-centric technology story. When I went to New York to pitch myself to the networks, NBC said: we could use you at the Weather Channel in Atlanta, so why don’t you go down to Atlanta and talk to them?

WM: And that’s how you ended up there. It seems like weather is considered big news these days.

DM: It’s big, yeah. Now you’ll see a lot of the networks leading with weather. So it’s interesting, and I get to be a part of those big shows. That’s what intrigued me to come to the Weather Channel: you can be a part of these big stories that are happening now. Even working in Miami—all of the hurricanes that you know the name of, I covered!

WM: Why is that, and do you think that relates to the interest in climate change, which you talked about at the Hosokawa lecture?

DM: It affects everybody. The way that it’s been explained to me is that it just affects everybody. There’s nobody who isn’t affected by the weather. It’s such a big-scale human story—it’s not something that’s affecting a hundred people here, a thousand people there, it affects millions of people on one day. All these people are together being affected by one storm. And we’re right at the beginning of all these big [climate change] stories happening. Right now, you have to go to Alaska to see the real effects of it, but you’re starting to see—as you saw in the presentation—that there’s effects that you can see in the mainland United States as well.

WM: In the Q&A session, some people seemed intent on seeing climate change news as political. But for you, it’s about reporting the facts and the science, right?

DM: There’s actually a statement that the Weather Channel came out with. Paraphrasing, it says: we’re just here to cover the science, and the science is sound, and we’re covering these stories as they come up. We’re not covering one side or another. They do shy away from political stories, even though I would like to do the political stories because I’m fascinated by politics. It’s an interesting stance to take, because they want to get as many eyeballs on these stories as possible. Sometimes, when people see that this is leaning one way or leaning the other way, they’ll be turned off by that, but if a story is straight down the middle, and it just ignores the politics and says, this is the experience these human beings are having, and this is what they’re dealing with in this environment today, as opposed to 30 years ago, that’s a really interesting story and everyone can pay attention to that. Nobody needs to be voting one way or the other to be interested in that story.

WM: Do you think you’re able to do more or less good by reporting on network TV rather than online or on premium channels?

DM: I mean, there’s probably a lot more leeway on places live Vice or Buzzfeed or other news agencies like that that are on cable, but they don’t get the giant big tent audience that The Today Show would get. They do get a lot of viral traction too, but John Oliver, for example, will tell you that he’s not a journalist; he’s commenting on these things that are journalism, but he’ll say, listen, I’m not out there reporting on these things. But sometimes he is! I mean, he went to Russia and he found [Edward] Snowden in a hotel room! [laughs] So that’s actual reporting.

WM: You also produced, wrote and presented Alaska: State of Emergency, which very vividly shows the effects of climate change.

DM: Very vivid, yeah. Climate change tends to happen first at the North Pole, and that’s where it’s being accelerated. I’m up there doing the science, but mostly doing the people stories. That’s my job—to find the people stories behind the science.

WM: How did you end up with the idea to cover the topic up in Alaska?

DM: Chip Miller, who’s a brilliant NASA scientist [working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.] I met him in LA and he said, you should come up to Alaska with us. And eventually, I was able to convince the Weather Channel to let me go!

WM: In your talk, you said that the universality of people and the human experience is what interests you most. Was that a key to making Alaska successful?

DM: Television is an emotional device. It’s an emotion delivery device, that’s what its basic function is. You can use it to connect yourself to another human being—it doesn’t matter if you’re watching a character on Big Bang [Theory], or if you’re watching John Oliver, or if you’re watching The Today Show, all of that is just an emotion delivery device, where you are connecting to that human being on the other side of the glass. That’s the whole point.

WM: And maybe that human, emotional angle is even more pivotal to reporting on climate change?

DM: Sometimes scientists think you can just take a fire hose and unload data at people and they’ll just absorb that data, but that’s not how it works. People don’t absorb stories that way. It has to be a story, it has to have characters involved. That’s the way storytelling works. And I’m the bridge between scientists, who would like to unload a fire hose of data at people’s faces, and [viewers], saying: actually, let’s talk about that in this way—let’s talk about permafrost being a freezer, and the freezer becoming unplugged and the meat going bad in the freezer. I’ll run those metaphors by the scientists and say, what if I say this? They’ll say, yes that’s about right, or no, actually it’s a little bit different, or it’s completely different, or you’ve got it all wrong! I come up with those connections to the real world from the science, and I run that by the scientists and ask them: is this correct, does this square? I’ll ask several scientists, just to make sure that that’s correct.

WM: Will Alaska be the site for more of these kinds of stories about climate change?

DM: Oh, yeah. There are thousands of reporters everywhere, and there are thousands of reporters trying to dig up stories, so if it becomes a vast resource for stories, people are going to go up there. For one of the stories we were on up there—the firefighting story [with smokejumpers parachuting into wildfires]—when we were flying above Alaska in that plane, we were sharing a ride with a USA Today reporter.

WM: You also spent time training reporters in Iraq as part of a Department of State program. Can you talk a little about the importance of that in-the-field training?

DM: Yeah—there’s a State Department program called the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the PRT, that was started in Afghanistan. It’s a little bit of nation-building, where you go into these countries, especially into Iraq where there was an oppressive government for a long time. In places like Iraq, where you had Saddam Hussein, everything went through Saddam before it happened. If you wanted to plant a crop, Saddam had to approve that. There’s no modern farming there, so they’d bring in a farmer from the United States and teach them modern farming, because everything stopped in the ’70s. And so there’s no modern journalism there [either]. What would happen is you’d have a reporter from the TV station come out to an event, and then a government official would say, here’s what you’re going to report on, give them the stipend that they have for this story, and then they’d go back and report exactly what the government said. So I put together a presentation like I did here and presented that to groups all over Iraq, in big cities like Baghdad and Basra but also in little tiny cities in Muthanna Province.

WM: What advice do you have for Whitman students who might want to make it in broadcast journalism?

DM: I’d say it’s very difficult to find your own voice at the very beginning, but the only way you can do that is by writing and writing and writing more. And right now, with all the digital resources that everybody has, you can produce your own stories. You don’t need a lot of broadcast gear. I wouldn’t recommend shooting a story on your phone, because that’s not going to be very visually appealing, but if you have even a point-and-shoot camera and you have a little audio recorder, that’s all the gear you need.

But I’m really into these stories. Don Hewitt, the guy who started 60 Minutes, said that television is for the ear, mostly. What he was getting at is the importance of audio in television, and how important not only people talking is, but also the natural sounds of the environment. I’m very adamant about getting that when I’m out there in the field. I’m always listening for sounds that take you there. I labor and labor on the audio levels and make sure that it is the most perfect radio story before anything else. It is a visual medium—and you see I use a lot of graphics and augmented reality with graphical elements next to me to show the height of the ice and things like that—but foundationally, it’s an audio story. You have to be able to hear the roar of that engine and hear the crunch of the leaves as we’re walking through. And music kind of fills it out as well. I used to be against using music in stories, but I think people are so used to that now that you’ve got to jump on board with that. I used to be a purist, but [now] I think it all cinematically comes together with that.

So I’d say, keep on writing as many stories as possible and producing as many stories as possible, to try and find your own voice. And make sure that you’re paying attention to the audio.

The Hosokawa Journalism Endowment was established in 2000 by David and Beverly Hosokawa, and the Hosokawa Family Foundation, in honor of David’s father Robert R. Hosokawa ’40. Each year, the endowment brings a noted journalist to campus to deliver a lecture and present prizes to outstanding student journalists and photojournalists who work at Whitman's student newspaper. Over the course of his decades-long career as a journalist and professor, Robert Hosokawa was a mentor to many. However, Whitman played an important role in his career. After being moved to a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, Hosokawa contacted one of his favorite Whitman professors, Thomas Howells. Howells helped Hosokawa find a reporting job in Independence, Missouri, which allowed him to leave the camp and begin his career as a journalist. Hosokawa went on to earn a master’s degree and to hold staff positions at the Winona Daily News, Des Moines RegisterMinneapolis Tribune and the Syracuse Post-Standard. He also was managing editor of the World Book Science News Service in Houston, Texas, which covered the space program and other science news. Toward the end of his life, he was a journalism professor at Winona State University, Syracuse University and the University of Missouri, and the University of Central Florida.

Published on Jun 29, 2016
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