When editor Eliza Borné looked to extend the Oxford American’s literate and unapologetically Southern voice last year, she turned to an executive editor with precisely the right skill set for podcasting.
Sara A. Lewis, who learned audio production in high school, journalism in college and storytelling and literature as a master’s and Ph.D. student at the University of Southern Mississippi, also turned out to be a dogged grant hunter.
The OA’s “Points South” podcast, which made its debut in September, landed a $350,000 grant this month from the National Endowment for the Humanities. OA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit arts organization, publishes Oxford American magazine, founded in 1992 in Mississippi but transferred to Little Rock in late 2002. It now has a “positive institutional partnership” with the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Borné says.
“The OA is the only NEH grant recipient in Arkansas this cycle,” Borné told Arkansas Business by email. Lewis, in a phone interview, described the podcast opportunity as “a convergence of all my professional training, including audio engineering, a bachelor’s degree in journalism and graduate training in fiction and storytelling.”
The grant will fund a series of 20- to 30-minute reported segments of “Points South,” which produced podcasts last year on Ruth Coker Burks, who used her real estate earnings to care for dying and abandoned AIDS patients in Hot Springs at the height of that epidemic, and on Clyde Kennard, the first person to truly pursue desegregation at Southern Miss.
The most recent episode was a March 9 report from Dilley, Texas, site of the largest immigration detention center in the nation.
Getting the grant was always a long shot, Lewis said.
“The NEH is just so highly esteemed in the field of literature and storytelling that I constantly look for opportunities for either personal or organizational funding, but never really found a project that fit. And it just so happened that last summer, I thought, this would be a great fit for what I want to do as a podcast. And I did it knowing that I had about a 9% chance of being successful.”
So she roped in colleagues, corralling their expertise. “I just thought if we could get it, it would completely change the prospects for the podcast and our ability to tell the stories the Oxford American is known for on other platforms.”
The grant, good for at least two years, will allow Lewis to work with humanities consultant William R. Ferris, a former chairman of the NEH and senior associate director emeritus of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, and to partner with institutions like Smithsonian Folkways, the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution. “The podcast will deliver the region’s humanities resources to the OA’s fans around the globe with technology that is increasingly important in our lives,” Ferris said.
John Biewen, audio program director at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and host of the podcast “Scene on Radio,” will be executive producer of “Points South,” and Kidada E. Williams, a history professor at Wayne State University and an internationally known expert on African-American life, will also advise the project.
“We’ll be working with sociologists, historians, ethnomusicologists and literary scholars,” Lewis said. “I think when all is said and done we’ll be working with about 35 different humanities professionals throughout the course of the grant.”
One emphasis will be music, a staple in OA’s eclectic mix in “an undefined space between literary journal and glossy general-interest magazine,” as Borné put it. “Music was a huge part of the first season, and we have a huge national music following because of our annual music issue,” Lewis said. For that issue, the most popular of the year and usually arriving around Thanksgiving, the magazine doubles its usual press run of about 25,000 copies.
Lewis has taped the singer-songwriter John Paul White, the Indigo Girls and other notable musicians, and she discussed the African-American roots of country music with the documentarian Ken Burns, whose “Country Music” captivated PBS audiences last year.
“Music will continue to be a big part of ‘Points South,’” Lewis said. “We also have some stories coming from the Texas-Mexico border, including Mexico as a site of salvation for freed or escaped slaves.”
Episodes of the podcast are available at OxfordAmerican.org/PointsSouth.