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VOL. 37 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 22, 2013

The Voice of Nashville: WPLN reporter Blake Farmer feeds a nation’s appetite for Tennessee stories

By Brad Schmitt

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Regular listeners to WPLN, Nashville’s public radio station, have been hearing local newsman Blake Farmer’s stories increasingly broadcast on National Public Radio network shows.

It’s a coup for Nashville, WPLN and Farmer, now the boyish-faced assistant news director for the station.

The Nashville Ledger caught up with Farmer the morning after the CMA Awards, just before he dashed off to an event with Gov. Bill Haslam in Mt. Juliet.

He talked about how he found his way onto the national platform – and about frog gigging.

Q: You look so much younger than you sound.

A: Yeah, people will meet me, and they have a vision of who I might be. And it’s usually someone who is more mature, older, and they realize I’m somewhat boyish, even though I have turned 31 now.

Q: So I threw something up on Facebook that asked, “How would you describe Blake Farmer’s delivery and style?” Several people said things like, “It’s always about the story, not him.” “He’s smart but not arrogant, funny but never mean-spirited.” “Unadorned, real, authoritative.”

A: That’s good to hear because often I do find myself wanting to become part of the story, where it’s all about how I experienced it. To hear someone say it’s about the story and not me, I’m glad because I’m sort of an egotistical person who would like to be in all my stories.

Q: I find that extremely hard to believe.

A: I like the showmanship aspect of radio, the performance aspect. I like that. I like being in the spotlight, frankly. It sort of gets me energized. I just have to be careful.

Q: Local TV reporters dream of getting something up to the network, and, in Nashville, that rarely happens. You are all over the NPR platform.

A: Filed a story last night about the CMA Awards. We do have a close relationship as a station with the editors at NPR. They have a system of bureau chiefs around the country. Ours is in Birmingham. And a big part of the job is working with member stations to get their stuff up to snuff to be NPR quality.

From the Country Music Awards to frog gigging, Farmer’s stories are getting increased air time on a variety of NPR programs including Morning Edition and Marketplace.

-- Michelle Morrow | Nashville Ledger

I’ve been working with him for six or seven years, and that’s a big part of it. And almost a quarter of the stories that go up on the network come from stations like ours. And I think people are particularly interested in what’s going on in Nashville, for a whole bunch of reasons.

Q: So how does it work? Do you pitch [stories] to them; do they ask you?

A: It goes both ways. Sometimes I will pitch them a story, and that becomes easier and easier over time, just like any reporter knows with an editor.

Q: Here’s a crass question: Do you get paid extra for stories that go to national?

A: You do. Yeah. Mm hmm. So that’s good.

And it’s good for the station that people in San Francisco are hearing stories from WPLN in Nashville.

Q: I must say as a listener, when NPR anchors say, “We go to WPLN in Nashville,” I get a charge out of that. A little city pride.

A: Yeah!

Q: Name the shows you’ve been on.

A: Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Marketplace Morning Report.... I’ve even done a few stories for the BBC, which calls from time to time.

Q: Your favorite of the national stories?

A: This summer I did a story for a series NPR was doing called “Summer Nights,” which was very open-ended. And I did a story about frog gigging, which I’m not sure I ever thought I’d do a story on frog gigging.

Q: So they spear these frogs, but they don’t die?

A: They don’t die immediately. They put them on a stringer. What we were doing that night – they put them on a stringer in a canoe. And they sort of hop around. They keep them alive until you get ready to clean them, I think because you don’t want them to spoil, essentially.

Yeah, they’re kinda hoppin’ around the coolers and stuff. It’s kinda weird. I’m not a hunter. I don’t find that particularly gross. I will say, plenty of our listeners found that particularly gross, particularly in areas of the country where they’d never heard of frog gigging. They thought it was vicious....

The argument on the other side being, if the point is we’re being inhumane to animals, then I hope you’re a vegetarian because, go to a slaughterhouse.

Q: Let’s talk about this list you sent me of some national stories you’ve done. We have frog gigging, we have a high school in which nobody goes to college and an anti-Muslim uproar. And I think to myself, is Nashville being portrayed to the nation as backward or redneck?

A: Now that’s interesting. I’ve had comments from people locally who say, “I don’t love how this story portrays Nashville nationally or Middle Tennessee nationally.” A fair point, although my job is not to help Nashville’s PR.

That list is not exhaustive, but I do think they’re some of the more interesting ones. It’s a fair criticism. But there are plenty of stories that I do that put the city in a very good light.

Q: Let’s do the “Who is Blake Farmer?” speed round. Married?

A: Yes.

Q: Kids?

A: One on the way, in a few weeks.

Q: Wow. Congratulations. Where are you from?

A: I grew up in East Nashville.

Q: College?

A: I went to college in Abilene, Texas, at Abilene Christian University, and it’s amazing how many people I run into who went to ACU.

Q: What did you do after that?

A: Well, ACU’s on-campus station is their public radio station in Abilene. So I worked there as a student. Thought I would do TV news. Interned at Channel 5 (WTVF-Nashville) one summer. Got to where I really liked radio. My wife and I got married just a few weeks after graduation. Moved here. Started doing some freelancing.

Q: How long have you been working for WPLN?

A: In some capacity, since 2005.

Q: When you’re not listening to WPLN, what radio station?

A: I flip it to Lightning 100. Big surprise, I’m sure. I would say that’s similar to many of our listeners. Big Lightning 100 fan. I have been since high school, I guess.

Q: Top three or four music artists you might listen to?

A: I still go back and listen to almost all John Mayer. I love John Mayer.

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