‘Commonspace’ combines news and narrative at WHYY and First Person Arts

'Commonspace' guest Russell Walker. (Photo by Phil Bradshaw.)

Radio has long been associated with morning news and traffic updates for the commuter’s convenience. Podcasting, the medium’s cool younger sibling, has thrived on the power of narrative. With Commonspace, a new project launched by First Person Arts and public media provider WHYY, the two styles fuse together to put a storytelling spin on breaking news.

The Commonspace podcast airs for an hour on the last Sunday of every month and is hosted by Jamie J. Brunson, executive director at First Person Arts.

A partnership 10 years in the making

“The news-themed storytelling angle of Commonspace really came out of First Person Arts' and WHYY's respective areas of expertise — storytelling and journalism,” says Brunson.

“Ever since First Person Arts launched Philly's first StorySlams in 2007, WHYY and First Person Arts have been looking for a way to collaborate,” she says.

Commonspace’s first episode, “Being a Black Man is a Full-Time Job,” aired on January 29, 2017, on WHYY and online. The episode featured men from all walks of life, including football player Raheem Brock, psychologist and city commissioner Arthur C. Evans, and Reverend James Lawson, who discussed what life is like for black men in the United States in the era of police shootings and racial injustice.

“The first time I became conscious of race, I remember distinctly, I was in first grade,” Evans said. “I was in a segregated school. I remember seeing a bright-skinned person get moved to the slower class, and it was jarring because at that age, I believed that if you had brighter skin that you were automatically a brighter person.”

The memoir medium

The focus on current events and the political climate is at the heart of Commonspace’s mission. “Current events can be a great leveler to help us discover common ground,” Brunson explains. “Commonspace is the first storytelling project dedicated to examining current events through the lens of personal experiences.”

“Memoir as an art form requires us to be reflective of our own experiences, and to also be vulnerable with each other. By opening up about these experiences, we are able to connect in deeper and more meaningful ways,” she adds.

“We’re expanding upon the human-interest story in that way — and that concept is very exciting.”

Upcoming episodes of Commonspace will address immigration, mental health, and education. Over the course of the next two years, the show will air 48 episodes as well as 52 supplemental podcast episodes. WHYY and First Person Arts will also produce 26 events, which will feed into the show.

Commonspace airs on WHYY and online on the last Sunday of every month. It is available on iTunes and Stitcher.