Lake Geneva native Joy Powers has taken a circuitous route to get back to Wisconsin. The "Lake Effect" producer and reporter worked in and out of radio, including a stint at WBEZ in Chicago, before joining the staff at 89.7 WUWM.
We caught up with Powers recently at the station’s downtown studio to talk about her career, her goals before turning 30 and her artwork. Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks.
OnMilwaukee: How did you get into radio? Was it always your plan?
Joy Powers: I was a child actor, so I started working at the American Girl Place when I was about 12, 13 years old. When I left Wisconsin initially, I had an agent in Chicago and I was going for a degree in musical theater at Millikin University in Decatur. About midway through getting my degree there I decided maybe I didn’t want to do musical theater. My mom is a musical theater actor, as is my sister, and my dad wrote a musical, and so it seemed very logical.
To join the family business?
Yeah, but I realized I didn't like that that much.
What is an American Girl actor?
They had a stage in the basement of their initial location on Chicago Avenue. I was in the second play, "Circle of Friends: An American Girl Musical."
So, after that experience you decided that maybe you wanted to try broadcasting?
I still liked some performative aspects of theater, but I was really interested in research, and journalism felt like a very natural fit for me. Emerson College in Boston was supposed to have the best broadcast journalism program in the country, which in some ways is unfair because there aren't that many programs that are specifically broadcast journalism. They had a great radio station, especially at the time. I applied there. I got in.
You transferred from Millikin?
I transferred and I moved to Boston where I lived for a couple years. I spent both summers interning in New York. One summer I was at Sirius XM. I helped launch Studio 54 Radio, which was an interesting experience.
Were you programming the music?
I didn't make programming decisions per se, but I did edit a lot of their shows, and so what my judgment was would end up on the program. I didn't decide who the guests were, though. I was also the board operator for a couple of their shows, including "Marc & Myra," which continues to be on the air.
Satellite radio is like pretty much like the opposite of public radio. I guess neither has commercials but that’s about it.
Yeah, it's very different. The college radio station I worked for was a public radio station. I worked in their public affairs program especially, and so I had a lot of experience kind of on that side of it. I think I ended up at Sirius XM because I was really, really late to applying to internships and that's sometimes how you end up where you are. During the next summer I interned at another couple of weird places, like the Department of City Planning for the City of New York.
OK, so non-radio stuff?
Non-radio stuff completely. But what I will say is I think it gave me a good perspective on how different things are done. I don't think I probably would have really set foot in a commercial radio station or a satellite radio station were it not for that internship. Kind of seeing how they do things versus how we do things.
Was WBEZ next?
Yes, but what happened in between? I graduated, and my dad died about two weeks after my graduation, rather suddenly next to his exercise bike. Around the time that my dad died, my mom then got cancer and so I spent a lot of time at home. Then my sister also got cancer. My sister was about 26 at the time.
Did that knock you off your career path a little bit?
It did and it didn't. I had plans after I had left school. I had connections through professors that I was following up on and then my dad passed away and then my mom had cancer and we were both dealing with a lot of stuff at the time.
Was the WBEZ job an internship or was it full-time?
It started as an internship. I was essentially an associate producer. I would produce some segments. We would screen calls. We would do a lot of their social media stuff. We would do the website. A few months into my internship there, the director left and they asked, "Do you want to be the director?" I said, "I do. That sounds like you're going to pay me more than the interns," who at the time made minimum wage.
Were you doing primarily producing or were you on the air also at that point?
I was not on the air until I came to Milwaukee.
Tell me about why you left Chicago and why you came back to Wisconsin.
They canceled the afternoon shift.
Oh. There you go.
Yeah, I was freelancing for a minute, which I hated. I applied for the job here. I honestly didn't know that it was going to be on-air. That wasn't something that had occurred to me. Producing and directing the afternoon shift was a crazy experience. It was a two-hour-long program with sometimes 11, 12 segments and you were running, running, running the whole time.
When did you start on "Lake Effect?"
Almost four years ago.
But you sometimes do other things at the station, too, right?
We all do "Bubbler Talk." I've done a few of those. I was on NPR recently.
How was that?
Talking about the silliest things. I was talking about the mascot race, specifically the racing sausages on "Morning Edition." It was fun.
Is "Lake Effect" your first experience behind the microphone?
I'd started doing stuff (on air) in college and I'd gotten some college Associated Press awards. It was something that I was fairly comfortable with and I come from a theatrical background. It wasn't something that I was concerned about and because I produced so many segments every day for the afternoon shift, so I wasn't really concerned that I knew what conversation should it look like.
I think especially when you're producing for somebody else, that's something you're able to pay attention to more because you can see where they should have picked up on something or where you think they should have picked up on something. You could see what questions should have been asked, what questions you shouldn't have put in there. It's easy to kind of dissect those parts of it in a more analytical way than when you're listening to yourself where you're like, "I sound a little squeaky there, don't I?"
I feel like you have a good NPR voice, though. Has anyone ever told you that?
I get that occasionally. Like a lot of Wisconsinites, I used to do what my mom would call "talking in the back of my throat," so I would produce my sound in a way that wasn't as forward, which is a very Wisconsin thing.
I'm going to have to look that up.
When I started working at American Girl, I had a director sit down with me and he said, "You don't sound like a little girl." I said, "I am a little girl. What do you mean?" He said, "You need to press your voice forward. You need to sound brighter when you talk." Through that I started to talk differently, with more "effervescence."
On "Lake Effect," you are doing interviews but are also producing. What's a day look like in your job?
On a typical day, I'm going to be answering a lot of emails, but for me, answering emails looks like, "OK, let's sit down with my schedule. I can do an interview this time. Can you do an interview this time? What does your space look like here?"
Perhaps the most frustrating part of my day is really just juggling when I'm going to do something with someone and figuring out that it has to be before their event or before various things. We prerecord everything, which gives us a lot of flexibility with our calendar, but it also means that you can end up overbooking yourself on a certain day and not really realize it. That's kind of the first part of my day.
If I have an interview that day, I'm going to be doing a lot of research. If it's an interview about a book, let's say, I will have already read that book. I come in, record something. Sometimes we do things on-site, and I'll go to wherever they are, at a museum or what have you, and then a lot of it is editing. Because we're prerecorded, we have the ability to edit, which sometimes means just taking out a few ums, a few stumbles. Other times it means taking out whole sections because we simply don't have the time to put it on air.
How do you generate your story ideas?
A variety of ways. I'm a big Twitter fan, so I read a lot from Twitter. Sometimes it's taking national stories and seeing how we can make them local. Sometimes it's looking at what's happening locally and making a big picture observation out of that.
Because we're public radio, our perspective on news is different than what you might see on commercial radio. We're less reactive. We're much more big-picture thinkers, and so we'll take a number of those stories that people have reacted to and then ask ourselves, "OK, how do we say this in a public radio way? How do we make larger cultural observations about this?"
Speaking of Twitter, you sometimes get political on on that platform. Do you have to be careful about that?
I don't think many people look at my Twitter, which is probably helpful in that I don't think anything that I do gets too political per se, except that it is to say facts exist. Generally, when I say things that are political, like this morning Trump tweeted something that was, "We should sue CNN because of their political bias." I pointed out we don't have a fairness doctrine. That was removed during the Reagan administration. Even the fairness doctrine wouldn't allow you, I don't believe, to sue someone. I'm pretty sure you could just lose your licensing. But I think a lot of people who wouldn't perhaps be educated on this subject would look at that and go, "Yeah, they shouldn't be doing that. That sounds illegal." Well, this is not illegal, this isn't even against FCC rules at this point. He's just making stuff up.
So you’re more about setting the record straight?
When I see politicians who are making things up or who are trying to mislead their audience, then I do make observations that I would say are just pointing out that facts exist. I think certain politicians really want to divide us based on inane things. It's a perspective that personally I feel is deeply un-American. While I might not consider myself a terribly political person in that I don't agree with any particular party, I do consider myself deeply patriotic. When you have people who it seems their objective is ultimately to mislead the American public, as an American, I find that offensive.
Who are some people you look up to at NPR?
I think I find Kai Ryssdal's tweets interesting. I like Terry Gross. I think she has very interesting, intimate conversations, with people who you don't think of as necessarily being intimate people or who you'll hear on other programs.
Does your voice ever get recognized?
No one recognizes my voice.
Is that good or bad?
I don't know. I guess I've never thought about it too much. Let's be honest. Who am I? I'm just the person who's talking to incredibly interesting people.
I also noticed you're somewhat of an artist.
I am. I wish I had a really insightful observation about my personal art. I think I started doodling probably in class or something. When I was 5 I took actual art classes.
It seems to be a lot of pen and ink stuff.
I started doing a series of drawings that I've been slowly posting that are essentially abstractions of different European folk costume. I researched a lot of Czech, Slovakian and Ukrainian headdresses that are common, including a lot of dramatic traditional wear. It's interesting how diverse the costumes are from Eastern Europe.
Are you just doing this for yourself or are you selling your art?
I sell it. I have a "30 things to do before I turn 30" list, which will be in May. Among those things is publicly show my art. If someone reads this and they're like, "You know whose art I want to show? Joy Powers," I’m doing OK.
Are you going to complete your list in time?
I don't know. I have done a fair amount of them. If I hear back from the Boys and Girls Club I'll get another one. I went to a new country. I hadn't been to Canada before.
That's an easy one.
A harder one is going to be going to a new continent and going to a large-scale cultural celebration. My sister and I are tentatively planning to go to the full moon festival in Thailand.
You live in Bay View, right?
Yes. I'm part of the Bay View community group.
Where do you like to go in all your free time?
In my copious amounts of free time, we go to Guanajuato a lot. We like that restaurant. We go out a lot. I really like Lazy Susan for brunch. Sabrosa is also a great brunch place. A lot of what I end up doing is just chilling out on the weekend. We’ll go to shows occasionally over at Cactus Club.
Do you like Milwaukee?
I do like Milwaukee. There's something that we say about Milwaukee that I think can be taken as a pejorative, but it's a very livable city, and when you've lived in really not livable cities that is such a huge endorsement of Milwaukee. You know, it's easy to get around. You don't feel like there's this constant pressure of like, "How am I going to get to the next thing?" It's just very livable and it has all the institutions you want, right?
Do you feel like this job is helping you get to know Milwaukee better?
I think it definitely did when I first started working here, and I would go out a lot more. Then I moved in with my boyfriend, and we're like, "Well, we enjoy hanging out with each other, so let's just stay in." I do go to festivals and things, but I will say a lot of the time when I go out now it's because of my job.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.