Craig Fahle continues his service to metro Detroit

Aug 6, 2014 at 1:00 am

Every weekday morning, from 9-11 a.m. on WDET 101.9 FM, Craig Fahle asks the tough questions that can only come from someone who has spent a good deal of life actually listening to the people of Detroit. He has the experience to bring context and history to the issues of the day — and he does so by treating all Detroiters with respect and dignity.

August 8 is Fahle’s last day on the air with ’DET before he moves on to a position as director of public affairs at the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

Metro Times caught up with him last week after his show.

MT: You started as an intern. How did you develop over 22 years?

CF: Actually, it was quite rewarding. I mean, I knew that I wanted to be in radio. I had been going to Western Michigan University, was kind of lost, had been there for a really long time, didn’t know what I wanted to do, but it just wasn’t working out. I was running out of money. I was a history and political science major and did fine in those, but I was not doing well in my math classes that I had to take because I didn’t test out of math, like an idiot, which I should’ve done my freshman year and I didn’t. And I really struggled in my calculus classes. Back then, you also had to take a computer-programming class to graduate, and I didn’t do well in that class. I did great in poli-sci and history. I did wonderful. I could always write. In my English classes and language classes I did great, but I really struggled with math and science. Part of it, too, was I didn’t know where I wanted to go. So I had to stop that. It just wasn’t working for me. I had moved back to Detroit from Western after four and a half years in college, still not done and still sort of drifting, and I decided to take some classes at U of M Dearborn just to see if I could find something. Well, my first day on campus, I saw a little flyer that said, “Do you want to be on the campus radio station?” I thought, “Well, that could be fun,” work my way into the student body in some capacity. I went in there and said, “I’d like to do this,” and they said, “Alright, we’ve got an open slot right now; go ahead.” That first day I was in there, the light bulb went off. I can do this! And I enjoyed it. I was playing whatever they had in their little library in there. They said to pick out some stuff and make a show, and I did that. So I decided that radio was something that I wanted to pursue. So I went to Specs Howard, which is an accelerated program. It was, like, 10 months of intensive training, and while I was there the head of the school, a guy named Dick Kernen, said, “Well, you may have a future in this. What do you want to do?” I said, “I’ve been listening to a lot of public radio. I really like public radio,” and he said, “Really?” Most of the kids there wanted to be DJs at a music station or something like that, and he said, “Let me make a call.”

So he called WDET, and I got an internship. I started the next day, and I was writing news copy. My first day, I showed up at 6 in the morning and was writing news copy for the morning anchor, a woman named Kim Silarski, at the time. She taught me a lot about writing copy, so I started spending more and more time there and eventually started voicing things for them. My stuff was starting to get on the air, and I started getting assignments, getting to cover things. So the news part of it — all the stuff I learned in my history and political science classes really paid dividends because I understood the political process. So I was given an opportunity at a very young age to start going to City Council meetings and covering Coleman Young, and they started paying me eventually. It took a long time.

I worked there for free for about a year at ’DET while I was going to Specs, while I was working at a couple of record stores. So I was making this triangular commute, but I clearly knew where I wanted to go. Basically, I worked my way into a part-time job here. They started paying me to cover Coleman Young and City Council and I loved it. I loved the news part of it, and I loved being in the know about things and learning things and getting to meet people. Once that happened, it just seemed like it was easy — and not that it was easy, but it was easy for me. I could see things and understand them and explain things in a way that I don’t know that a lot of people could at the time, and it turned into a career … and a pretty good one. I had a good run. I really enjoyed the reporting part. My first full-time job was actually not at WDET; it was at the Michigan Public Radio Network, which is the Capitol reporting service. So I went there in ’94, and I covered the Engler administration for two years and the Senate and the House, and that job was brutal. It was a great job, but deadlines were unbelievably fierce. I had a four-minute feature that was due every single day for a statewide show that we did called State Edition, and there were many days, at noon, that I didn’t know what that story was going to be. So I would cobble together four minutes of radio journalism in a couple hours’ time, but the great thing about the Capitol is it’s one-stop shopping. All your sources are basically in one building. Anybody you need, you can find. You’re standing right in front of them and you can look at a state senator and say, “I need to talk to you,” and more often than not, they agree to do it. That kind of grind, what unbelievable training. I’ve never had that much pressure in my career since, and there’s nothing like it. It was such a great experience. I did that for two years and then came back to WDET and started a long journey there.

MT: Your show is a culmination of all that training, of producing every day …

CF: When I came back to Detroit, I was back on the city beat for a while, which was great, full-time, benefits, the whole nine yards. There’s so much going on here. Every day in Detroit, there’s something interesting happening, something big to report on, sometimes bad things, sometimes good things, but always something newsworthy. You get to have a good appreciation for how good of a news town this is from doing it every day, and that’s just the political side of things. Then, branching out and doing more neighborhood reporting and talking to people on the street about what’s going on in their lives and how these policies are impacting them and using that time to get a good sense of how big a hole we’re still digging out of here. To have context of it and the root causes and try to do your best to make sure people don’t oversimplify what has happened and what is happening here, it was a big part of what I was trying to do back then and, you know, here we are.

MT: How did that evolve?

CF: You know, it’s been one continuous story, really. The parts and the players move around a little bit, but for the most part, my entire career, until now, has been watching various groups of people trying to manage decline, and that in itself is a tad depressing. You know, moments of “maybe we’re turning the corner this time,” but they always sort of petered out and it would just be this slow, steady decline of this community — and with it, frankly, the region. When you compare that to what other regions are doing, their populations are increasing and you start to look at it and think, “There’s a correlation here between the city of Detroit and the lack of performance of the rest of the region as a whole.” I think, for me, the focus started moving away from just the city to what’s the impact of what’s happening here on the rest of the area and the rest of the state, and you start looking at it that way and I guess that’s the evolution of my thought process on this and if anyone listens to my show on a regular basis, they know that I’m a huge proponent of more regional cooperation. One of the things that bothered me the most about this is how much people were in denial about their own role and what has happened here. Whether it was their family moving out of the city, whether it was badmouthing the city, trying to oversimplify the problems of the city and lay the blame at the feet of say, Coleman Young or Kwame Kilpatrick, or it’s just “corruption” and not recognizing that it was their own feet and their own families that decided that they wanted to do something differently that led to this sprawl — and everything else that we’ve seen and, frankly, the stagnation of the state as a whole. So I think that’s in the evolution of my looking at it. It’s sort of taking this larger look at the impact on Michigan as a result of what’s happening in the city of Detroit, except for the first time, it seems like this may not just be a slight uptick. It may be a point where it’s slow and steady, but there are changes taking place here — and for the better — for the first time in a long time.

MT: Do you think that this new position is a part of that?

CF: I think so. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think there was some positive benefit coming out of here. Like I said, I wasn’t looking for a job, but I’ve been watching what’s been going on, and for the first time — I mean, I’ve been watching the decline for my entire career — my entire life, really. This is what I always tell people: I was born on July 11, 1967, 10 days before the riots began, and that one incident has been the primary focus of a lot of people this entire time. For my entire life, the decline that occurred was already beginning. It had accelerated after that incident, and it had become this defining aspect of this community, and I’m thinking to myself, “We’re 47 years on here. Isn’t it time we turned a corner on this thing and put that to bed?” It’s been a half century. It’s time to do something different. I guess an opportunity to be a part of it, in some small way, appealed to me at this point.

MT: What will your new position be?

CF: Director of Public Affairs is the official title, but I’m going to be doing a lot of the communications efforts, trying to explain to people what the land bank is doing and the strategies we’re going to be employing to repopulate the city and to get people really excited about redeveloping some of these neighborhoods. It’s a huge challenge. Getting people to buy into this is a big part of this, and I’m not going to spin this in some sort of Polyanna-ish way and say, “Everything’s wonderful!” There are challenges, but I think there are people who are willing to take on these challenges in a way that they haven’t in a long time. It’s a generational shift. You’re seeing people whose parents or grandparents fled the city and maybe lived their entire lives in the suburbs, and they want something different. Maybe they feel like they were robbed of an opportunity of an urban lifestyle. Part of that urban lifestyle is living with all types of different people from all types of different circumstances and watching it all come together in a way that’s a lot more interesting than what you might get in Sterling Heights or Livonia or Grosse Pointe, for that matter, where I still live. Even my community is changing, and that’s saying something — that’s a positive development. To see us finally getting over some of the closely held, bad feelings that we have towards each other in this region, it’s a big deal. It’s taken us so long to even admit that we have a problem, and I think we’re getting over that right now. There are going to be naysayers, fine. Stay where you are.

MT: Where do you think that naysaying mentality comes from? Is it rooted in the ’67 riots?

CF: I think it’s rooted in something deeper than that, but it’s something people can point to, to justify their feelings. People are upset about the places they left and that no one took care of them. I think a lot of it is, “My memories are gone because that physical structure no longer exists or my old neighborhood isn’t what I remember it being.” For a lot of people, that’s powerful. It’s not necessarily wrong to feel that way. I think it clouds a lot of people’s judgment about what is possible now.

MT: With the land bank, do you get to foster ideas of how to get people back into these communities?

CF: Yeah, I think so. I’m definitely going to be involved in the community-engagement part of this. I hope I have a seat at that table to really discuss it. Part of the reason this is going to be possible is we are going to be listening to people about what they want their neighborhoods to be. I want people to start thinking on a micro level about little improvements that they could make that would improve the quality of life. We need to get people off the big issues: lighting, police, fire, ambulance. The city will never survive if they can’t do an adequate job of providing the basics. Frankly, the city has not delivered those things consistently for far too long. That’s all people can focus on because it’s the most important present need. How do we get people to stop thinking about the greatest present need? What is this place going to look like in 5, 10, 20 years? I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge, but a good one. One that is going to get people more engaged. Thinking more positively about what could happen as opposed to what is negatively impacting them today.

This is one of the most troubling things to me. A couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a couple who were getting ready to send their kid to Wayne State University, but they were concerned with them living on campus. Yet they have no qualms with their kids going to live in Brooklyn or Chicago in some neighborhood there or Washington, D.C. You look at the crime statistics around Wayne State University and — are you kidding me? They are incredibly low. It’s a safe place to be, but they still weren’t convinced. Go to NYU, USC, Columbia. These schools aren’t exactly in nice neighborhoods. You wouldn’t think twice about sending your kid there but, “Ooh, it’s Detroit!” That’s what we’ve done to ourselves, and it’s got to change. The younger generation seems to be rejecting that fear part of it.

MT: How do replace that fear and bring hope back?

CF: Frankly, a lot of it starts with people who are here. They know what life is like in this city. They know what to expect a little bit more. One thing the mayor has been saying since he was elected: “Don’t move until you give me a few months to show you what can happen.” Well, we’ll see what happens if that works. I think that’s where it has to start. If things start being positive for them, then you can build on it. If you can stop the decline, you can start to build — and I think that’s going to be a critical component.

MT: As a community leader here, it’s fantastic to see your shift.

CF: It’s definitely different. I think most people are surprised that I decided to go this route. I was a little surprised myself, to be honest with you. I don’t know if I ever saw myself doing this show for the next 30 years. Maybe I’ll come back to it at some point. I’ve been talking for a long time. It would be nice to see if I can put those skills to more practical use.

MT: It’s weird to hear you say that you’ve been talking because I hear you every morning listening and asking a lot of questions.

CF: That’s a very important part of the job because you don’t have informed opinions unless you’re listening to other people or listening to their perspective. Hearing criticisms and taking it in and finding those nuggets of truth interspersed with those “You suck” part of the comment — I don’t mind a comment. I do mind when someone sends me an email and it says, “You suck. I hate you.” That doesn’t help me. If you say, “You suck. I hate you, and here’s why …” Alright, now we’re getting somewhere. Sometimes, I look at it and say, “I do, do that sometimes.” That’s part of listening, being able to hear what other people are saying and you learn, you grow when you do that kind of stuff. I don’t ever have a list of questions for an interview, or a script. Everything on the show is ad-libbed, which forces me to listen. Then, the conversation is much deeper and more valuable. It keeps me on my toes.

MT: What is the biggest realization you’ve had in your career so far?

CF: That I don’t know a damn thing. There is so much happening everywhere around us all the time, and getting a deep understanding of any one thing is hard enough. To really be knowledgeable on a whole host of topics — I don’t think it’s really possible. I can know a little bit about a lot of things, and there are a few things that I know a little bit more about, but I’m just impressed every day with how many bright people there are on this planet. Not just experts, but also some guy that you just pulled off the streets to talk to about something. He may not be the smartest person in the world, but you may get a nugget out of somebody so profound that you didn’t expect that it gives you faith that people are inherently a lot smarter than we give them credit for, maybe not “book smart” but just insight and knowledge. Everybody’s got something to bring to the table in that regard. There’s something worthwhile to get out of every single person you talk to. That’s one of the things that makes me like people.

MT: As general manager, how have you shaped programming?

CF: I think we recognized a long time ago that ’DET couldn’t be a typical public radio station. First of all, our dial position is not where people would expect it to be. We’re at 101.9. We’re at a bit of a disadvantage that we’re not where people expect to find public radio. So we do the best of what NPR has to offer, Morning Edition and All Things Considered are wonderful programs, and there’s no way any radio station could do what they do with the amount of money that we pay for those programs. Everything else we do, we’ve got to give it a Detroit flavor because this community is different. It’s not your typical public radio market. We can’t just have the cookie cutter newscasters doing their boring thing. The last thing we want to be is that Saturday Night Live skit with Alec Baldwin and the Kitchen Sisters rip-off. That’s what people think public radio is. We’ve got to be a little bit different. We’ve got to give it some sort of vibe and a feel that makes people realize that we are public radio, but we’re Detroit public radio.

MT: Is financing here a constant issue?

CF: We’re a nonprofit. We’re part of the university, and we’re part of the state of Michigan, which has undergone some incredibly difficult financial times. People suffer; we’re right there with them. If you’re making decisions on whether you’re going to pay your mortgage or continue making your gift to public radio, obviously you’re going to have some decisions to make. So in the depths of the recession in 2008-2009, we found a way to persevere. We made it through. Wayne State has been no small part of that, which has been incredibly helpful and appreciated. We don’t have a lot of cash in the bank on any given week, but we make it work.

MT: Are you looking forward to moving to an environment where there isn’t that week-to-week struggle?

CF: Well, you know, look … This is the city that’s in bankruptcy. There’s going to be challenges there, too. I’m used to it. I guess the one thing that comes from is that you have to be nimble. You can’t get fat and lazy. You’re always scrapping, and that’s a good thing. That makes you think about how you can be more efficient and how you can do things better. You’re never in a position where you can sit back on your laurels and say, “Well, we’re obviously as good as we need to be.” We aren’t because we could always do better. I think being a little bit hungry all the time gives you that edge, not to in any way minimalize actual hunger. You definitely have to work a little bit harder for everything you get, and that’s a good thing.

MT: Anything else you want our readers to know?

CF: If I didn’t believe in it, I would be doing what I’m doing or what I’ve been doing in the last seven years with this show. I could’ve been like anyone else and gone to Chicago, but screw Chicago. I hate the Cubs. mt