February 27, 2003
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Independent news producer Aileen LeBlanc, in her home studio.

Now on her own, local producer continues to capture people’s stories

Those who heard Aileen LeBlanc’s recent news story about Catholic relics in Maria Stein, Ohio, which aired on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” might have imagined she whipped up her story in a state-of-the-art studio using the latest in technology.

But no. Really, she produced the story in a tiny room above Joe Holly’s Cleaners, using her own computer.

When LeBlanc left her job as news director at WYSO in October, she lost access to high-tech equipment, but she lost none of her desire to report the news, and the world, as she sees it. And so she continues work as an independent news producer, creating stories in her small apartment on Corry Street.

“I can do everything I used to do at WYSO in this little studio,” she said last month while sitting in the studio she’s fashioned out of the room that once was her now-grown daughter’s bedroom. Most critical is LeBlanc’s computer with its Cool Edit software, plus her newly purchased tape deck and microphone with headsets for going out in the field.

There are trade-offs. For instance, when editing her Maria Stein piece, she often had to pause, while laying soundtracks of nuns chanting the rosary, while semi-trucks clanked to a stop in the intersection below. And while WYSO equipment offered 64 tracks for sound, LeBlanc’s computer program offers four. But four turned out to be enough for the final product, “Holy Relics Deep in Ohio’s Heartland,” a thoughtful piece that examines religious mystery at a Catholic chapel in Maria Stein, which houses 1,100 Catholic relics.

“I was thrilled,” LeBlanc said, to learn the night before the story ran in early January that NPR had featured the story on its Web site as the “Story for the Day.”

The Maria Stein story appealed to her, LeBlanc said, because it’s a complicated story “with many layers of complexity,” her favorite kind. LeBlanc said that she especially likes producing stories that open up people to the goodness and wonder of the world rather than increasing their fears.

“So much news is bad news,” she said. “To find a little place in the world that’s inspiring — well, that seems important.”

Also, LeBlanc said, “I’m fascinated with religion. It’s a big part of what people are.”

But there isn’t much that doesn’t fascinate LeBlanc, which, she believes, is the key to her love for her work.

“I’m extremely curious,” she said. “I think everyone I meet is the most fascinating person in the world.”

Her curiosity about the world has led LeBlanc to win numerous broadcasting awards in her 20-year career, including, over the past few years, Best Weekly Program (several times) for “Sounds Local,” which she produced on WYSO, from the national organization Public Radio News Directors Incorporated, which also awarded her Best Hard News and Best Enterprise. From the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, she has been recognized for Best Investigative Reporting, Best Reporter in Ohio, Best Environmental Reporting and Best Reporting on Children’s Issues.

Many of the awards come from her work on “Sounds Local,” and LeBlanc believes that she “did the best work I’ve done in broadcasting right here” at the station. She loved working with her WYSO colleagues, including Vick Mickunas and Debra Wilson, but left the station reluctantly last fall. While she prefers not to comment specifically about her reasons for leaving, at the time she did cite difficulties working with station management.

Immediately after leaving WYSO, LeBlanc began looking for another full-time broadcasting job, and she has received several offers, all of which would require leaving the area. But she decided she wanted to stay in Yellow Springs because she loves the village and she wants to try working freelance as an independent producer.

The decision means leaving behind financial security, since the life of a freelance producer is by no means stable. But LeBlanc hopes she can live with financial uncertainty as a trade-off for freedom.

“It’s an immensely creative time,” she said. “I can do what I want to do.”

Foremost among LeBlanc’s current projects is a video documentary about Dayton’s role in breaking the Enigma Code during World War II. Collaborating with the daughter of one of the code breakers, LeBlanc is currently researching her subject and raising money.

“This is a hugely significant part of Dayton’s history that’s virtually untold,” she said. “It’s going to be a long process. It’s a labor of love.”

Along with the documentary and her freelance reports for public radio, LeBlanc is also doing freelance work in marketing for the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

Her current projects bring together the many talents and skills from LeBlanc’s varied background, and she came to public radio on a circuitous path. Rather than journalism, her first love was theater, and she graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor of fine arts in theatre design and technology. LeBlanc taught stagecraft and lighting at the University of North Carolina, and served as technical director of university productions.

LeBlanc’s career in broadcasting began in television, and she worked at Wilmington, N.C., television stations as public service director and director of programming in the 1980s. After that, LeBlanc owned an advertising agency before she switched to the Wilmington public radio station, where she worked as news director for seven years before coming to WYSO in 1999.

During most of this time, LeBlanc was also a single parent raising a daughter, whose portrait graces her mother’s production studio.

Her daughter’s portrait is one clue that this tiny room isn’t your average production studio. Other clues are the Snoopy telephone beside the computer and the flickering display of Christmas tree bubble lights, which LeBlanc adores.

LeBlanc said that her studio is a place where she feels comfortable and a place where she plans to spend lots of time, as she keeps producing the stories she loves to tell.

“Because I have a microphone and a reason, people will tell me stories,” LeBlanc said. “I can open doors that take you places and discover things. It’s a privilege.”

—Diane Chiddister