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Following the roots: A profile of Lisa Bralts of Illinois Public Media

A typical day for Lisa Bralts starts out with yoga, followed by a daily haiku post about the weather on Twitter.

After browsing NPR’s news stories and sharing her weather post on Facebook, she heads to work. She attends meetings and takes notes. She brainstorms ideas for her show Bandwagon. She even touches base with her co-worker Isaac, about his show on classical music. As the Director of Content and Strategic Communications at Illinois Public Media (WILL), Bralts’ goal is for an “empowered” listening base—one “where people can feel like they are able to participate in some way.” She produced a show called Backyard Industry, in which she explored her community and discovered what people are passionate about, then collaborated with them in their work. She has done episodes on ramen restaurants, hen-enthusiasts, and everything in between and she always takes a hands-on approach when exploring. So, how did she go from being a college undergrad studying History in Minnesota, to a director and producer at Illinois Public Media?

From the Backyard Industry Facebook page

Bralts attributes it in part to “curiosity.” She continued, “being familiar of things around you, knowing things are there. That’s something you can take with you wherever you go.” Bralts grew up in Florida and Minnesota, in a public radio/television household. In 1996, she moved to Chicago looking to work for a small music label. After moving to Urbana-Champaign, she found her passion for the Urbana Market at the Square. Using “sheer will-power,” she found herself in the center of the sustainable food scene, and in 2008 she became the director of the Urbana Farmer’s Market. There, she was an incubator, experimenting with programs such as food trucks, which helped inform Backyard Industry. She developed “Sprouts at the Market,” a program to encourage little kids to try new vegetables. “To me the farmers market was this thing to be developed and supported to support farmers and bring people closer to food,” she said. To her surprise, it was at the market as the director that she found herself handed a mic and recorder, along with an offer—a chance to podcast about local food in radio form. “After procrastinating for around 2 months, I then listened to NPR and experimented,” she explained. She climbed in a closet in her home, mic and recorder in hand, and began to record. From there, she began to go on-air every other week. “I’m self-taught,” she said. “My background in production is self-taught.” In 2012, she became Marketing Director at WILL, and began her work on Backyard Industry.

The lobby of Illinois Public Media

Backyard Industry, or BYI, now takes the form of a blog, although it was once a podcast and video show. According to Bralts, her goal was to have people feel like they too can participate in some way in their community. “People see things on TV, and they say, ‘I could never do that,’ I wanted people to see they can try stuff if they really want to. The most basic message is about empowerment. I want people to interact with their neighbors, trading bits of information.” Backyard Industry, as well as Bralts’ blog posts and other work also lends itself to the environment and communication of sustainability quite easily. And although she never would have identified environmental sustainability as the primary driver in her work, Bralts relates it back to another huge theme of BYI—food. “If you aren’t taking care of the environment, food is not being known to you. To me, not spraying your food with chemicals is important,” she said. “So, while BYI is not about the environment, the environment is very much a part of BYI.” Environmental communication is a field that is growing expansively today, and as someone working for NPR, Bralts agrees that natural world “should be part of the conversation.” She expanded her point to the natural world, stating, “to be out there and see the diversity in a prairie and see what people grow… it’s amazing. Taking care of things rather than trying to kill everything you can’t control is important.”

Bralts’ career from someone exploring the music field and its labels, to someone communicating about culture, the environment, and the world around her has been one that never afforded her with a clear-cut career plan. Yet her work trail-blazes across the community and across the world of public media. She makes a local impact and allows one person’s story to touch the minds of others. When asked where she sees herself in five years, Bralts explained how despite the field of technology growing and becoming harder to keep up with, she cannot imagine herself anywhere else. “I cannot yet see what this role will be in five years, but I want to find other ways to bring it back to what I love, like food stuff and the farmers market.” 

You can catch Lisa Bralts on WILLam 580 radio, on her newest show Bandwagon. In collaboration with Brian Moline and John Steinbacher, she explored the intersection of sports and culture in this biweekly podcast.

Cover photo and Illinois Public Media photo by Nidhi Shastri.

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