In NFCB’s February newsletter, we interviewed Amantha Dickman. Amantha is the News Director at KZUM in Lincoln, NE. KZUM decided to revive the newsroom after taking a break from journalism. Amantha was hired to create and lead the newsroom in 2021.
Training as a war correspondent, archival journalism, building a newsroom from the ground up- this interview has it all.
Interviewed by Lisa Kettyle, NFCB Program Director. Interview edited for brevity.
Lisa: What brought you to KZUM?
Amantha: KZUM had a newsroom about 13 years ago, and I believe they had one on and off for a long time. The person who was running the newsroom, I don’t exactly know what the circumstances were, but he could no longer run it. It just kind of fell off of the map as something that we do. Kerry, our general manager, and Stephen, our program director, had been thinking about restarting the newsroom for a very long time. The way they tell the story is that they’ve been talking about it for years and I just happened to come along at the right time to make it happen.
I went to school to become a war correspondent. I did my entire journalism program at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications. I did the combat training, I was looking at getting weapons certified, that whole process. I graduated right before COVID hit and the job market just kind of crashed.
I spent about two years doing contract work, and mostly not in the field of journalism. I’m an artist as a hobby and I was doing gallery showings for the most part. In 2021, HBO, Max and Vox Media reached out because they needed a local archival journalist who could go to the newsrooms and look through all of their archive content [for a six-part documentary about “The Beatrice Six”]. It’s called Mind Over Murder. It’s about how these six individuals were wrongfully convicted for a crime that they did not commit. I was tasked with finding all of the content related to the case or anyone who was involved in the case. I did that for about a year and began feeling motivated. I started looking at local positions again, and KZUM was at the top of the list. I had never worked in radio before, but Kerry said yes.
L: Graduating and looking for work in a pandemic sounds like it must have been quite a challenge.
A: Some of the contract work that I did early in the pandemic was actually body transportation for a morgue. I was helping periodically move bodies of people who had passed to the state that they were supposed to be buried in, or I’d bring them back to Nebraska so that they could be buried here locally. It was a very interesting process, and it gave me a really unique insight into the spread of COVID, particularly when looking at the different guidelines of states when you’re traveling. Obviously, we were quarantining, doing our best to prevent the spread, but for the most part, I was actually out in the thick of it with my triple masks and my elbow-length gloves.
L: To what degree do you feel your combat and war correspondent training prepared you to do that work and do your work at KZUM?
A: I’ve always had a vested interest in combat training, in the capacity that I am a young woman and I live and exist in the world as a young woman. I have had some, frankly, horrific experiences with violence. I got interested in combat because I had reached a breaking point where I wanted to be able to defend myself in the most basic of situations, and somebody told me I could apply that to my degree. I already had an interest in Middle Eastern culture, and Mediterranean culture. I was learning Greek at the time, and I’m still in the process, because I’ll never be fluent, frankly. I really wanted another way to apply those skills. It’s interesting to see the level of focus that combat training gives an individual. Particularly after combat training, you get a little more grounded, a little more focused in the moment. And in some ways, it teaches you to handle really absurd situations with grace.
In 2020, we had the George Floyd protests here locally, and some of those were met with violence from local KKK factions and law enforcement. Some of the contract work I was doing at the time was documenting the protests and their effect on local neighborhoods. Situations like those are where that training really comes in handy, because you’re not fazed when authority comes up and says, “You can’t be here,” and I’d say, “Whoa, can’t I though? Because I’m pretty sure legally, I can.” It gives you more confidence to say, as the media I have a right to document this, because our citizens and our communities deserve information that is in regard to their safety, and, more importantly, the safety of travel or health matters or potential violence within our city.
L: What are you most proud of from your work at KZUM over the last year?
A: I haven’t been with the station for a full year yet. [When I joined,] we didn’t have a newsroom. KZUM hired me specifically to build our news program from the ground up. I know it sounds mundane and kind of silly, but that is the thing that I’m proudest of. I started out in April with absolutely nothing to [build on,] and together, we collaborated to create ethical guidelines and content guidelines. Those sound like really boring things for people who are just listening to the radio, but for us, these are the things that are really important. They’re the foundations of our newsroom. Especially because ethics are changing, our journalism ethics are rapidly changing with the invention of new technology, the integration of new social media, protests are changing the way that we have to handle our ethical guidelines in regards to pictures and video. Early on we were mapping out what ethical guidelines look like for us. Are we going to show protesters faces? We established no, we don’t show protesters’ faces because we feel it harms them socially, or potentially physically, and that sort of thing. So a lot of those guidelines seem like really mundane things for the average person, but for us, the devils are in the detail.
L: What advice would you give yourself on day one, knowing what you know now?
A: Work on the internship program. We have an internship program and that was one of the focuses that we had discussed when I was first coming on board. Fleshing out our internship program more and looking at ways to apply for grants so that we can fund the art internship program is what I’d do. As a nonprofit, we believe in paying people for the labor that they are engaged in. We think that is the most ethical way to help our communities, and especially our young journalists. It’s always been a priority, but it’s kind of been put on the back burner since all of this got started.
L: Is there a project that you’re most excited about for 2023?
A: This is our 45th anniversary year. We have a project gathering voices from around Lincoln. We’re asking our community members, “What do you think Lincoln needs to better improve the community for yourself or other groups that you imagine live here but don’t know very well?” We are going to compile them into audio clips and create audio documentation of all of these different answers.
L: Who do you look up to in the industry?
A: Fred Knapp, a journalist based here in Lincoln. He’s with Nebraska Public Radio, which we are big fans of here at KZMU. He’s been a fantastic role model. I did not have experience with radio when I started here. It was a learning curve. I had to learn how to structure stories for audio, and that’s wildly different than writing a story, which is where the majority of my expertise had been in before. I listened to a lot of Fred’s work when I was starting out – he has a wonderful voice and does some fantastic work.