5 QUESTIONS: Kyle Vass on street-level addiction reporting & telling audio stories

EDITOR’S NOTE: Elsewhere in WestVirginiaVille, listen to a WVPB audio piece crafted by Kyle Vass, on how Charleston WV’s blocking of clean needle distributions to the addict community can boomerang. As part of our “5 Questions” series, WestVirginiaVille editor Douglas John Imbrogno conducted an e-mail interview with Vass (who sometimes helps this site with audio editing and advice) on the story, his plans for more coverage, and the art and craft of audio storytelling.

Policy switches and restrictions on clean needle exchanges play out beneath overpasses and bridges and on the streets of West Virginia’s capital of Charleston WV, as described in reporting by WVPB and Kyle Vass.


WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: It’s hard to take in your WVPB story without wondering at the contradictory cross-purposes that appear to be going on. Here’s the city of Charleston WV wishing to reduce addiction’s toll, but doing the one thing harm-reduction advocates and a researcher with a public health doctorate from Johns Hopkins saying will make matters worse. What is your read on why that may be so?

We’re watching Goodwin try to walk a balance beam—between the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) approach that syringe programs often draw in this part of the country and doing what the experts all agree is necessary for public health.

KYLE VASS: Having combed through her reports and watched her in council meetings, it seems Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin hears the experts on epidemiology, addiction, and harm reduction. But, I think she also remembers it was just a few years ago that Danny Jones was the mayor of Charleston—the guy who famously called the now shut-down, low-barrier syringe program (see definition below) at the Kanawha County Health department a “mini-mall for junkies.” 

We’re watching Goodwin try to walk a balance beam—between the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) approach that syringe programs often draw in this part of the country and doing what the experts all agree is necessary for public health.

Unfortunately, this study by the WV Center on Budget & Policy shows Kanawha County can’t afford to play politics over these sorts of public health crises. One percent of the county has contracted Hepatitis C since the shutdown of the low-barrier syringe program the city ran until 2018.  

Kyle Vass.


WV: Reporting on such a sensitive topic requires levels of trust and care: you interview an addict beneath a city bridge who gives you a startling education in the market that springs up for bad, used needles when clean syringe distributions are shut down. Can you describe that exchange a bit more?

KYLE VASS: The first time I reported on the unhoused, I was pitching a story to WVPB on a tent encampment in St. Albans WV. I was used to making people uncomfortable with my microphone at that point, but wasn’t too keen on the idea of putting people who are already quite vulnerable on the spot. I didn’t want to approach anyone who was experiencing homelessness with my mic for fear of adding stress to their already stressful situation. 

I went and recorded a guy doing outreach in the camp, made the piece and sent it in. The news director at the time, Jessie Wright, told me if I wasn’t going to have any voices of the people in the camp, he couldn’t air it. I explained to him my dilemma—not wanting to alienate people. Jessie told me he got it, but that he couldn’t air a story about people without having those people speak in the piece.

His response felt right at a personal level though I couldn’t articulate why at the time. So, I went back and turned my mic towards the people in the camp—lots of people were happy to talk, excited even to tell their side of the story. Sure, some people told me they didn’t want to talk, but that was okay. In hindsight, I think my initial reluctance to ask the unhoused people to talk was more about protecting myself from awkwardness than it was about protecting them from exploitation. I thought a lot about Jessie’s edit in doing this piece. It’s definitely one of the reasons Tommy gets first and last say in my story. 


WV: You have further reporting planned on this subject for your independent newsletter, Dragline. Can you sketch that out for us?

KYLE VASS: My upcoming series for Dragline is called: “The politics of harm reduction at the epicenter of America’s opioid epidemic.” It’s a three-part series that looks at different forces steering the debate around harm reduction in Charleston. Without giving too much away, the first part dives into the questionable ethics of a certain media organization. The second part looks at a prominent family in Charleston which is waging war on harm reduction to make political inroads. And, the third part is a bit of a secret as I’m still reporting it. So, keep an eye out!

Subscribe for free to Kyle Vass email newsletter at this link: Dragline.substack.com


WV: I was impressed by the audio storytelling in this WVPB piece. You work with Trey Kay’s “Us and Them” podcast and have had some training with Ira Glass of “This American Life” and crew. What are some of the biggest takeaways you learned about telling an audio story and also getting a story right?

KYLE VASS: Since diving into the world of written journalism with Dragline, I’ve realized there are so many things that set written and audio journalism apart.

I’ll pick one I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Tone. Writers understand that word choice and even syntax go into how you come across as a storyteller. But, in audio journalism there’s an extra layer to pay attention to. Slight adjustments of everything from the tension in your diaphragm  to the shape of your mouth go a long way to convey your personal reaction to the tape and the story as it unfolds. 

A lot of journalists think it’s their job to read the news to you in a deadpan way, to avoid adding any emotional bias to it. But, deadpan is it’s own emotional statement. And in audio journalism, no one wants to listen to someone reading in a monotone. Finding the balance between sounding human and not conveying a bias is challenging. But, for anyone using their voice to tell stories, it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Sruthi Pinnemaneni is the best person doing this in the audio world. She breaks down her approach here in an article for Transom


WV: There are a various of small media startups in West Virginia and Appalachia trying to pick up the slack on topics that used to be covered by now-reduced media staffs statewide—while also carving out new niches. Mountain State Spotlight is one with investigative news. I count WestVirginiaVille as one on the news-feature and multimedia end of things. Why did you launch Dragline and what are your thoughts on where hard news reporting and podcasting on important matters needs to go?

KYLE VASS: The more the merrier. Granted, I’ve only been doing journalism for a couple of years at this point. But, I’ve met more than a handful of journalists who feel like the media is a competition. When I work for nationally syndicated shows, that’s never the case. Some of the most successful podcasts and public radio shows are run and staffed by the most approachable humans on earth.

To me, journalism is a sacred club. As long as you’re playing by the rules and putting out important work, we should all do everything we can to support one another. Ken Ward at Mountain State Spotlight, and some guy named Doug Imbrogno (I think he might be mafia) at WVville do awesome work. The leaders of both of these shops have always been there for me when I reach out and I think all journalists in the region could learn from their example.

Photo by Jair Lázaro on Unsplash


WV: Ask yourself a question—and answer it.
KYLE VASS: What’s some of the feedback you’ve gotten since this piece aired?

KYLE KASS: Mostly positive. A lot of people were touched to hear Tommy use his voice to explain how all this otherwise abstract discussion about harm reduction plays out as reality in his everyday life. But you can’t do a story about a controversial topic without getting some people riled up. It was brought to my attention that the Director of Operations at WV Health Right (a high-barrier syringe program in Charleston—see definition below) took to her Facebook and tried to use the tragic killing of Officer Cassie Jones as a reason to go after programs like SOAR. I normally shake off any unfounded criticism of my work. But, that one felt wrong—disgustingly so.  


The Difference Between ‘High-Barrier’ and Low-Barrier’ Syringe Programs

Syringe service programs put different barriers in place as far as access to their syringes. High barrier programs (like WV Health Right) often require things such as government issued IDs to keep track of who is getting what. Sometimes, these programs require IDs that have addresses corresponding to the areas the programs serve.

Of course, these barriers aren’t clearable for a lot of unhoused people. You often need an address to get an ID, let alone an ID with an address on it. High-barrier programs also can penalize people for not bringing their used syringes back. You can get kicked out of the program for violating a “one-for-one” policy. And since syringes are scarce, unhoused populations now have to worry about protecting (not to mention carrying around) their collection of used needles, in hopes of staying in the good graces of a syringe program.

Low-barrier programs are needs-based. If people needle clean syringes, they’re given syringes. The CDC advocates for reducing as many barriers as possible to get syringes to people who need them.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: www.cdc.gov/policy/hst/hi5/cleansyringes


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