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American Journalism Review
Hitching a Story  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   October 2000

Hitching a Story   

By Lori Silverstein
Lori Silverstein is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


For some reporters, the best place for an interview is over the phone. For others, it's in an office or maybe even a home. But for ABC correspondent Jay Schadler, it's in the passenger seat of a car.

And Schadler, an ABC News reporter since 1982, doesn't exactly follow tradition when getting these interviews. He hitchhikes.

"I've been with network news for 18 years, and I've never found a better interview studio than the front seat of an American car. It's a place where you think and talk. People feel safe there," he says.

Five years ago, Schadler began his hitchhiking reports, which then aired as two hour-long, Emmy-nominated "PrimeTime Live" specials, "Looking for America." Starting from his home in Plum Island, Massachusetts, he simply lifted his thumb and waited for a ride.

"Ten days later, 3,500 miles later, I was at the Santa Monica pier and had met 35 of the most interesting people I have ever come across," says Schadler, 48.

On his way to California, he traveled with a family driving to visit an imprisoned loved one. He also stopped at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing.

The response from viewers was overwhelmingly positive. So Schadler and his crew continued their hitchhiking exploration with the series, "TaleLights," which aired in 13 episodes in March on Bravo. Reruns also aired in August. It hasn't been decided whether the program will air again this season.

"We received tremendous amounts of e-mail and phone calls," says Jennifer Peterson, supervisor of public relations at Bravo. "People were saying how much they enjoyed it and were even asking Jay to visit their towns."

Since 1995, Schadler has hitchhiked approximately 15,000 miles across the country listening to people talk about life-threatening diseases, broken homes and how they're trying to turn their lives around. He has ridden with farmers, teachers, truck drivers, real estate agents and criminals just out of prison.

While riding with a black man through Tennessee, Schadler says, he learned more about U.S. race relations in 45 minutes than he learned from coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial.

Schadler videotapes his interviews with two small cameras. Meanwhile, he stays in contact with a crew that follows behind him, videotaping the landscape.

"You can't underestimate the power of road hypnosis," Schadler says. "The road is rolling, the music is on and the person feels comfortable behind the wheel. An unconscious desire to talk develops."

The hitchhiking journalist says that he felt comfortable with his drivers and that the experience has actually made him more fearless. He's learned that Americans are "probably more generous and open-hearted than they are given credit for."

"I've never been a reporter who enjoys doing celebrity or high-profile interviews," he says. "This is where my heart lies."

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