A WNYC RADIO VET CALLS MAPLEWOOD HOME by Donny Levit
Award-winning radio journalist Nancy Solomon has the Garden State covered
Ask a local resident to name their go-to radio news source and you’ll hear the WNYC call letters come up again and again. Dig a little deeper and you’ll probably come across South Orange and Maplewood residents who donate to the station, sport their WNYC swag about town, and regularly tune in to The Brian Lehrer Show in addition to having their short list of NPR podcast favorites. For a commuting suburb (in non-pandemic times) with such close proximity to New York City, this most probably comes as little surprise.
But here’s something that may indeed surprise you: Nancy Solomon, one of the pivotal editors and reporters at WNYC, has been living in the two towns for almost two decades. And her team has been responsible for award-winning coverage of Bridgegate and currently hosts the monthly series “Ask Governor Murphy.”
For an editor and reporter who covers this side of the Hudson but works (again, in non-pandemic times) on the other side of the Hudson, explaining the call letters NJPR can get somewhat confusing. While Solomon’s charge is the Garden State, New Jersey Public Radio is a wholly-owned subsidiary of WNYC, thanks to former Governor Chris Christie putting NJPR up for sale in 2011: WNYC acquired northern New Jersey, and Philadelphia’s WHYY got southern New Jersey.
From Solomon’s viewpoint, the structure has worked well. “As a person who listens to WNYC in New Jersey, I’m not just interested in New Jersey news,” she says. “We live in the New York metropolitan region and we want a regional news service that’s going to tell us about what’s going on in New York. I [also] want to hear what’s going on in New Jersey, and I want to hear what’s going on in the nation, and in the world.”
Originally from Greater Boston, Solomon began working in public radio at KLCC in Eugene, Oregon in the mid-nineties. In 2001, she relocated to South Orange and has lived in the two towns ever since. Solomon currently lives in Maplewood with her wife, Becky Rosenfeld, who works for the Legal Aid Society of New York City. They have three kids: Lewis, 23, Sasha,16, and Lazlo, 12, as well as Opal, their dog, who Solomon describes as “the most important member of the family.”
When Solomon arrived in New Jersey, she began by working as a freelancer for NPR. She had been planning her move back east for about a year. “I was paying attention and listening to what was on NPR from New Jersey, and I realized there was very little,” she recalls. “I had a suspicion that New York reporters didn’t really want to cover New Jersey, and Philadelphia reporters didn’t really want to cover New Jersey, and that it was going to be wide open and for the taking when I arrived. And that turned out to be exactly right.”
She was then hired to manage NJPR. “It evolved into managing a news team in the WNYC newsroom that was focused on New Jersey,” says Solomon. “When I first arrived, it was just me, and I was reporting, raising money, and working to create a way to be able to hire reporters. At our peak we had worked up to about four reporters. We built up a robust team and we very proudly won a Peabody award for [our coverage of] Bridgegate in 2014.”
The Bridgegate reporting work by Solomon’s team provides a snapshot of how Solomon has excelled as an editor, reporter, and mentor to rising radio reporters.
With then-governor Chris Christie at the helm of New Jersey, Solomon hired Matt Katz, who at the time was reporting on Christie for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
For his first assignment on Solomon’s team, Katz was sent to a Christie press conference.
“Literally, his first assignment was to ask about Bridgegate,” says Solomon. “[Matt] had a pretty good relationship with Christie at the time. Matt asks the question, and [Christie] gives the ‘cones and the hat’ response, which is just radio gold. But that’s what blew the whole thing up because we had been on it and we’d been covering it, but it really wasn’t getting traction and piercing peoples’ consciousness. And when Christie said that, from then on, it was a mad dash. It was the top story for a year and a half.”
Christie’s infamous gaffe – “I was in overalls and a hat, but I was actually the guy working the cones out there. You really are not serious” – developed into a Peabody-winning series, Chris Christie, White House Ambitions, and the Abuse of Power, and was WNYC’s first Peabody for news coverage since 1944. But it also spoke to Solomon’s acumen in hiring the right reporter and serving as a strong mentor.
“Nancy and Andrea [Bernstein] both had the instinct that there was something off here, and I had to ask about this,” recalls Katz. “I wanted to impress Nancy and I had asked Christie many questions before and knew kind of how to get him not to evade a little bit or at least try to get him not to evade. And [Nancy] got every little juicy tidbit as the story unfolded over the next year or so onto the radio, and really captivated listeners.”
Katz would go on to write his book on the former governor, called American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption. “She taught me radio entirely. I didn’t have any radio experience whatsoever” he says, but Solomon “stood next to my desk one day and just showed me all the different programs and then sent me to Arizona to cover Christie becoming the head of the Republican Governors Association. She basically threw me into the cauldron, and I had to figure it out. She gave me less in the way of technical support and more in the way of emotional support – but also just the affirmation that I was able to hack it in this radio thing even though I’d never done anything like it before. She was just reassuring and supportive.”
Sarah Gonzalez, who is currently a host and reporter for NPR’s Planet Money, immediately knew she wanted to work with Solomon after her first interview. “She just felt like a real person – not stuffy. She was just this very casual, warm, smart person.”
Gonzalez echoes Katz’s appreciation for Solomon’s support. “I was very interested in covering the social safety net and where it fails people – like foster care juvenile justice,” she says. “And [Nancy] just like let me. She was never like, ‘OK, that’s enough inequality stories, let’s do something else.’” Gonzalez went on to win an award for her five-part series Kids in Prison: Racial Disparities, Longer Sentences and a Better Way.
When WNYC asked Gonzalez to be a fill-in host for The Brian Lehrer Show, Solomon was a supportive proponent. “It’s just such a Nancy move,” says Gonzalez. “Nancy was totally open to me leaving reporting, even if it meant like we’re not going to cover that one big story because she thought that it would be a good opportunity for me to grow and try to develop a new skill.”
While Solomon’s charge is to cover stories throughout the state, it was a series she did as a freelancer that focused on her own back yard. She was accepted as a 2008-09 Spencer Fellow in Education Reporting at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “I had been kind of scrimping by on a freelancer’s income,” she says. “And this was an actual stipend that was fairly close to a salary for the whole year.”
Solomon had been drawn to the South Orange – Maplewood Community Coalition on Race as a volunteer project. “It was something I was interested in and committed to,” she says. “I had joined the schools committee and then as I was sitting in for one of the first meetings and people were talking about working on the achievement gap and leveling at the high school. And it just sort of hit me: ‘Wow, you know, that’s a really good story. That’s a national story – what’s going on here.’ And so I resigned from the committee, pulled away from the coalition and pitched the story to NPR.”
Initially, Solomon wanted to keep her distance from her own school district. “I didn’t want to do it in our local schools because I have a son who at the time was in [Maplewood Middle School],” she says. “I felt it would be too close to home. So, I tried to focus on similar districts.”
Although she reached out to school districts in Montclair and Teaneck, she came up short. “None of those school districts wanted to have anything to do with me,” says Solomon.
She reached out to then SOMSD Superintendent Brian Osborne along with then Columbia High School principal Lovie Lilly. Solomon was granted access to CHS to conduct her research. “I was able to spend so much time in classes observing, recording, going to the cafeteria at lunchtime, talking with students, interviewing them, meeting their parents, interviewing their parents, interviewing teachers. So it was just an incredible experience to take such a deep dive into all of that.” Her research led to her series Mind the Gap: Why Good Schools are Failing Black Students.
Since being hired full-time at WNYC, Solomon has chosen to try to fly beneath the radar when it comes to community involvement. “From that point forward, I really kept out of local organizing and local politics,” she says. “I feel like, ‘Better for me to just not really be involved in anything.’ So I just do my job.” However, that doesn’t mean she completely removes her own opinions from her reporting. “I’ve always been antagonistic to the idea of objectivity,” she says. “I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe anybody’s objective. I feel like it’s just always been important throughout my entire career as a journalist to just think about what my own biases are and try to be as fair as possible.”
But while she keeps a low profile in town, she embraces her Maplewood home and community – especially in the face of a pandemic. “I have a lovely view from my window, and I have amazing birds that visit and I have never been so thankful and grateful for having a house, and a yard, and trees, and South Mountain Reservation, and a bicycle to ride around – it’s just been a wonderful lifesaver,” she says. “I spent all those years commuting every day and feeling a certain amount of New-York-and-Brooklyn envy and wishing that I could walk to work. So now it’s like the tables have turned. I feel really grateful to be in such a nice place as Maplewood.”
Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident. He first became an NPR listener in New Orleans and considers WWNO his gateway to public radio. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio and @kindofpoolradio.