Longtime radio reporter covered NASA and civil rights; now APR news director

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Pat Duggins, Alabama Public Radio and SPJ Member

By Ireal James, SPJ Region 3 Intern

Thirty years ago marks Pat Duggins’ first year as a reporter for WMFE-FM in Orlando, Florida. That year he would cover the explosion of NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger with first-hand eyewitness accounts. Over a decade later he would find himself again covering another accident with the disaster of NASA’s oldest shuttle, Columbia, during its reentry in 2003.

Duggins has been marketed as “the voice of NASA coverage on NPR” during a turbulent time for the U.S. space program. Yet, years earlier, as a student at the University of Central Florida, where he would graduate in radio/television broadcast, he had no idea he would be a working journalist covering NASA and its programs.

After graduation, Duggins was on camera as a reporter and weekend anchor for the ABC Affiliate in Gainesville, Florida, where he would stay for less than a year, only to move onto public radio. In 1986 he would begin reporting for WMFE-FM and from that point he would cover 103 NASA shuttle missions and also hold a position with NPR lasting 14 years.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Alaska and Florida, Duggins’ father was a chief master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, so it was inevitable for him see American milestones from the comfort of his family’s backyard. There he would gain his first encounters with outer space.

“When I was very young I could walk outside and watch Apollo 14 blast off. We lived right next to launchpads,” Duggins said of his childhood experiences living in Florida. “I saw both of the voyagers, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2,” he said.

From watching the first U.S. space ships launch as a child to reporting on space as a professional journalist for NPR, his personal experiences range from seeing man’s first walk in space and landing on the moon to the eventual dismantle of the NASA space shuttle program.

With more than a decade of experience at NPR, Duggins said NPR wanted a continuous stream of news. “I had to deliver really, really fast so what that did was … it turned me into a very speedy writer,” he said. Duggins said he still uses this speed today.

Final Countdown book coverDuggins has written two books about space programs, Final Countdown: Nasa and the end of the Space Shuttle Program and Trailblazing Mars: NASA’s Next Big Leap”, which include his experiences with NASA and the Space Shuttle program. His books Trailbraze to Mars book covercould be purchased here: http://www.amazon.com/Pat-Duggins/e/B001JS8JS2

Today Duggins is an international award-winning journalist who lives in Alabama, after leaving Florida where he resided for more than 24 years. He is the news director at Alabama Public Radio at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The college is one of two universities in the country that has international-award winning radio, along with a commercial television station in its academic unit of study. His position involves managing the station’s four news teams in the production of spot news, features and series.

Since he has been at APR, the station has won over fifty awards. One as a result of what he said is his best work as a broadcast journalist so far, “Civil Rights Radio.”

“I covered both Challenger accidents and a Colombia accident. I’ve written two books on NASA. I’ve lectured at Harvard. I’ve had book signings at the Smithsonian Institution and I swear to you Civil Rights Radio was the best bit of radio that I ever did,” Duggins said.

Civil Rights Radio is a story covering the lives those who were youth civil rights activists in 1963 during the “Children’s March” movement in Birmingham, Alabama. In that time, what would start off as a peaceful protest would ignite a civil battle. The young activists involved would endure arrest, threats and brutalization from baton beatings. However those efforts for reformation would pave the way for The Civil Rights Act of 1964.   

Five decades later Duggins would report on these former activists in 2013, while at APR.

He said “the nobility of human spirit” is what he remembers most about that piece of journalism.

“When they (the activists) were young, they saw a wrong and they set out to right it,” Duggins said. “And when I spoke to these (former) activists — even though they were grandparents, they’re older than I am, you could kind of see that gleam in their eyes — that twinkle, and when they were talking they were back in high school; they were back doing the things that high school students do,” he said.

Here is an excerpt of ‘Civil Rights Radio’: Courtesy of Pat Duggins

As an APR news director, Duggins said he enjoys working with students as they develop storytelling skills. In his first year and a half at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Duggins and the newsroom would receive the 2011 National Edward R. Murrow Award for Overall Excellence for the coverage of three stories. Two were as a result of student reporting and one from Duggins’ series on the 2010 Gulf Coast spill.

“When I was their age in college no one taught me how to write, nobody ever taught me how to problem solve. When I graduated, my first two years, it was tough because I didn’t have the basic storytelling skills that every reporter has to have,” Duggins said. It wouldn’t be until he was a (professional) broadcast journalist that he would gain this experience as a storyteller, unlike the students he works with in Tuscaloosa, he said.

Duggins has won many other awards throughout his career. Some include a Sigma Delta Chi Award for Breaking News Coverage and a National Public Radio News Incorporated Award (PRNDI) for Best Radio Series.

“His passion came through and his writing was clear and very visual, something that’s

Peter Iglinski mug
Peter Iglinski

always respected in public radio circles so we were all very familiar with Pat’s work.” said Senior Press Officer for Science at the University of Rochester Peter Iglinski. Iglinski is also former president for PRNDI, where he said he met Duggins.

In his freetime, Duggins likes neon photography, cooking and collecting autographs including signatures from Bob Hope and Shirley Chisholm.

Duggins said he has not made plans to stop reporting anytime soon. In fact he is in the process of obtaining his Masters in Journalism at the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa and will continue to pay his knowledge forward to the students at APR.

“There’s just such vivid pictures you can paint with radio that you just can’t with television… I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” he said.

Ireal James mug
Ireal James

Ireal James, an upcoming senior at Mercer University, is a Mercer Cluster Staff Writer and Board Operator at WMUB in Macon, Georgia. James is originally from New Orleans, Louisiana but lives in Georgia. She is a writer who has an interest in photography and videography that involves storytelling. She also works for ESPN3 where she has experience in working with camera equipment, camera operation, audio operation, etc. during live production broadcasts for sports games. James is the Photographer/Videographer for the Mercer University Chapter of the National Society of Negro Women as well as the Director of Marketing for the Mercer University Miracle Executive Board, an organization that fundraises for patients at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospital at Navicent Health in Macon, Georgia. James aspires to be a screenwriter for movies who happens to be a journalist interested in the coverage of stories untold previously. James’ portfolio is at https://irealjamesblogwordpresscom.wordpress.com/ and her contact is ireal.james@gmail.com.