Brian Bull '91

“It doesn’t serve to celebrate free speech when you’re only in favor of those views that mirror your own, and it doesn’t build bridges to shut down or ignore contrary perspectives.”
—Brian Bull ’91,  public radio reporter

Standing out can cut two ways. Broadcast journalist Brian Bull ’91 stands out as the winner of three Edward R. Murrow awards, the Ohio Associated Press’s Best Reporter Award, and dozens of other accolades. His stories have appeared on National Public Radio, American Public Media’s Marketplace, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and more.

But sometimes standing out can be dangerous. When Bull walked along the road as a kid, people driving past in their pickups occasionally threw rocks and bottles at him. Though he lived more than 10 miles from the reservation, Bull stood out as a member of Idaho’s Nez Perce Indian tribe. Expectations in school were generally low for Native American students, regardless of ability. “The attitude seemed to be, ‘Skinny little Native kid, what’s he going to be?’” says Bull. Racism from classmates took the form of verbal threats, vandalism, and theft.

At age 16, frustrated, he told his father he was going to drop out of school. Fortunately, his father talked him out of it. As a senior, Bull shocked his high school guidance counselors when he was accepted at Macalester College, where he majored in psychology. He then worked in the Admissions office before launching a career in journalism.

“I began with Hmong funerals in St. Paul, rituals that traditional Hmong people have carried over from Laos and Cambodia,” says Bull. “I then expanded to covering tribal relations and American Indian activism in South Dakota, as well as economic development and agricultural issues.”

A warm, friendly guy, he combines dedication to accurate, compelling journalism with a voice you’d listen to just for the pleasure of it. But he knows it can be difficult to get an authentic voice like his out to listeners and readers when that world is drastically underrepresented. To address that lack, Bull has been an active member of the Native American Journalists Association for 15 years and has served as president and chair of Vision Maker Media (formerly Native American Public Telecommunications), which supports funding, production, and distribution of programming produced by and for Native American/American Indian communities.

Over the last 17 years, Bull has been a visiting faculty member at the nationally recognized Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and active with NPR’s Next Generation Radio, a program aimed at diversifying the ranks of journalists by providing a week-long training program for students interested in radio journalism.

Bull has covered thousands of stories, but a few have really stuck with him. One is a half-hour documentary that explored domestic violence in Hmong society. “I connected with a courageous woman who was routinely abused by her husband, and judged and criticized by her clan, before she left to start a new life.”

Another is the Working Poor series he did with WCPN in Cleveland, which earned him his second Murrow Award. “I wanted to give voice to this struggling demographic so listeners could see past the label and understand the circumstances—and aspirations—of those barely scraping by, paycheck to paycheck.”

Macalester prepared him well for working in public radio, says Bull, because both institutions prize insightful thinking and analysis, “being a healthy, skeptical inquirer, challenging authority, and questioning everyone’s motives. It doesn’t serve to celebrate free speech when you’re only in favor of those views that mirror your own, and it doesn’t build bridges to shut down or ignore contrary perspectives. It’s vital to see beyond the rhetoric and appreciate where a person comes from … even if you may not agree on issues.”

After working for public radio stations in Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, Bull moved last summer to KLCC, NPR’s station in Eugene, Oregon. According to Bull, “Eugene is what Macalester College would be if it made its own city. It’s huge on activism, social justice, and the arts.” He was happy to bring his wife, Margaret Bull ’96, and their children back to the Pacific Northwest, closer to his family and the Nez Perce tribe.

February 6 2017

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