How We Made the “Bundyville” Podcast & Series
How my solo project became a cross-institutional quest
You could say that Bundyville, a multi-part written series and podcast collaboration with Longreads and Oregon Public Broadcasting, began one night when I was watching television in my pajamas. My phone started buzzing with alerts that a group of men with guns had taken over a wildlife refuge in Oregon. That takeover turned into the famed Oregon Standoff: the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a federal property, led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy—sons of scofflaw Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy.
I had a gut feeling that this was a story I had to work on. I became a freelancer to focus on ambitious, long-term projects like this one—and I’ve been able to do it without uprooting my life in the Northwest and entering the rat race in NY and DC.
But it hasn’t always been easy to work as a newsroom of one. In fact, through Bundyville, I learned how to join forces with others, making a solo project into a cross-institutional endeavor that evolved into something bigger and deeper than I could have ever expected.
Find Your Niche, and Own It
When I started freelancing full time in 2013, I really didn’t have much of a plan beyond two things: 1) I’d run it like a small business and, 2.) If I committed myself to doing good work—and never compromising on that—I figured someone might actually notice.
During the course of the Malheur occupation, I was asked by several editors to go to the refuge occupation to cover it on the ground—but no one was willing to commit to more than 500 bucks. Right after Christmas, I didn’t have the kind of cash to front an indefinite sojourn into the wildlands of Oregon, six hours from my house. I said no—I just couldn’t make the math work, as much as it killed me to not take the assignment. I knew that even if I risked it to go there, I’d be competing for the same story with news organizations from around the world with tons of staff. I’d be going in with an arm behind my back. I knew if I wanted to cover the Bundys’ movement, I had to get creative.
So my first story on the occupation for the Washington Post was about trenches the occupiers at the refuge were digging with construction equipment, potentially damaging sacred Burns Paiute artifacts and human remains. I’d been doing a lot of reporting on archaeology at that point, so I was able to jump on that angle. The occupiers were live-streaming just about everything they were doing—so I was able to watch the occupation play out the whole time. There were really great journalists on the ground telling the world what was happening—from Oregon Public Broadcasting and The Oregonian, among others—so I felt like I could really focus on looking at the parts of the event that maybe other people didn’t have time for.
That became my philosophy with the Bundy story: I had to carve out a place that made sense for the resources I did have. I could try to compete with other journalists for the latest, breaking angles. Or I look at it with a longer lens.
There was no better place to get a sense of these guys than in court. So when Ammon, Ryan and Cliven Bundy were arrested and arraigned in a Portland court, I was there to cover it.
Zoom in on the Small Stories, Then Zoom Out
Every Oregon media person I knew was obsessing over the Bundys —understandably so. But I was more interested in the people around them. Who were their supporters? I think this approach played to my strengths: I love writing profiles, so I started chipping away at a series of profiles that allowed me to understand different parts of the Patriot movement. First, I did a profile of Peter Santilli—an occupier who claimed he was a journalist at the occupation—for the Washington Post. I tackled a profile on the very last occupier at the refuge —David Fry—in a longform story for Outside Magazine. And then I wrote a profile in Portland Monthly Magazine about another man on trial with the Bundys, Kenneth Medenbach — whose story gave perspective on how long the fight the Bundys were waging had actually been going on in the West.
Once the trial was underway, I cranked out a few short stories, but I started showing up to court in Portland to cover as many days of the Malheur trial as I could—even if I wasn’t getting paid. I’ve got a literal Rubbermaid bin of notepads from it, and I remember at a certain point in 2017 realizing that no matter how many stories I wrote, they were likely only reaching a limited audience. How could I get the story in front of more people? How could I get people far, far from the West to care about what the Bundys were up to?
Just Keep Digging
At some point, I had decided that the last Bundy story I would write would be about the 2017 Nevada trial where Cliven, Ammon, Ryan, Dave and Mel Bundy—among many other men—would stand trial for the 2014 standoff on Bundy Ranch.
Everyone close to me could see the toll following the story was taking on me. I wanted to write a book on the whole thing, but had been told by several agents in publishing that there were already several books sold on the topic. Several people told me to drop it, move on, find something else to write about. Honestly, that was kind of my plan.
So in November 2017 I headed to Las Vegas to cover the beginning of the Bundy Ranch trial. I had a commitment to do one long piece on the trial for Longreads, which felt like a great place to explain the movement in detail in a way I hadn’t in those other profiles.
Being that I don’t like to kick up my feet much when I’m traveling for work, I scheduled a bunch of interviews. In one of those, I was given a copy of a little-known book filled with Mormon scripture by the Bundys — so I wrote a breaking news/analysis story about that for the Post. And then, soon, the Nevada trial was declared a mistrial when the government committed a series of Brady violations.
So many questions I’d hoped would be answered for my long piece… weren’t. So I called my Longreads editor in New York, Mike Dang, and pitched him on a series. Honestly, I didn’t expect for him to go for it, or say what he said next: “yes, let’s do a story series, and… what do you know about making podcasts?”
Don’t Squander a Chance
I didn’t know anything about making podcasts, in fact. But I knew people who did—plus, I’m as voracious of a podcast consumer as I am a reader of longform journalism. I’d gotten to know some of the journalists in Oregon who covered the trial there, particularly with Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). In early December, I shot off an email to Anna Griffin at OPB and said “hey, I’ve got a podcast idea.” It’s not the first time I’d sent an email like that to her, but this time it worked.
Once OPB decided they’d like to work with Longreads and myself on the podcast, we had to assemble a team. And, we had to get it done quickly. Anna knew we’d need a group of people to actually pull it off, and we started in earnest working on the podcast in early February. Initially, we were trying to get it finished by the end of March.
Our team had just the right amount of people to get what we needed done: Mike and Anna provided oversight on the written and audio version of the stories. Ryan Haas, an editor at OPB, quickly became my writing partner on the podcasts: he knows the Bundy story front to back, and he works all the time like me. Ryan, Anna and I sat in a room and figured out a rough podcast series based on the writing and reporting I’d already finished. We sketched out seven 20-minute episodes.
Then Anna brought on two freelance radio producers she knew to produce and hone the scripts: Peter Frick-Wright and Robbie Carver, who put out the Outside Magazine podcast.
With our team assembled, we got to work. Peter was leaving for a remote island in the South Pacific in May, so we knew that had to be our deadline. About 12 weeks. My head’s still spinning we actually got it done.
Report, Write, Record, Write, Repeat.
If you read the written version of Bundyville, and then you listen to the podcast, you’ll find they’re pretty different in a lot of ways—and there’s a reason for that. By February when we started writing the podcast, I’d already cranked out two pretty-fully-realized drafts of the print stories, and had outlined the third. They were on Mike’s desk, ready for editing.
I kind of thought we’d just trim them down and—boom—we’d have radio. I learned very quickly that’s not how radio gets made. I sent the stories I’d finished to Anna and Ryan, and Ryan took a stab at the writing the first episode—giving me some idea of how a radio story actually comes together. We ping-ponged it back and forth, adding in archival video and news clips from the standoffs. We started assembling Google Doc scripts filled with links and scraps of writing from my stories. Then we sent it off to Peter and Robbie —who I would learn are pretty serious script-assassins, and I mean that in a good way.
We’d sit around a table in a conference room for hours to dissect each episode. I remember early on Robbie kept saying we had to work on the “logic” of each episode in order for it to work. At first I was like what the hell is this guy talking about. This was part of my immersive education that writing longform couldn’t be more different than writing for radio. In a radio story, every line has to be beautifully and simply written and lead the listener along through the story. You want detail, but not too much detail. Every episode is a ticking clock, and every word takes time off that clock.
After we nailed episode 1, I took a crack at writing episode 2 by myself. Ryan took a look and said something to the effect of “great! Now do it again.”
In Bundyville, the story series, you get the Bundys’ history from the mid–1800s on. That just didn’t translate to radio, so we had to break up the flow of the information from the stories and distribute it through the podcast episodes. As a team, we knew we wanted the podcast to move quickly, and feel effortless to listen to. And it was important to me for the tone of the series to stay true to my writing style and personality.
Once I got the hang of it, Ryan and I flip-flopped writing the first drafts of stories. Then we’d send them to Peter and Robbie. We’d meet, edit together, sometimes rewrite, re-meet, re-edit, and record scratch tracks for Robbie to start writing original music around. I knew exactly the vibe I wanted listeners to get from the podcast, and so I was really clear up front with Robbie that the most cliche music, I felt, we could use as a soundtrack would be twangy, country and Western sounds. The whole cowboy-hatted feel of the Bundy story—I think that’s what only made a limited group of people engage. I wanted it to feel more dramatic, more foreboding. Robbie told me he’d be using a slide guitar, but to trust him—and I’m so glad I did. I think Robbie’s music is part of what make Bundyville so damn compelling.
In the recording studio at OPB, Peter, Ryan and I would cram into a tiny, hot studio to get the narration done. This made me very anxious at first, considering I work so much by myself. But, as I quickly understoond, we didn’t have time for much anxiety. We realized about halfway through that my voice sounds way better when I’m standing up, rather than sitting down. When we figured that out, we had to go back and re-record everything I’d said.
Find a Team to Carry It over the Finish Line
As I say in the podcast, you can know a ton about the Bundys simply by reading about them online. There have been so many hot takes, essays, YouTube videos. But very few people have actually sat down with the family for extended interviews after their trial in Vegas went south for the government. Early on in our writing process, Anna and Mike emphasized that I should try to get the Bundys to sit down with us—and after a series of requests, I finally made arrangements to do just that. In late March, with about a month to go before our podcast deadline, Ryan and I flew to Nevada. At the end of this trip, I had spent about three weeks on the ground in Nevada.
I can’t say enough about reporting on the ground—it’s so important to talk to people in person, but also to understand someone’s mindset, you have to know where they’re from. You can learn a lot about people when you know that there aren’t many coffee shops in their town because most people are Mormon there. You have to understand how the wind burns your skin when it blows across the Arizona desert, or the way the sun is unrelenting. Or that people drive at least 40 miles over the speed limit on the freeway.
In Nevada, Ryan recorded audio for the podcast, while I asked the questions and scribbled down notes the way I usually would for a story. I really despise technology—I’m a pen and paper reporter. And though I’m reluctantly learning about recording, I knew Ryan had to be there to make sure the sound was spot-on. We traded off taking photos—that’s something I’m used to doing for stories.
Once we were back in Portland, I could feel the time crunch. I cranked out the final two print stories back to back, about 19,000 words.
Our last two weeks were pretty much non-stop recording, listening, editing, re-recording. And that’s when Longreads’ fact-checker, Matt Giles, came into the picture. If he found an error in one of the podcast scripts, we’d have to re-record whole sections of the podcast. And finally, as the print pieces rolled out over consecutive days in mid-May, Matt and I would spend about three hours on the phone, talking through every single line.
Even though I work solo, the only way this project could happen was for a team of people to live and breathe the story along with me. And I got lucky: this project introduced me to the hardest-working journalists I have ever worked with. None of us knew each other very well, but by the end I felt like we’d found an unstoppable team in each other. If I was staying up late to work on an episode, guaranteed Ryan was up late working on the next one, Peter was editing and Robbie was mixing and making music. When we realized the top of each episode needed something hooky to draw people in, Peter cranked out audio slugs for the top of each one. When we needed a trailer for the series, Peter wrote it. And when I stomped my foot and refused to read advertisements, Peter offered to do that, too.
I’ve never worked so hard in my career—freelance, or otherwise. But ultimately, every second of it was worth it. And right now I’m trying to figure out how to make my next podcast.
Of course, there’s no way I’d do it by myself.
Leah Sottile is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance journalist whose features, profiles and investigations have been featured by the Washington Post, Playboy, California Sunday Magazine, Outside, The Atlantic, Vice and several others. She is the host of the podcast “Bundyville,” the first-ever Longreads podcast, made in collaboration with Oregon Public Broadcasting.