March 28, 2013Vol. 43, Issue 1

Lorraine Dechter: Behind the Voice of Northstate Public Radio

Lorraine Dechter, right, speaks with KCHO reporters and Chico State alumni Matt Shilts, left, and Colin Steiner, center. Dechter has been the news director for Northstate Public Radio since 2006.

Lorraine Dechter, right, speaks with KCHO reporters and Chico State alumni Matt Shilts, left, and Colin Steiner, center. Dechter has been the news director for Northstate Public Radio since 2006.

Years ago, Northstate Public Radio aired a Christmas program put on by students from Hamilton City School District. Listeners loved the broadcast, which featured elementary school kids singing holiday songs in English and Spanish. But as KCHO’s Lorraine Dechter tells it—in an animated, pleasingly cadenced voice fit for the airwaves—the really amazing thing wasn’t the end product, but how the process of making radio changed the dynamic of the entire school.

“We found out that there had been all these conflicts on the elementary school campus, and a lot of them were racial,” Dechter said. “Well, through this project we did, the kids started performing more together because they were going to be on the radio. They were so excited to be on the radio.” 

The students began playing each other’s songs and learning each other’s languages while working together for their upcoming performance. On the playground, kids of different races started interacting during lunchtime and talking to each other more. They quit fighting. 

“This is amazing,” said Dechter, her eyes gleaming behind thinly framed glasses. “What music can do, what culture can do, what radio can do, what broadcasting can do in a small community. 

Dechter is Northstate Public Radio’s news director, a position she's held for seven years. Her history in radio, however, goes back to when she was a teenager. After more than 40 years in the news industry, it would be easy to understand if Dechter’s enthusiasm for her work had been tempered by time. But when you hear her talk about what she does, it’s clear that her passion for storytelling, whatever the medium, still burns bright.

Originally from Palos Verdes, a suburb of Los Angeles, Dechter got her start in radio as part of a trailblazing group of high school students who pioneered KVPR, the first community cable radio station on the West Coast.

She came to Northern California in 1978, and since then she’s worked throughout the North State, delivering the news to communities through public television, newspapers, and, of course, radio.

"I kind of feel like I’m the original backpack journalist. I was doing it before there was a word for it."

“I kind of feel like I’m the original backpack journalist,” she said. “I was doing it before people were doing it, before there was a word for it.”

Dechter earned a BA in information and communication studies with a focus on visual communication from Chico State in 1983. While earning her degree, she was already producing stories through various media. She became fascinated with figuring out what kind of storytelling works in each medium and particularly the role sounds plays in each category. While working in television, she found that when people put energy into their sound, their work stands out. And when she returned to working in radio, she says her audio was even better because of her experience using it in the visual world. 

“When I came back [to radio], I had so many more tools and so much I could do with sound,” she said. “Even without the video, I had more flexibility and more freedom to create pictures through sound.”

Though she still works for public television on Channel 9 (KIXE) from time to time and still incorporates multimedia in her work, her focus now is primarily in broadcasting, with Northstate Public Radio. The public radio organization is run by Chico State and has a station in Chico (KCHO 91.7) and in Redding (KFPR 88.9). It airs programming from National Public Radio (NPR) and other public radio producers and distributors, as well as locally produced news and public affairs programs, classical music, talk radio, and jazz.

Dechter began working with the station when it was just becoming an NPR affiliate, in 1982. She and her husband wanted to do a folk music show, and so after successfully pitching their pilot to the station, they produced the Good Old Fashioned Folk Music Show, which aired for about 30 years.

In that time, her husband became ill with a heart condition and passed away, leaving her as a single mother of a kindergartener while she was still working toward her degree.

“It was really hard to study for tests and things like that at that point, but, you know, I could sit in the studio and edit and really focus on my craft, and so that’s what I did during that time,” she said. “I produced probably 3-1/2 hours of material a week, and also trained other students.”

Working with young people is one of Dechter’s favorite things to do and a large part of her work now. In addition to training student interns, Dechter is responsible for the Chico and Redding news departments. She hosts Morning Edition and All Things Considered and often produces the Monday night call-in show I-5 LIVE! and other specials.

Between managing all the different aspects of the station to make sure they are a reliable source of news for the North State, she relishes the time she gets to work on a story herself.

“A lot of my time is spent in quality control—making sure our ledes are right, checking on the length of stories, our formats, how is this system going to be smoother, and coordinating everybody’s schedules and making sure these things are covered,” she said. “So when I actually go in and do a project where I get to sit in the editing room and turn off everything else and just focus on my craft and my art and what I do, it’s really, really satisfying.”

Over the years, Dechter has worked hard to spur community engagement through multigenerational and multicultural conversations about many issues, in particular health and education. She is currently working on an education initiative project, for which she’s interviewed educators throughout Shasta and Butte counties about what goes on in the classroom.

The news business is a very fast-moving, critical environment, Dechter says, and it requires a thick skin and the ability to take criticism. At Northstate Public Radio, she has tried to create a work environment where the staff can support and critique one another to provide a better service to listeners. 

“I take pride in that we are constantly working to improve, individually and as a group,” she says, “and I just think if you look at where the news was at Northstate Public Radio before I started as news director, it’s just come so far, and I’m really, really proud of that.”

—Kacey Gardner, editorial intern, Public Affairs and Publications