Behind the Story: Southlake

NBCU Academy Presents “Behind the Story”

NBC News’ hit podcast series “Southlake” tells the story of Southlake, Texas, a suburb consumed by a growing national crusade against critical race theory. When a video surfaced in 2018 showing Southlake high school students chanting the N-word — and when Black residents came forward to share stories of racist harassment and bullying — the school board vowed to make changes. But the unveiling of a Cultural Competence Action Plan set off a backlash that turned the local school board election into national headlines.

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The hosts of “Southlake,” NBC News national reporter Mike Hixenbaugh (host of the hit podcast “Do No Harm”) and NBC News correspondent Antonia Hylton, are joined by NBC News Managing Editor of Podcasts Reid Cherlin and MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee (host of the podcast “Into America”) to discuss the making of the six-episode series.

Trymaine Lee: How was reporting on a long-form podcast different than something on NBC Nightly News or a long written piece? How’s this different?

Antonia Hylton: It was vastly different, and you have to bring different skill sets to each style of reporting. There’s an interesting debate over whether it’s easier to write really short stories or really long ones. I would say they are both equally challenging, in the sense that cutting your issue as complicated as the Southlake story into two minutes and 30 seconds for TV sometimes was like, I was like banging my head against a wall to figure out how to make sure that this story still rang true. 

And then writing a 40-minute script is really challenging for me and Mike. I just think about the moments that really like stood out from the travel that we did, the conversations that we had, and then I begin to script, or think about the story first with just those big moments.

If you’re new to journalism, when you get into the field and you actually start doing interviews, those moments that your breath is taken away, that surprise you, you didn’t expect to come into the reporting; keep notes on those things. They’re going to help you build your script later, whether that script is going to be 40 minutes or 40 seconds long. Think about those moments that emotionally move you in one direction or the other and build your story around that. And then you can cut back the fat, you can streamline after that. 

Mike Hixenbaugh: The other thing I would add is the value and importance of having an experienced radio journalist like Frannie Kelley out in the field with you and working with you throughout the series. Something that maybe a lot of listeners don’t explicitly notice when they listen to our series, but if you go back and listen again, you can hear moments. You’re at Town Square in Southlake, you can hear the fountain going subtly in the background. You can hear tires on pavement as we’re approaching someone’s house.

There are all these moments of ambient scene-setting sound throughout the series that I would never think to capture or think about, even in a long-form magazine story. You don’t think about those things. There’s a richness that comes with having that kind of sound and content added in to make people feel like they’re there while they’re listening.

Lee: Mike, I want to talk about the initial seeds of this story. You were reporting on a completely different story, dealing with Allen West, [former] GOP Chairman in Texas, and you heard him say something about Southlake. When did you realize like, yo, this might be something much bigger than I was thinking?

Hixenbaugh: Yeah, for context, last September 2020, like almost every other journalist in the country, I was working on an election story before the presidential election. I live in the Houston suburbs and I had noticed this huge division among residents, as the 2020 election was becoming very much in Texas about suburban swing voters. And these places that were used to be primarily white, now they’ve grown so much more diverse and more progressive, and conservatives are pushing back against that.

I was working on a story about how those tensions were building in Texas suburbs, and I was on the phone with then-Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, just to see his sense of how this was playing out. I asked, “Is this strategy actually effective in Texas? Are people buying into this?” And that’s when he mentioned, “Well, I’ll give you an example: Southlake, Texas.” The way he framed it was like this town beat back this attempt by Black Lives Matter to take over the schools. That was one of the little alarm bells like, “I’m sure there’s more to the story than that. I’m interested in figuring out what that is.” So I took a note. 

When I finally came back to it, the local media, the Dallas Morning News and the local NBC affiliate in town had done great coverage following the issue. And I found that these parents had sued to stop this diversity plan and they’ve been successful.

Then I started watching some of the school board meeting videos. I used to cover local schools. When I went to school board meetings, week after week, it was boring. Nobody said anything, nothing happened. But at [Southlake’s] meetings, when I was watching, I was like, “Wow, people are fired up. They’re yelling and they’re intense. Let’s see where this is going.” 

Lee: Were there moments when you said this might not work? Like an obstacle or hurdle that almost seemed insurmountable?

Hixenbaugh: I think we really wanted to hear from everyone in this community. And we put out so many requests and made so many attempts to try to get those folks to talk to us, the Conservative Political Action Committee, the school board, the candidates who are running against the diversity plan, the parents who came to every board meeting to yell, the dad who made a conservative-leaning podcast to criticize us. We tried so many different ways to hear from these folks. A lot of our internal conversations dealt with those roadblocks. How do we get the voices in here in a way that represents what’s happening?

From the very beginning, we knew that we had enough, that the story was here. The main obstacle was figuring out how to put it together in a way where there’s a narrative arc to the story, where people are going to want to sit and listen to this contentious flight for five hours. And so finding the right pieces in the right order, it was a lot of work that came down to the wire. I can’t believe that we’re past it now, actually.

Hylton: I was grateful that I had such a big team behind this, because you just really wouldn’t have been able to do this with just one host or one person hosting this podcast remotely from their apartment. The logistics of it were made possible in a sort of unbelievably tight timeline, by the fact that everybody here really worked their butts off to get it all done.