PR reporter Howard Berkes caps off his 38 year public media career with a rare foray into television journalism this week. On Tuesday night, January 22, PBS’ Frontline will air a documentary, “Coal’s Deadly Dust,” on the resurgence of black lung. The report pairs Berkes with filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon, who won an Emmy for her 2017 documentary short “Heroin(e).” Berkes, who turns 65 this month, has spent more time than most reporting on rural America. In his first 20 years with National Public Radio, he covered the interior West from his base in Salt Lake City. “I spent a lot of time driving ranch roads and mountain roads and doing stories about small towns and ranchers and cowboys and Native Americans,” he said. (NPR’s bio of Berkes has other career highlights, including his coverage of eight summer and winter Olympic Games and award winning stories on the Challenger space shuttle disaster.) NPR assigned him to a national rural beat around 2003. “I jumped at the opportunity,” Berkes said. From there he covered the role of rural voters in national elections, the impact of Hurricane Katrina on small communities beyond New Orleans, the disproportionately high death rate of U.S. military personnel from rural America, and more. When NPR restructured its beat system, Berkes continued to keep his focus on rural stories through investigative reports on worker safety. He’s broken major stories on mine safety, black lung, and grain bin suffocation. His Frontline report Tuesday night reveals how federal regulators for the past 20 years have failed to adequately regulate rock dust – or silica – even though it’s a culprit in causing deadly black lung. His radio reports aired on NPR in December. We talked to Berkes about what he discovered on the rural beat, how media cover rural communities, and how he moved into major investigative reports on worker safety. Berkes talked to us via phone from his home in Utah. The interview is edited for length and clarity.


Howard Berkes: “As I look back on my career, I’m grateful that I worked for a news organization that let me run all over the West and all over rural America.” (Elaine Sheldon/FRONTLINE)