Shooting the Breeze
Travel Stories from the Road
Mike Stevens and I met a few years ago when I interviewed him for a newspaper feature story I was working on. Our interview at WNEP-TV was an exciting moment for two reasons. I’d watched Mike for years interview interesting people from all walks of life as he did what comes naturally to him. He loves to “shoot the breeze.” He’s also such an unpretentious, easy-going person. The podcast episode was my second interview with Mike Stevens. Scroll down to read the digital version of our podcast episode.
Mike Stevens Shooting the Breeze is an entertaining and enlightening journey into broadcast journalism with Mike Stevens, a well-known Pennsylvania journalist.
Joan: My guest today is a fellow journalist whom I admire and respect for many reasons. He’s best known as the host of “On the Pennsylvania Road,” a long-running segment on WNEP-TV. He’s also an author, educator, and storyteller and he also shares my love for interviewing people from all walks of life.
Mike Stevens Shooting the Breeze and Sharing Stories from the Pennsylvania road.
Welcome, Mike Stevens.
And thank you for meeting me today a Keystone College. How are you, Mike?
Mike: Well, I’m good. I’m good, Joan. I’m kind of retired and sort of working on different things here and there and you know, it’s fun to get together and shoot the breeze.
Joan: For my listeners who don’t know you I would say you are the ideal person to share your experiences as an itinerant traveler, and that’s what I’d like to do today.
Joan: Also, I’d like you to tell me about your life now and what you’re doing. What are you working on?
Mike: Oh, well, I’m doing a podcast occasionally for “16” and I do a blog so I try to write every week or so when I have the opportunity and something strikes my fancy. and that’s about it. I’m thinking about going for a ride somewhere pretty soon. And that’s about it so far and goofing off most of the time.
Joan: When you were the host of on the road how many towns throughout the state do you estimate you visited?
Mike: Oh, you know, I’ve never given that number any thought because I don’t think I could come up with a reasonable answer. I was doing this since 1978. I started the Pennsylvania road pieces.
I came into the office one day and the news director said we want you to go out and do this thing called On the Pennsylvania Road. And I said, okay, but what is it I’m supposed to do? He said, “Well, we don’t know for sure because it’s a new thing but we want you to do it three times a week. So here I am stuck looking for stories and I literally went door-to-door looking for stories that I could tell that would fit the situation.
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Joan: Didn’t they give you any guidelines? I mean, they didn’t tell you that you’re going to the Harrisburg area one day and then you’ll be in the Philadelphia area. What was your region or did they just sort of throw you out there?
Mike: That was basically it. It was Northeastern and Central PA, which was our coverage area and it still is although I haven’t checked for a long time. They said you know go out and do your thing and we’ll look for the first story in a couple of weeks. And so that’s what I did. I went out and traveled around from town to town. You know you go to diner somewhere in some town.
Joan: So you just walked into and a diner or wherever – a supermarket.
Mike: And then you just sit around, and you listen and after a while, you get the hang for it. You get an idea of what you’re looking for and which person in that crowd might fit into that story. You kind of zero in on them and listen a little bit and see where they’re going. You can tell if the person has that kind of laid-back personality that you can work with and have some fun with. And if they do something really neat, that’s good, too.
Joan: Was it the opportunity to travel or the opportunity to meet interesting people who told interesting stories that initially interested you?
Mike: I think it was a little bit of both but I think it had more to do with the individuals involved. This is a fascinating world I think and we don’t get a look at most of it. We see what’s on the news.
We look at the politicians and we look at the town officials and so forth, but I’ve always felt that what really drives America, what really makes America tick, Pennsylvania included, are the people who live on the back roads. They’re the people who go to work every day – seven days a week sometimes. They raise their families to the best of their ability. They live to whatever comfort level they can get to in the world and they’re decent people.
If you call them up at two o’clock in the morning and say I’m stuck down in a ditch at the bottom of your hill, well, the guy will come out and he might not like it but he’ll do it and come down and help you pull your vehicle out of whatever mud hole you’ve managed to get it into. Even though it is two o’clock in the morning and he’s got to go to work the next day. I think those are the kinds of people that make America great.
It’s not the people who lead our country, so to speak. It’s the average John Q. Citizen who’s really the backbone of our country and those are the people that I have been privileged to meet. And I say privileged because a lot of them were really one and done. You know I’d go in and meet them and talk to them and be fascinated by their abilities and their travels and their attitudes and their personalities. Then I’d move on to the next individual who kind of fit the same mold. I was privileged to meet individuals who would open up about what they did and we would sit and just shoot the breeze. That’s what we did. No interview per se, we’d just sit and talk and I’d tell the guy or girl forget the camera. He (the camera-man) is not here. He doesn’t work with me anymore. They would take sometimes two or three minutes to get into the interview but eventually, they’d forget the photographer behind me and we would just sit and shoot the breeze. In there somewhere is the nut of the story.
Joan: What did you typically interview about? Was it anything that came into your mind at the moment or was there a purpose to the interviews? Was there always a reason?
Mike: No, other than the fact that you generally needed the interview but you didn’t need the whole interview. You needed three or four seconds here and 10 to 15 seconds there. That’s what you needed. And when we got them both a photographer and I knew that we were done. It wasn’t going to get any better than that. We had this guy locked in. His sound was in there. So let’s just say the individual was doing something to I don’t want to write, you know get that miscarried but
If the individual were doing something, we would then go and have them do it. And then they might say something while we’re shooting the story. But if they didn’t that was alright, too. Most of them would forget that the camera was there and they would just shoot the breeze. And so would I. We would talk about this and talk about that and in there somewhere is another sound bite that you know is going to fit. And after you’ve done this for several years you kind of get the idea.
That’s how we set up a story. There were very few times that we actually did an interview like we’re doing here – one-on-one. It was more like well, let’s sit down and talk and let’s see if something happens…
Joan: And you knew, right then, the direction you were going?
Mike: Yeah, we knew the guy or girl did something. We knew people who did crocheting and you know painting and all kinds of things.
Joan: So would you call yourself a traveling journalist?
Mike: Well, it’s a good title and I like that title. I’ve never used the title before but I guess so. I would go into a town and we’d record individuals and essentially make it into a journal. Although we called it “On the Pennsylvania Road,” it was really a journal of everyday life with individuals who had some unique talent. And some didn’t have a unique talent. Some were just fun to be with.
The very first story we did was a guy who told me he could forecast the weather by the number of times a cricket chirped per minute. So we sat on his front porch and those were the days when we were shooting film and the film was very expensive. I mean, relatively speaking. So the photographer is loaded up, and he’s rolling, and I said how do you do this weather forecasting thing? It was a dumb, dumb question. I never should have asked it. He said, well, I just count the chirps of the cricket.
He said, for example, there’s one underneath the porch that’s chirped 14 times in the last minute. He said, watch, he’ll do it again. Let’s listen. So we’re sitting there while the photographer’s running through the film, at some unimaginable rate and my whole life is passing before me. The guy says at the end of a minute, okay, that cricket chirped 14 times in the last minute. Now, how he knew that I don’t know because, in the summertime, there were a thousand crickets underneath the porch, but I said to the guy, so what does that mean? What do you get out of that? And he said well, it’s going to rain tomorrow night. And I said, well, how do you know that? He said well, I don’t know for sure but it’s happened often enough Gotta be some truth to it. He was just a fun guy to be with and that’s the way that very first story kind of set the groundwork for all the other stories that came after. It was whatever suited our fancy. Whatever I found that I thought was interesting and those are the kinds of people I’ve dealt with throughout my career.
Joan: What are a few of the places you visited that you would recommend to people – since this is about travel and you’ve obviously been to a lot of different towns and cities? Where would you recommend travelers go to find Pennsylvania at its finest?
Mike: New Hope…That’s a good spot. There’s a lot of arts and crafts and there are a lot of good people who do their thing every day. I like Sullivan County for getting around. I like scenic shots. I do some photography and Sullivan County has a lot of scenery. You know, Bradford County is a good one. We took one of my favorite drives, Route 6…
Joan: Yes, we’re definitely going to discuss that (route)…
Mike: Yes, we took that one. You wind up out in Ohio actually, eventually, but you get on the way out there you get to Erie.
Joan: So you really did go a distance. So you really weren’t in only in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Mike: A lot of Pennsylvania – let me put it that way. We didn’t do the big cities. We never bothered with the big cities because they didn’t attract us. The small towns like the one that has the Jimmy Stewart Museum. I don’t remember the town but there is a Jimmy Stewart Museum. Don’t put me on the spot.
Joan: I know you’ve been to a lot of places and it’s obviously difficult to remember (all the places you’ve been).
Mike: I must tell you this though that we found all these stories by simply researching it. So if you really want to see what Pennsylvania is like you can do the research and the materials are out there. There’s the Zippo lighter company out in Bradford, (County). It’s a very interesting company.
Joan: I’ve never heard of the Zippo Factory. So this is great. I’m learning a lot.
Mike: Yeah, they make the Zippo lighters. You may not be familiar with them, but they had a closed top.
Joan: I remember you flipped them.
Mike: There was a little wheel on it with a flint and that was long before the Bic lighters came along. But yeah, they made them out there and they made the commemorative cigarette lighters. And there was a museum that you could tour and go around and see what they had and learn how long they had been around.
Up in that area, too, there’s oil a lot of oil exploration, which is another part of history. But again, these are all things that we found just by looking. The Slinky Factory…
Joan: That one I’ve heard of.
Mike: Yeah, and an interesting place with a lot of history there. I think that’s what drew us to these things, too, because they had such a great background and everybody could relate to them. See, you know, Slinky.
Mike: You know the Zippo lighter.
Joan: Now I do.
Mike: But those were all things that are in Pennsylvania. You know, and they’re all out there. All you have to do is look for them and then go visit them. That’s where we were coming from.
Joan: Many people travel for business purposes. Yours is sort of a mix of business and you also enjoyed it. It was really a mix of… and some obviously do it for leisure vacations. Breaking out of our region, and staying in the region and learning everything Pennsylvania offers is obviously beneficial. What would you say are some of the benefits of taking a journey into unknown territory or uncharted territory?
Mike: Because there is always a surprise at the end. It may not be the kind of surprise that you want. But there will be a surprise of some kind.
Joan: And excuse me for one minute. I don’t mean only in our state. I’m talking about regionally and nationally. What are the benefits of doing that – of breaking out?
Mike: Oh, yeah, I agree with it a hundred percent. There are a lot of things you can learn about an area. Let’s say Pennsylvania. There are a lot of things you can learn about Pennsylvania as I did by doing the research going into the published pieces that come out. But if you go by yourself or with your family, and you take a ride out to I don’t know, Oil City, (for example) and you look around there, there’s no telling what you’re going to find and that surprised us. That’s what made us keep going because the predictable was always there. We knew that. What made it really, really interesting was what you came across and that’s what made the trip intriguing. Now if you have two or three kids, that’s another ballgame.
Joan: That’s another kettle of fish.
Mike: Yeah, you might need to plan a trip differently. But if you’re there with your wife or husband and you’re out traveling around, you’re saying well gee, let’s go down that road for a while. Where does it go? Well, I don’t know, but it looks like it’s going to go someplace. So why don’t we take that road and see what happens?
Joan: I do that, but you know my kids do not enjoy it in the least.
Mike: Well, no, they won’t appreciate it until later on. But with me, that was always our key. When we had time we could do it. We would go on a road somewhere that looked interesting. It looked interesting. So that to me is the best part – the surprise.
Joan: And there always is a surprise. It doesn’t matter where you go.
Mike: No, and again it may be something you don’t like.
Joan: It may not always be a very good surprise.
Mike: No, but it’s going to be the kind of thing that will keep people entertained around the dinner table.
Joan: Yes, (I agree). Give us an overview…give my listeners an overview of some of the areas and what they can expect to find as tourists in Pennsylvania, and also the people who live in the state who may not know as much about it as they should. Give them some ideas of what they’ll find in the different regions.
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Mike: Okay. Well to the best of my ability, I’ve forgotten a lot of them. In Williamsport, there’s the Riverboat, of course. South on the Susquehanna (River), and I can’t remember the name of the town but there is a ferry boat that goes across one side to the other. I think it takes two cars, maybe three and their people, and it chugs along out through the Susquehanna from one side to the other. It’s on a map. You’ve got to look for it on the map. The guy who used to be the captain of that, a guy by the name of Jack Dillman, went on to become the captain of a ferry boat down in Harrisburg, which you could also travel on. And while you’re in Harrisburg you should take a look at the state capitol building.
Joan: Yes, that is a splendid architectural (gem).
Mike: An extraordinary accomplishment…Then on the way back up you come up on the easterly side of the Susquehanna because you’ve already seen the Westerly side and you drive up that way to get into Schuylkill County and just a whole bunch of little towns on the way up. I don’t have favorites, per se, because I try not to pick favorites. I think that’s a good thing because it rules everybody else out. But, you know, we travel through a town and you inevitably find something that was amusing or entertaining or just you know, a museum in Pottsville, where they keep cars – old cars. Those kinds of things. And so up in the Northeastern section maple syrup making is starting. Yes. In fact, it’s already started. I tried tracking a guy down the other day in the Moscow area who was making 250 gallons of sap. He had boiled on a Saturday afternoon and I wanted to go up and see that but I couldn’t find him.
Joan: Are you writing articles about this or are you doing any live broadcast work right now? You mentioned the maple syrup. Is this work-related?
Mike: Well, it’s kind of a mix. I’m trying to develop my own little system that I can use my own just for the fun of it and I do some things for 16. As far as a podcast or a blog, you know, it’s all like just fool with it and see if something works. I’ve gotten through life doing that and so you say to yourself, well, gee, maybe that’ll work. Maybe it won’t.
Joan: Much like we’re doing right now.
Mike: Yeah, we’re seeing how this works. We don’t know how it’s going to work. We’re going to sit here and shoot the breeze and talk about things and see how it goes. And that’s basically what I’m doing.
Joan: I would also like my listeners to know that this is not our first interview – that I interviewed you a couple of years ago. We both love to talk. And so this is a great opportunity.
Mike: Well, you were working in newspapers at the time.
Mike: And yes, and that’s another thing that I lament. I must say, you know, there’s a lot of newspapers that have gone bankrupt across the country because of the internet and digital and I really find that to be sad. Now, locally, we’ve got a couple that are still doing okay and I hope that continues. I really do because you don’t find out about the pancake suppers all the time from the big metro papers. You got to go to these little places and find what’s going on in town. That’s where you find it, you know, and for the local newspaper, that’s the treasure. They really are.
Joan: There’s something about opening a book or opening a newspaper and reading it that you don’t get from digital publications. I’m not obviously putting them down but there’s just something (about them). Maybe it’s because we grew up with newspapers that we appreciate them so much, so much more. Well, one of the questions that I want to talk to you about is during our conversation about a week ago, you mentioned a trip you’d like to take. Where would you like to venture? Tell me more about the cross-country trek – what you’d like to see.
Mike: I’d like to do on the Pennsylvania Road in every state where Route 6 travels through. And Route 6, for those of you who are not close to the area, Route 6 goes east to west or west to east depending on how you look at it, but it goes coast to coast.
Joan: Where does it actually begin, if that’s not a ridiculous question? I have no idea where it begins, but I know where it ends.
Mike: Yeah, well it begins in the Atlantic Ocean.
Joan: Ok, so it was sort of a silly question.
Mike: Well, no, because it varies. It used to go coast-to-coast, specifically, but then what I found out is, California changed its highway numbering system several decades ago. And so that kind of cut off Route 6 before it hit the water in California. You can still go that route, per se, but I want to do what I’ve done in Pennsylvania all across the country. I just think when you go on an interstate, you have one intent in mind. That’s to get from point A to point B as fast as humanly possible and that the speed limit…
Joan: And avoid any kind of traffic or jams.
Mike: Yeah, but my goal on traveling Route 6 is to just travel it. The signs are easy to follow. I have a GPS in my vehicle, you know, which will take me from one point to the next and it’s what you find along the way. Charlie Bennett’s old fishing lure store or something.
Joan: Now when you do this, are you going to stop and talk to everyone or talk to certain people? Or is it more of a visual journey? Or do you anticipate you’ll actually do interviews, maybe not for a particular publication, but would you say that you’re going to do interviews or you just want to talk to people?
Mike: It’s a little bit of both. It depends on what actually develops. But again, it’s wanting to see America and not from the view of an interstate, where everything is bypassed at 75 miles an hour or more if you can get away with it.
Joan: Some places, right?
Mike: Yes, but I want to take Route 6 where the speed limit sometimes goes down to 35 miles an hour. Oh my goodness, we’ll never get there. That’s the point. Who cares? You can drive all the way across and if you see something, a covered bridge… There’s one out on Route 6 in Bradford County off to the right-hand side of the road. (It’s a) Beautiful covered bridge. I shot three dozen pictures there one afternoon just for the fun of it. But that’s the kind of stuff you find – the fairgrounds out in Bradford County. If they’re having a fair, you stop at the fair. Say hello. How are you doing? Shoot the breeze for a while and see what happens. Maybe you’ll run across the 800-pound pig or something.
That’s the way to see America in my mind. And that’s my goal. That’s my bucket list goal I think – one of my bucket list things.
Joan: Is to be able to see all of America east to west on Route 6?
Joan: Do you have any idea when you might do this and is your wife ready for this, also?
Mike: Well, she’s kind of on the edge with it but I thought we’d warm up a little bit by going up to the New England coast on Route 6. Just to see what happens.
Joan: Say, “Honey, this is Route 6.”
Mike: Yeah, we’re going to go from here to I don’t know, Butte Montana, on Route 6. I don’t know where we’re going. But I think that to me is something I really want to do.
Joan: Well on that note, it has been an absolute pleasure interviewing you again, and I really appreciate that you’ve joined me at Keystone today. I want to give Keystone a huge thank you for allowing me to do this podcast in their recording studio.
Mike: It’s a nice Studio.
Joan: It is a wonderful studio and very comfortable. Yeah, and so again, thank you.
Mike: You’re welcome.
Joan: Best wishes with your trek across the country.
Mike: Thanks, Joan.
Joan: You’re welcome.
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