Opinion

Audio Astra: A morbid playlist of otherwise unrelated audio stories

November 26, 2021 3:33 am
A new book examines the 1981 collapse of the Hyatt Regency Hotel's suspended walkways, which killed 114 people in Kansas City, Mo. The image shows the third floor walkway and remaining steel rods of the failed second and fourth floor skywalks. (Lee Lowery Jr. via Wikimedia Commons)

A new book examines the 1981 collapse of the Hyatt Regency Hotel’s suspended walkways, which killed 114 people in Kansas City, Mo. This image shows the third floor walkway and remaining steel rods of the failed second and fourth floor skywalks. (Lee Lowery Jr. via Wikimedia Commons)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

This week, three podcasts tackle a single topic in very different ways. The theme? How to investigate the cause of death.

Some of these deaths happened more than 150 years ago, while one podcast investigates an ongoing wave of death rising each year. And the victims range from 19th century travelers lured in by a psychic to wide swaths of the 21st century America.

As my journalism professor said long ago, there is nothing more newsworthy than one person causing the death of another. In that way, each of these episodes is significant for the vital, if sometimes lurid, details we learn.

Buried Truths and the Hyatt Regency Skywalks

Kansas Reflector Podcast, Nov. 22, 2021

Rick Serrano, a former reporter for the Kansas City Star, discusses his book about the Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse in 1981. The book includes insights from volumes of depositions that Serrano read and 240 interviews with people who were involved in the catastrophe.

With four decades having passed since the disaster that killed 114 people, the slew of bureaucratic and building mistakes are news to many in 2021. Faulty building inspections, overwhelmed contractors and a mishmash of design plans gone wrong led to the most deadly structural collapse — not caused by terrorism — in American history.

Serrano, who has since reported from both American coasts, describes how the Star’s reporting at the time revealed that Kansas City building inspectors weren’t doing their jobs. Reporters tailed the inspectors who ignored their daily jobs and falsified records while visiting pool halls, bars and their homes when they claimed to be working.

What’s missing from the interview are some of the victims’ and survivors’ stories. With more than 200 people injured in the collapse and given Serrano’s scores of interviews, I wondered how the collapse steered lives in unexpected ways. Because so many of the victims were middle-aged when they died (the collapse happened during a popular, frequent jazz event), many families lived on without mothers and fathers — or lived with parents or spouses who were gravely injured. Hearing some of those stories via the podcast would have displayed more of Serrano’s research.

Serrano also explains how Hallmark Cards, the company that owned the building, paid out claims to victims to settle civil lawsuits before their court dates and more quickly compensate families. Serrano persuasively argues that this approach stunted the healing that would have occurred through public testimony and limited people’s understanding of what exactly happened during that disastrous moment that echoes in Kansas City still. 

Pandemic spike of drug overdoses in America includes Kansas and Missouri

Up to Date, Nov. 21, 2021

Guest Sarah Evans, manager of International Harm Reduction Development for Open Society Foundations, and host Steve Kraske first detail the most recent chapter in America’s opioid epidemic, including a 24 percent rise in overdose deaths in Kansas during 2020. The trend has accelerated nationwide as well during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The episode then pivots to finding “harm reduction services” — most of them political long shots for Kansas politicians who, Evans notes, will not sanction programs that provide care to someone still using drugs. Nevertheless, Evans suggests three routes to stemming overdose deaths. One mitigation, naloxone, is a medical antidote that reverses the effects of an overdose and acts as a “Lazarus” drug by resuscitating would-be overdose victims. 

Evans also endorses methadone treatment, an intervention that does not require people to be abstinent from drugs to reduce their intake of drugs. The website for the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services lists the benefits of methadone treatment, saying, “Using commonly accepted criteria for medical interventions, several studies have also shown that MMT is extremely cost-effective.” 

The final preventative option? Some treatment centers abroad allow for the use of drugs under medical supervision to prevent overdoses. While naloxone and methadone have at least some traction in each state, medically supervised drug use is not legal in the United States. However, Evans says scientific literature suggests it makes medical and policy sense. 

Swinging back to political reality in 2021, Evans acknowledges that legislators in the United States generally demand that drug users are abstinent from drugs to receive public assistance. That naïveté on behalf of lawmakers — that we should wait until a drug user is clean before offering help — will result in increasing overdose totals each year, Evans says. 

Owner of Bloody Benders’ land searching for clues in Kansas serial killings

Up To Date, Nov. 19, 2021

‘Tis the holiday season for discovering family secrets around the dinner table: the inside story of your aunt and uncle’s divorce, the reason grandpa sold the family business or the dark past of a distant cousin. 

So it was for me this week listening to the Up to Date podcast, where I learned a haunting story from Kansas’ past. 

Max McCoy recently wrote in the Kansas Reflector about the Bloody Benders. If you are like me, you didn’t know about the notorious Benders, who are alleged to have murdered at least 11 people in a scheme that blended the supernatural, blunt force trauma and the Osage Trail. 

Why bring up the murderous Bender family now? Bob Miller recently purchased the land where the Bloody Benders lived and likely killed. He explains during the interview how he hopes to enlist academic experts to unearth clues about how this family murdered travelers — and then got away with it.

Just like an inflated family tale (“Did great uncle Josiah really wrestle a moose each Thanksgiving?”), McCoy wonders out loud about whether the now mythic story of the Bloody Benders could be “ruined” by the truth.

“I do want to know from a journalistic perspective what happened to the Benders,” McCoy says. “But there is some intrigue to not knowing what happened. That keeps the story moving. That keeps new generations of people in Kansas interested. The fact that we don’t know what happened to the Benders is so integral to popular culture in Kansas. I’m not saying I don’t want to know. But I’m afraid it might diminish interest in this story a bit. On the other hand, it would be good to know what happened to this mass murdering family. I’ll take fact over folklore every time, but I would miss the folklore over time.”

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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