From exposing the issues within the Alabama judiciary system to walking quirky pets in Siberia, Ashley Cleek’s career has taken her around the world as a freelance multimedia journalist. Ashley has made a name for herself on national airwaves, as well as major international news outlets, through perseverance and her curiosity about the world around her. Although she is bilingual in English and Russian, and has called India, Turkey, Siberia and Ukraine home, the Birmingham native is content to come back to her roots and continues to fall more in love with Alabama. Today, we’re thrilled to introduce you to her as our FACE of Birmingham.
What drew you to this career path?
I was originally drawn to radio, and I never thought I would be a journalist. My brother used to play these records by Alan Lomax, who does these blues recordings, and my favorite parts were always when the singers would be playing and make a mistake or tell a joke. I loved these little-bitty pieces of humanity, and that’s what drew me to radio. And I think curiosity made me a journalist. The more curious you get, the more questions you want to ask, and I think that’s how I became a journalist. For me, the real joy comes from interviewing people.
Tell us a bit about your professional journey.
I started making radio stories on my own when I lived in India. I knew that I wanted to do radio, but I didn’t know how to get in. It’s really hard to get that first break. So I went to this school called the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, for documentary, photo, writing and radio. That was where my radio instructor gave me the contact for a woman from PRI’s “The World” radio show out of Boston, and I pitched her a story and she took it. From there, I knew I had a foot, maybe more like a toenail, in the door, and I decided to move to Turkey and see if I could do it. I gave myself two months and had enough money for two months.
Why India and Turkey?
I applied for an ambassadorial scholarship through the Rotary Club of Birmingham, and they sent me to Hyderabad, India. It was in the dead center of the country. It’s very, very hot, and it’s really interesting culturally. I was getting my master’s in linguistics there, and that was where I met my husband and also where I figured out that I didn’t want to be an academic in linguistics — I just wanted to talk to people. And then, my husband and I moved to Turkey for a while, because he’s Iranian and it made sense at the time.
Where else have you traveled to cover stories?
I have been driving back and forth to South Alabama this whole past month, and I mean, the smell conjures these memories of my grandmother, and it’s just beautiful. We live in a beautiful state. I’m going to Kansas a lot for stories about education. Internationally, I’ve been to Novosibirsk in Siberia and Ukraine to cover stories, because I speak Russian.
Describe a typical day.
There’s no typical day. Typically, every day is atypical. Some days I watch Netflix on a Wednesday and then some weeks, like this week, I haven’t had a day off in 14 days. So every day can be so different.
Do you have a favorite story?
I think my favorite story is a story that I did for “Life of the Law,” which also ran in Slate, about this practice called judicial override in Alabama. I really wanted to understand how jurors felt about it. It’s where in a capital case, if a jury decides that someone is guilty, the jury can recommend life or death. But in Alabama, even if a jury unanimously says life, a judge can still say death. There have been a lot of studies on how capital juries can be emotionally exhausting and taxing. So I wanted to understand what it was like to make a decision after going through all that, and then possibly have it overturned.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I go hiking and running a lot. My go-to, if I need to just get out and see some green, is hiking Ruffner Mountain. But my favorite hike is in Noccalula Falls in Gadsden.
What do you love most about Birmingham?
I love so much about this city. There’s a general sense of kindness here, and people notice it when they come visit. The woman who runs the cash register at my Piggly Wiggly and I talk each time I visit. I’ve even seen the dog she wants to adopt from the Humane Society. That doesn’t happen in most cities. It’s really specific to Birmingham. I’ve lived in lots of places and that to me — these little personal relationships, whether it’s the woman at the Piggly Wiggly or the guy that works at the gas station by my house — is a really great thing about Birmingham.
Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?
Barbecue on the porch and then watch a movie.
What’s your favorite local restaurant?
If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?
I would tell myself to calm down. It’s going to be OK. Focus on what it is you really want to do, and if you don’t know what that is yet, give yourself some space to figure out what it is that you really love.
Do you have a mentor or role model?
Nancy Updike, who does a bunch of stuff with “This American Life,” is just hands-down my favorite woman in radio. She had this really good talk about how not to make your stories so mundane, and I try to take her advice as much as I can.
What is your must-have style staple?
A solid jacket. I think sometimes the situations I’m in are inherently uncomfortable, and I think a jacket or a sweater makes me feel like I have a layer of pseudo-toughness.
Any guilty pleasures?
Too many. Bourbon and a lot of Netflix.
What is your best piece of advice?
I think that especially for young journalists, the hardest thing is getting “in.” I say that as someone who still faces rejection all the time. I think the greatest piece of advice is to not take any of that personally, any of the rejection or the times that someone doesn’t respond to your email. You can’t, it’s too much. Just keep on. Believe in the stories you want to tell, and believe they are important. If one place doesn’t want them, another one will.
With the exception of faith, family and friends, what are the three things you can’t live without?
I can’t live without my passport. I can’t live without all of my journals and books; I keep them all from high school. I move them everywhere. They are the first thing I unpack when I move somewhere. They are home. They signify all the different aspects of my life, and I can’t live without them. And I really can’t live without headphones; I can’t do my job without them. Some good, solid headphones are like a warm sweater or a good jacket.
Thank you, Ashley! To read or listen to Ashley’s stories, visit The Atlantic, Marketplace, Public Radio International, Slate, Al Jazeera America, Life of the Law, Latino USA, WBHM and Weld for Birmingham.
And thank you to Laura Jett Walker of Jett Walker Photography for the terrific photos of Ashley at Lucy’s Coffee & Tea.
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