Gigi Douban, news director of Public Radio WBHM 90.3, leads a team that is dedicated to bringing the highest journalistic integrity to Birmingham listeners. When she’s not unearthing compelling stories and news, she might be travelling to Egypt, bird-watching, catching a live show or indulging in one of her guilty pleasures, a PB&J on Wonder Bread. We are delighted to welcome today’s FACE of Birmingham, the engaging, hilarious and sharp Gigi Douban!
What drew you to this career path?
Writing and journalism have always been that one constant thing I’ve always had to do. As a kid, I’d write bad poetry about clouds or sappy homemade cards for my parents on their birthdays — bonus points if they would get all misty-eyed! Later I wrote for the college paper, and I worked at the school radio station. That was when I fell in love with journalism. It was writing plus adrenaline. It was never boring. I got to learn a little bit about a lot of different things. I got to talk with people. I was hooked.
Tell us a bit about your professional journey.
I started out as a freelancer here in Birmingham doing odd articles here and there. It was very slow going, and I took a long break. Finally, I decided to apply for a reporter’s job at The Birmingham News (now AL.com). Turns out they had a job open, but not a reporting position. They called me, and brought me around to the managing editor’s office. At the time, that was Carol Nunnelley, who is now a founder of the Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism. And after we talked for a while, she asked me, “What is it you really want to do here?” I really wanted to be a reporter, and it was almost as if she knew that. Years later, I’m still grateful for that conversation! I didn’t take the copy editor’s job, but two months later, I put in for a job reporting on the metro desk, and as luck would have it, someone had just given his two weeks’ notice. I got the job, and the rest is pretty much history.
Describe your typical day.
I usually wake up around 6 a.m. I’ll scan the headlines, make some tea, get my son off to school, head to the office and catch up on emails. From there, the news staff and I might discuss what stories we need to be covering, or I’ll start editing stories already under way. I love my job, because there’s so much variety, and that keeps it exciting.
Is there a certain topic or topics that you are drawn toward?
Good investigative journalism, stories where we are doing our jobs as journalists: watching those in power and giving voice to those whom society often overlooks. We aren’t in the advocacy business, but we are in the truth-telling business. That takes time and resources and commitment, but it’s what makes our work the most meaningful and compelling.
Where have you traveled to cover stories?
All around Alabama and Egypt. Odd mix, huh? A lot of times I get story ideas while I’m traveling. Maybe it’s just that feeling of being relaxed and unplugged? A reporter’s wheels are always turning. We are curious people by nature. So, once, on the way up to Asheville, North Carolina, I noticed a lot of gas stations with restaurants. When I got back, I ended up doing a story for NPR on gas station eateries. There are some out there serving really good food!
What makes WBHM stand out?
We are an independent media organization. In the current media landscape, that’s invaluable. And part of our mission is to serve the community. We do a number of community outreach programs. For instance, we work with high school students to produce radio commentaries, and we host events around town where we have open, thoughtful conversations about issues that affect us all. We do the stories that have impact, stories that make you feel a little bit smarter, stories that take you to a place you ordinarily might not have gone, stories that make it hard to turn off your radio. The driveway moment struggle is real! We also have a tremendous community of listeners who support us, and who truly value the work we do.
Do you have a mentor or role model, and if so, why do you admire them or what have they taught you?
Tanya Ott, vice-president of radio at Georgia Public Broadcasting. When I started out in public radio, she was news director here at WBHM. Tanya is the ultimate leader. She’s confident, smart and friendly. She’s a professional, and she also takes time to teach those who want to learn public radio. Plus, she is a monster at juggling multiple projects, and she’s a fantastic mom. I am still in awe.
What inspires you?
People who persist, people who don’t give up the first time they’re told, “No.” People who push themselves outside of their comfort zone. It’s good to get uncomfortable every now and then!
What do you do when you’re not working?
Walk, preferably in the woods. I love birding. I used to be a big runner, and I still like to run. But lately I’ve been more into just taking mind-clearing walks. My husband and I walk a lot. If I’m by myself, sometimes I’ll catch up on podcasts or just listen to music. My husband and I love to go see live shows. We also love cooking.
What do you love most about Birmingham?
What I love most is that the people are great. Being from New York, I used to wonder why people kept chatting in the checkout line at the grocery store. Now I strike up conversations with strangers all the time. I love it. Birmingham has a way of drawing you in. It’s that kind of charming and unassuming place that works its magic on you without even realizing what hit you.
What are your three must-have style staples?
Ankle boots, a good purse with nice little compartments and my vest, or as some might put it, a coat without arms! Since I’ve lived in Birmingham so long, I’ve become a total wimp when it comes to cold weather.
Any guilty pleasures?
Straight-up peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread. What more does one need? Oh, and the TV show “Girls” — a bunch of angsty, whiny, self-absorbed 20-somethings? What could go wrong?
What’s something people might be surprised to know about you?
I can sing, and I’m also fluent in Arabic. My parents, proud little immigrants that they were, would brag about my singing skills and have me perform in front of family and friends. It was the worst. Singing in front of hundreds of people up on stage at school for the talent show or a school play? No problem. Awkward, small-group “living room sessions” as we’ll call them? Awful. But it gets better: My parents had me sing at a few of their friends’ kids’ weddings. So for a while, I became this bilingual teen wedding singer sensation. Those were strange times.
What is your best piece of advice?
Don’t overthink things. Sometimes when I’m stuck on something, like a script I’m having trouble writing, there’s some underlying fear that it won’t be good enough. But I’ve learned to relax and think to myself, “It ain’t that deep.”
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things you can’t live without.
Burt’s Bees lip crayon, curly hair styling products and my panini press
Thank you, Gigi! To learn more about Public Radio WBHM 90.3/WSGN 91.5 FM or to listen to their live stream, visit news.wbhm.org.