Thursday, March 12, 2009

Boston Herald profiles the "How's Your News?" reporters

From the Boston Herald:

While juggling 16 phone lines at a state government agency, receptionist Susan Harrington doesn’t share her strong views on who’s sexier, Brad Pitt or George Clooney. But chances are that some callers already know the latest rankings.

Harrington, 42, is one of the hosts of “How’s Your News?” an edgy MTV “docu-comedy” that blends participatory journalism with celebrity interviews and road trip adventure. Traveling in a funky bus outfitted with beanbag chairs, bunkbeds and an anchor desk, the news team is comprised of gregarious individuals with different disabilities.

For the past 19 years, Harrington has anchored the front desk at the Department of Mental Retardation in Carver. Since the program debuted in February, she’s enjoyed being asked for her autograph on DMR training literature.

“I’ve definitely grown a lot more confident at my job,” Harrington says. “I’m not as touchy with some customers as I used to be, and I’m more patient now.”

MTV bills the Plymouth resident and friends as the most outrageous and inspiring reporters ever. The show’s concept evolved 10 years ago at Camp Jabberwocky on Martha’s Vineyard, where executive producer Arthur Bradford taught a video production class. A feature documentary followed, as well as opportunities for the core group to interview politicians at the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

“Sue has so much energy, drive and ambition that maybe it will make employers think, ‘Hey, maybe I’ve been underestimating people I could be hiring,’ ” says Bradford. “It’s all about inclusion and breaking down expectations.”

It’s also about the joy of being irreverent.

At a high school prom and the Kentucky Derby, Harrington flippantly rates women’s fashions on a scale of one to 10. Stunned actress Bo Derek graciously accepts her hat’s unflattering score of two. Harrington’s joking around, but her judgmental tone makes you remember that people with disabilities are immediately dismissed on looks all the time.

“A lot of M.O.S. (man on the street) and celebrity interviews seem to go by a predictable script,” adds Bradford. “But with our reporters, you never know what will happen.”

Another “How’s Your News” reporter is Bobby Bird, 55, of Rehoboth (pictured). Currently employed as a janitor, Bird has Down syndrome and communicates through a stream of sounds that only he seems to understand. Yet, he, too, conducts interviews - depending mainly on gestures, facial expressions and a handful of English words.

“When he was born, my parents were advised to lock him up in an institution and forget about him,” says Bird’s sister and caretaker, Debbie Bernier. “This show enlightens people. I don’t think many people realize how humorous a guy like Bobby can be. He’s also very persistent. He never gives up.

“I don’t think the people Bobby works for ever get to see that side of him,” she adds.

Over the past year, Bird has pumped fists with Black Eyed Peas singer on the red carpet of the Grammy Awards and embraced Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone at the world premiere of the latest “Rambo” movie. He also has outslurped the world oyster-eating champion in a modest six-shell contest.

“People with disabilities shouldn’t be marginalized the way they are,” insists Bradford. “We expect to see disability documentaries on PBS and HBO, but not so much on MTV. That’s why we’re so excited about this. The younger audiences need to be exposed to this.”