Carolina Conversations with WRAL’s Tar Heel Traveler Scott Mason

by Thad Mumau | Photography by Diana Matthews

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Scott Mason is a household name in this state. His wonderful, heartwarming segments of the Tar Heel Traveler have entertained and informed viewers of WRAL TV for decades.

Telling the stories of everyday people, the Emmy Award-winning journalist packs an amazing amount of information into two and a half minutes. And he puts an equally amazing amount of work into each piece.

ONC: Did you always want to work in television?
SM: I always knew what I wanted to do, even as a little boy. I loved to write. I don’t know where that came from-my parents aren’t writers – but I often wrote short stories and poems when I was young. In fact, a national kids’ magazine published a fictional story of mine when I was a young teenager. It was about a rusty safe that had been jammed shut, and no one knew what was inside.

I was born in Raleigh, but when I was 2 years old, my parents moved to Massachusetts; my dad’s company transferred him. We lived in a house that had a detached garage, and after school I’d throw tennis balls against it and pretend I was the play-by-play announcer. I think I was born with both a love of storytelling and broadcasting. One night when I was about 10, I was watching TV in my parents’ bedroom as they dressed for a party. I remember this distinctly. The news was on, and I sat watching a Charles Kuralt piece. Kuralt wandered the country for CBS News, telling human-interest stories. When the segment ended, I pointed to the TV and said, “I wanna do what he does.” My parents laughed and probably didn’t think much about it. But I did. I wanted to be Charles Kuralt.
What about your family, hobbies and interests?
I have been married almost 25 years to my wife, Nina, whom I met on a blind date. We have three children, daughters Lane, 22, and Genie,18, and son, Scout, 13. Scout plays competitive ice hockey, and so did my daughters at one time. I play, too, once a week in an adult league. I also regularly play tennis.

My main hobby is writing. I had always dabbled in short stories and poems, but I truly found my voice when I began writing my first Tar Heel Traveler book. I had so much fun recalling my many journeys on the road, remembering the amusing stories behind the stories, and then putting it all on paper. I have since written a second Tar Heel Traveler book and am hard at work on a third. I earned an MFA degree in creative nonfiction last spring from Queens University of Charlotte.

I enjoy reading as well, or rather, listening. I constantly listen to audio books. Someday, I’d like to be an audio book reader.

Who inspired you?

Charles Kuralt. I believe he was television’s greatest storyteller, a gifted writer with a terrific voice.
Sonny Jurgensen, the former quarterback of the Washington Redskins. I’ve always been a big Redskins fan, in large part because my dad graduated from the University of Virginia and Mom grew up in Richmond, and the Redskins were their “home team.” To me, Jurgensen seemed humble, never the flashy type, and yet he was a terrific leader.

He wore number nine, and because of that, nine has always been my favorite number.
I also kept posters of Arthur Ashe on my walls as a kid. I cheered when he won Wimbledon in 1975, the underdog who beat Jimmy Connors .
I also admire Robert E. Lee, who I’m related to by way of the name Carter, which is my middle name. I graduated from the college Lee presided over after the Civil War. Lee seemed to be a true gentleman who embodied honor and decency.

How did the Tar Heel Traveler come about?
WRAL first launched the Tar Heel Traveler more than 30 years ago. Bill Leslie, who today anchors our morning and noon newscasts, was once the Tar Heel Traveler. Other people were, too. But then the series drifted away.

One of the station’s producers back then eventually rose to become WRAL’s general manager. He’d never forgotten the old series and decided to resurrect it. Fortunately, he picked me to be the series host, and we debuted in September 2007. Today, the Tar Heel Traveler airs Monday-Thursday at 5:55 p.m., and all our stories are posted on wral.com-just look for the Tar Heel Traveler toward the bottom of the home page. You can also find the stories on TheTarHeelTraveler.com, along with information about my two Tar Heel Traveler books. The segments are wonderful endorsements of the idea that everybody has a story, and every place, too.

Has that been your credo all along?
I remember a story Charles Kuralt used to tell about flying over New York City one night, lights glittering out of the darkness below. It was a beautiful sight, and Kuralt and his colleague peered out the window and told each other how many wonderful stories there must be down there just waiting to be told. “A thousand stories,” the colleague said. “Millions!” Kuralt exclaimed. A short time later, Kuralt convinced CBS to send him on the road to tell those stories of people and places across America.

In a way, that’s what I do, too, but on a smaller scale. I wander within the borders of North Carolina. And, yes, every place and everyone does have a story, but the challenge is finding those that are most compelling.

It is endearing that you have made the little guy and the small town mighty big, and in a way, remind us that should be the way we think. Do you agree?
I love a small town, enjoy eating good food at a local diner and soaking up the laid-back atmosphere. People in small towns seem to love their towns. They don’t seem to mind working hard, and there’s an honesty and sincerity to them that can sometimes be tough to find in a big city. In small towns, people generally seem happy and content, friendly and warm, and those are traits all of us should envy.

Can you explain the process of what goes into producing a segment of Tar Heel Traveler?
Each Tar Heel Traveler story is about two and a half minutes long . . . and requires at least 10 hours to produce. In general, it takes two hours to shoot a story, four hours for me to log the interviews and write the script and four hours for the photographer to edit it. Then of course there’s the time it takes traveling to and from all those stories.

We usually work in advance. We’ll assemble a particular story at least a day before it airs so we have time to tweak and perfect it. Shooting the story is actually the easiest part of the process. As a reporter, I must bring that story to life on the page and the photographer must bring it to life on the screen.

What if, for example, the interviews are not interesting?
There are times when people may have a good story to tell, but are awkward in the way they relate it on camera. In those instances, I work around the problem, using only their best sound and paraphrasing the rest. Editing can also be a useful tool. We’re able to cut the “Ahhs” and “Umms” and stutters and stammers, making interviews more concise and easier to follow.

What do you particularly like about what you do?
I enjoy the creativity. It is gratifying to mold and shape each story from beginning to end. To start with nothing and finish with something impactful is a terrific feeling.

You bring joy to so many folks. What does that mean to you personally?
It’s great to give people a little “gift,” a story that means something and which may last in their memory. I enjoy making people happy and feel blessed to tell stories that often have the ability to inspire.

Have some of those you interviewed grown into close friends?
I have kept in touch with many people I’ve profiled over the years. I value their friendship and will always remember their stories, for their stories were often inspirational and made a great impact on me. I think they’ve made me a better person.

Do you have a couple of favorite stories?
We are now in our ninth Tar Heel Traveler season. Every day I work with the same photographer, a talented pro named Robert Meikle. Robert and I have visited all 100 North Carolina counties, and we’ve aired more than 1,500 Tar Heel Traveler stories.

I remember each story, I really do. People often ask me which is my favorite, and I usually kid them and say my favorite is the next one.
But ironically, the one that may stand out most is the very first Tar Heel Traveler story we ever shot, the first one. That was in 2007, about a man named Marty from Chapel Hill who was born without arms. He drove a big blue van with his feet, and when he stopped and started up his chainsaw and began cutting a tree, I was amazed. Marty inspired us and taught us lessons about seeing people for who they are.

Are there times when stories do not work out at all as you had planned?
I am happy to say we have never abandoned a story, even though a story may not have unfolded the way we had planned. But you learn through experience to improvise and adjust and to make stories work even when they don’t want to work.

I recently arrived at what I thought would be a simple story, but my main contact had gathered eight other people for me to interview. I wondered how I was going to fit all those interviews into a segment only two and a half minutes long. What’s more, the people were not doing anything of particular interest, so there was almost no video for us to shoot. Out of courtesy, I interviewed each person and later wove short punchy snippets of their conversation into the story. We shot as much of them at their workplace as we could, which wasn’t much, but fortunately their office was somewhat colorful and included blinking lights, electronic gadgets and colorful signs.

In the end, it all came together. We used quick edits and short pieces of sound to keep the story moving. I was also careful to strike the appropriate tone when writing the story, keeping it playful and fun while also delivering the necessary information. What seemed like disaster at the beginning turned out to be a memorable piece. In fact, the anchorman himself sought me out after it aired to tell me how much he enjoyed it. Boy, I thought, if only he knew.

You combine skills as an interviewer, writer, editor and producer. Does using all those skills make your job more interesting?
Those skills are all part of the creative process, and each requires experience and know-how, but also a certain sensitivity and care. I never want my stories to be formulaic, so I ask questions that perhaps my subjects have not heard before. I avoid clichés and “news speak” when writing my stories; I want the writing to be conversational. I don’t want the story to be predictable. I enjoy stories with layers-viewers might think it’s about one thing when it’s actually about something else.

Would you say you have the perfect job?
People often ask me when I’m going to retire. They say they want to take my place! Or they say, “Can I tag along? Ride in the back seat? Help you carry the gear, visit all those little towns, meet all those friendly people? Eat some good meals, too? Gee,” they say, “I’d sure love your job. Let me know when you need a break.”

They see the Tar Heel Traveler stories on TV and tell me how much they enjoy them. But what they don’t see is the light still burning at 2 a.m. in my home office. There I am, hunched over my laptop, listening to interviews and writing notes while my family sleeps upstairs. And the work never ends because there’s always another story, day after day, week after week, year after year.

The job is demanding. The stories do not develop on their own; each one requires thoughtful care. Each assignment requires planning and organization. The photographer and I are a two-man team; it’s just us, and that’s it. We’re responsible for every aspect: choosing the stories, setting them up, shooting them, writing them, assembling them and responding to calls, letters and emails that come in each day.

Despite the demands, I do believe I was called to tell these types of stories on TV, feature stories, those about people and places. They’re the stories I love, have always loved, and which the Tar Heel Traveler allows me to do. I look out the window and think, a million stories! It is the perfect job for me.