Alumni Profile / 2008: Stephanie Foo: Story hunter

Stephanie Foo (photo by Bryan Derballa)
Stephanie Foo (photo by Bryan Derballa)

A couple years out of UC Santa Cruz, Stephanie Foo decided she wanted to work for the radio show This American Life.

She was a frustrated journalist working as a graphic designer and, in her own words, became obsessed with the show. So, the 2008 Stevenson College graduate with a degree in modern literature did what any self-respecting UC Santa Cruz student who'd lived through the 2005 bus strike would do: She hitchhiked to the world's biggest porn convention with a load of borrowed radio equipment, talked her way inside with a fake press pass, and began a podcast she called "Get Me On This American Life."

It worked.

Even though Foo claims her first pieces were awful, she sent them to UC Santa Cruz alumnus and Public Radio International host Jesse Thorn (Porter '03, American studies), who introduced Foo to Roman Mars of 99 Invisible podcast fame. A short internship later, Foo was a producer for the NPR show Snap Judgment, which brought her to the attention of Ira Glass of This American Life and a full-time job.

"It was sort of meteoric," Foo admitted recently, as she sat in her tiny Manhattan This American Life office, its walls spotted with radio show posters and the kinds of letters from prison inmates that journalists tend to get.

Foo's job as a radio producer takes her into lives she never imagined: A Japanese comedian who became the subject of a cruel reality TV show, a lowly government official who was picked to assume the presidency if all the attendees at the State of the Union address were suddenly wiped out, and a 60-year-old man with a fetish for Asian women and a 30-year-old wife from China.

"One of the things I care about is showing the world there are other perspectives," said Foo, 27. "I try to educate people to open themselves up to others and to different ideas, to make this a less binary world."

To that end, she spends her days scouring the Internet, scrolling Facebook, and striking up conversations in a search for stories. "It's keeping your eyes open all the time," she said.

It helps that Foo, who was on her own by the age of 15, has a streak of natural curiosity and a tough work ethic. She's often at her office until late into the night. She also has a strong sense of social justice, which, she said, was nurtured during her years at UC Santa Cruz.

While there are plenty of successes —This American Life has 3.6 million listeners—there's also a lot of failure inherent in the job, Foo said. Interviews fall through, stories come unraveled, pieces are rejected.

"I wasn't good at failure for a long time because it made me feel less-than," Foo said. "But since I've been here, I've come to embrace failure, and, every time it happens, I say, 'This is great. I just learned something today.'

"One of the things this job has done is given me the courage to fail."