Tony Rehagen: Freelance Journalist as seen in Men’s Health, ESPN the Magazine, GQ & USA Today

Angela Tuell  00:05 Welcome to media in minutes. This is your host Angela Tuell. This podcast features in-depth interviews with those who report on the world around us. They share everything from their favorite stories to what happened behind the lens and give us a glimpse into their world. From our studio here at Communications Redefined, this is Media in Minutes. Today we are excited to welcome Tony Rehagen. Tony is a freelance journalist, musician and dad. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, ESPN, The Magazine, Popular Mechanics, GQ, Politico, USA Today, and Atlanta, Indianapolis and St. Louis monthly. He’s a graduate of the University of Missouri, a five-time finalist for the City and Regional Magazine Association Writer of the Year Award, and featured in the book Next Wave, America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists, Tony has interviewed astronauts, moonshiners, murders and sports legends. I’ve known him personally for 15 years, and couldn’t be more thrilled to have him on today. Hi, Tony. How are you? How are things in St. Louis?   Tony Rehagen  01:14 They’re doing well. Thanks. Yeah, it’s a super rainy day here. But after the super cold snap a couple of weeks ago, it’s been nice to kind of get out a little bit. But yeah, things are good. Can’t complain.   Angela Tuell  01:24 Good, spring coming, and hope is on the horizon, right?   Tony Rehagen  01:27 Amen to that.   Angela Tuell  01:28 So as I mentioned, you’ve interviewed a wide range of subjects over the years. Can you describe to us your style as a journalist, you know, what types of stories you like to write and what inspires and motivates you as a writer?   Tony Rehagen  01:41 Absolutely. You know, I mean, it’s, it’s the people. I would consider myself a generalist and as you kind of mentioned, I write about all kinds of different things. But the common factor is always the people at the center of it. I love you know, people that are kind of struggling against everyday things, talking to people that kind of just deal with things that are commonplace or kind of common problems that are exacerbated by circumstances. I just love to dig into their lives, and kind of see what’s at the heart because there are always many levels to different stories. And like, there’s the top level, which is what grabs you, like Katie’s a moonshiner, or hey, he’s, you know, a meth addict. Hey, you know, he’s a convict who has been released from prison after 23 years. But below that they’re human things that connect you to them, even if you have nothing in common with them on the surface. There’s always that common humanity at the base of it.   Angela Tuell  02:33 Yeah. And you’re so great at describing all of that to your readers. And I’m sure everyone’s intrigued by my mentioning moonshiners and murders. So, can you tell us a little bit more about those?   Tony Rehagen  02:44 Sure. Yeah. Well, it’s basically from working at City Regional magazines. First in Indianapolis, where we met, and then down in Atlanta, and then back up here in St. Louis. And then I’ve done some freelance for other publications. In the interim, you kind of you become a generalist, just kind of by the trade, because he’s the only writer on staff. We’re one of only two or three at most, right? You do all kinds of things. I’ve written about food, I’ve written about crime and everything. But you know, I’ve always kind of had the, I guess, adventuresome spirit, or ignorance, to kind of just dive into these other things. So yeah, I mean, especially when writing about crime. I mean, obviously, it’s almost the easy path because it’s natural drama. It’s something people are always going to be interested in. I mean, my wife, Erin, you know, stays up and watches, Forensic Files and all her murder shows all night, every night. I mean, people are fascinated by it. So when you dig into it, really, it kind of just piques the curiosity.   Angela Tuell  03:40 So what projects are you currently working on or have most recently completed?   Tony Rehagen  03:45 Now that I’m full-time freelance, it kind of all depends on what sells. And I’ve kind of latched on to it’s kind of weird, cuz I enjoy being a generalist. And I can be a generalist, but you have to do specific things for specific outlets. So I’ve caught a kind of gig with a lot of different outlets writing about beer, which is very tough research, but also caught on writing about science and technology. Some of the stuff I’ve done over the past year, I’m most proud of has been for Experience magazine, which is a publication that’s put out by Northeastern University up in Boston. And they do a lot of stuff about culture and technology. So I’ve gotten to write about this musician whose music is recording nature sounds. His name is Bernie Kraus. And basically, he’s kind of documenting the sound of global warming. He started recording nature sounds back in the 60s. And he said, you can go to specific places and hear nature disappearing because of climate change. Yeah, it’s fascinating. And then the other thing I’m doing right now is I’m doing a profile of Hatsune Miku, which is a Japanese virtual popstar who’s basically just an open source software that people like you or I could write music with software, send it in, and if they like it, she performs it and she even does concerts where she’s like a hologram. There’s no physical Hatsune Miku. She’s just a character that was on the cover of the box of the software that came out back in 2006. Like, she’s still 16. And she’s still kind of a Japanese pop star. But it’s amazing because it’s really open-source music. So it’s like, you could write a lot of stuff about that kind of stuff. So I’ve got to kind of gravitate towards art as it involves technology, which has been fascinating. I’ve kind of gone from the crime beat to the Arts and Technology beat. So it’s fascinating stuff.   Angela Tuell  05:33 Yes. This may be hard to pin down. But what has been your most memorable story to tell?   Tony Rehagen  05:40 I can pick a couple. And this is memorable from the experience of doing it. Because what’s cool about it is when in freelance, since I’m way more conscientious of my time, you know, way more conscious of how much an hour is going to cost me. I don’t get to dive in as deep on some stories, because the money’s not there to really do it. But when I was on staff at those magazines, I could spend entire weeks working on one story and still get my paycheck. What was a pittance of a paycheck, but it was, nonetheless, I had health benefits and whatnot, I wasn’t going to starve. And, I had Erin, you know, supporting my journalism habit, with her job. When I was in Indiana, I got to do a story about David Scott, who was a guy who had been sent to prison when he was 16 years old for the murder of an elderly woman in Terre Haute. It turned out DNA evidence exonerated him when he was in his 40s. So basically, he was released, at 42, having spent all of his life in the hardcore prison from 16 on. Thanks to his sisters who were kind of looking after him, they introduced me to him and got me integrated with him. I got to follow him. I went to bars with him, I went to stores with him and just kind of saw how you walk out of 30 years in prison into the world. And, you know, it turns out, it’s one of those things they can give you your freedom back, but they can’t give you your life back. And it took everything from him. I don’t want to get political but yeah, it was fascinating to watch it. Watch the vulnerability there, because he was still very much like a 16-year-old kid, there was very much a bunch of Arrested Development kind of thing going on there.   Angela Tuell  07:22 It had to be emotional to even cover.   Tony Rehagen  07:24 It was! There were moments when, you know, he would open up, and he was a super tough guy. So that was kind of the thing he built up this facade, this rough exterior to survive in prison. And so he got to the point where he kind of trusted me, but it’s the professional relationship you have with somebody, it’s hard for me to understand sometimes. It was very emotional. It was, it was, it was hard, because I felt sorry for him, but you wanted to see it with clear eyes. But fortunately, in a story like that, I mean, you know, it’s pretty clear to see where he’d been wronged. And it was pretty easy to make a sympathetic character. The other story that sticks with me was in Atlanta. These two older gentlemen lived up in the mountains of North Georgia, just straight out of the storybooks, where they were feuding over the property line between their properties out in a rural area. One guy shot the other like it was Hatfields and McCoys. It was crazy and I got to dig into that. I got to talk to one of them and the other deceased party’s family, and it was just fascinating. One was a moonshiner who did it on his land. The other one was a guns dealer. Just like those two stereotypes, but real people. It was interesting, just to kind of dig into that because that story had all kinds of different facets as I learned about surveying, I learned about law. I learned about moonshining and independent gun dealers. It was so colorful, and it was one of those stories you can really just dig your teeth into.   Angela Tuell  09:03 So what about your worst? And do you have a particularly difficult person you’ve covered or a story that didn’t go the way you planned? You don’t have to name names?   Tony Rehagen  09:10 Sure. There are several stories that didn’t go the way you wanted them to. A lot of them kind of deal with celebrities, like a story I did on Elio Castroneves who’s an Indy 500 driver. They know how to put up the walls to keep you out, then they have people who do that, too. So it was just some of those stories are kind of on the very surface level, they don’t really look beneath the surface. There was one story and I don’t want to get into specifics about it, but it was about a father and a son. There was something that I didn’t see there, you know, like, he tried to be in the moment, and I wrote about their relationship, but there was something deeper there that I kind of missed that I wish I could go back and do-over. You’re always going to have those things. They say that about all art. Nothing’s ever finished. It’s only abandoned, right? That’s very true with these stories, because in every story I’ve written, I have an ending, but they go on and so, there’s no ending to it.   Angela Tuell  10:10 And you’re probably always thinking about this.   Tony Rehagen  10:13 Always. Yeah, it’s hard. Once you get deep into these, it’s hard to pull yourself out to an end. It’s hard to kind of stop like with the sisters of the falsely accused man that I’ve talked about. They called me for 5 or 6 years and then we kind of grew apart, but it’s hard. You kind of get yourself invested.   Angela Tuell  10:38 So what story haven’t you gotten to tell? Or maybe one you were working on and just didn’t make it into print?   Tony Rehagen  10:45 Nothing specific. It’s interesting when you come up with story ideas. Sometimes there’s something that just jumps out at you that is a story. But then there are also times we kind of go searching for topics like the wrongfully accused man came out of me watching the movie The Shawshank Redemption. There’s a character in that movie, Brooks, the older man who was released from prison after so long, and he talks about how the world has kind of moved on without him, and I was like, I want to write about that. So I searched for somebody in Indiana that might pertain to that. And of course, it became its own story, because it was completely different with David than it was with Brooks. So you kind of look for topics like that. But I mean, in general, I don’t have any real whale that I’m chasing, so to speak, and am just kind of open to what comes to me. There’s one baseball player I wanted to write about who plays here in St. Louis, Carlos Martinez, who would be a fascinating story, but it’s not the same story. It wouldn’t have been when I wanted to write it a couple of years ago.   Angela Tuell  11:46 You mentioned about finding a story. How do you typically find your stories?   Tony Rehagen  11:50 It’s a little bit of everything. Sometimes there’s a topic that I go to look for, you know, like I said, with David Scott, where I kind of scan stuff, and there’s times you’re just you’re reading the newspaper. A lot of times, I found this out in the freelance game, is stories beget other stories. You get into something like the Bernie Krause story I was talking about with the musician who’s studying climate change. It came from a story I wrote in Indianapolis Monthly, which was about Stuart Hyatt, who is another musician who did different things. If you have your antenna up there, just kind of all around you. Grab onto it.   Angela Tuell  12:51 Who do you personally like to read and follow?   Tony Rehagen  12:53 It’s interesting at this stage of the game. It’s true after 20 years in the business, it’s really gotten to the point and I’m not trying to embarrass them, but some of my good friends are the people that are going to become people that you must read. I mean, I kind of know a lot of people in the business, it’s kind of a small world. All of my friends are coming out with books that I have to read. I mean, there are books I want to read, but I have to read their books. Like Ben Montgomery, who writes a lot of great historical books. Seth Wickersham, Justin Heckert and Wright Thompson, are all personal friends, dear friends of mine. Outside of that, I love David Grann who writes for The New Yorker and has written some great books. Tom Junod who has written for Esquire, GQ, Paige Williams, who writes for The New Yorker, Pamela Colloff who writes crime for Pro Publica and she writes for the New York Times Magazine, too. She used to work for Texas Monthly. There are so many.   Angela Tuell  13:57 You could go on and on. It’s like an acceptance speech.   Tony Rehagen  14:01 Exactly, exactly.   Angela Tuell  14:03 The last year has been interesting, to say the least. Have you had to adapt and pivot your writing?   Tony Rehagen  14:09 I have. Yeah, absolutely. Especially as a freelancer, not on staff being able to with shrinking budgets. Freelancers actually work better for a lot of publications. Travel has been kind of, you know, getting less and less because it’s an expense. You learn how to kind of adapt. So it was kind of going that way anyway, just like a lot of things were, but now the Zoom interview is the thing, right? I’m only now just starting to get out into the world to do my old-school reporting. I’m just starting to do that. I’ve also pivoted a little bit to, some corporate communications to fit the bill a little bit to kind of supplement the journalism habit, but you learn to watch more videos and to rely more on phone conversations to compensate for the lack of in-person. People, especially for the last year, didn’t want to be around anybody strange. You learn how to kind of dig into things and use different things, but it’s a good tool that you should be using anyway.   Angela Tuell  15:14 Adding more tools to our toolbox. Right?   Tony Rehagen  15:16 Exactly. Yeah. Now that I’ll be able to go back out into the world, I’ll have all these other things too, like using more YouTube videos using more recordings, and things like that.   Angela Tuell  15:28 So let’s talk beer. You’ve covered the craft beer boom through the years and maybe enjoyed a few along the way.   Tony Rehagen  15:37 Yes, I’m actually putting together my taxes now. And it’s a wonderful thing to be able to write off part of your expenses!   Angela Tuell  15:45 In your opinion, what city has the best beer scene? And what’s your favorite brewery?   Tony Rehagen  15:50 Well, it’s been really tough. Because that’s been the thing I missed the most over the past year is that I kind of traveled to do that. Fortunately, right before the pandemic hit, I was in San Francisco and had some great beer. When I got back, the second week of March, it was locked down. That was when they first found the first cases of COVID, right in Alameda just north of there. Who knows what I was around? But yeah, I haven’t been able to go to other cities as much. St. Louis has a very good craft beer scene, I will say very underrated because it’s been in the shadow of Anheuser Busch. Indianapolis had a great one. It’s really hard, let me think. What’s interesting about the business in the past year is that I’ve made it kind of my goal to explore more St. Louis breweries, obviously, that’s what I’ve got to work with. I’ve spent so much time on online ordering stuff, which is fantastic.   Angela Tuell  16:48 It’s hard to pick one right? Do you have a few actual beers that have stood out?   Tony Rehagen  16:56 There are several styles that really stand out. I’m a big fan of the hazy IPAs, which are the double dry hop that was more of the fruit flavor coming forward. Narrow Gauge here in Florissant, Missouri, which is just north of St. Louis is a great place for that. I like a good boozy stout, even though they’re kind of going out of Vogue for people who want to kind of reduce their alcohol intake. Perennial Artisan Ales here does a lot of good stuff. Upland in Bloomington, Indiana is a great place and they’ve done a lot of great stuff. Speaking of Indiana, it was one of the first craft breweries that I got introduced to, and I’m still a huge fan of what those guys do there. I’d be remiss to not mention Denver. Denver is a great beer town. A little over two years ago, Erin and I got to go to Portland and Seattle, and both places are fantastic for craft beer.   Angela Tuell  17:47 I love wheats and I can’t find those very much. Have those gone out as well?   Tony Rehagen  17:52 They’re coming back because people want to be able to drink a little more functionally. The 7% has become the new 5%, like a Budweiser or a Bud Light. No more than 5% alcohol, which means your basic IPA is going to be 7 to 8% alcohol. Now you’re getting into 13 to 15%. So people, millennials especially, don’t want to drink so much alcohol. One, it’s not good for you, and two, it’s alcohol, more sugar more everything right? It’s gonna put on weight. And they’re more health conscientious. So wheats will be coming back, especially fruity wheats.   Angela Tuell  18:38 Those are my favorites!   Tony Rehagen  18:40 Those have been coming back in a big way because they’re more palatable. They’re just easier and the things that the big brewers aren’t doing very well, you know?   Angela Tuell  18:49 Right, right. That’s good news.   Tony Rehagen  18:51 Yeah, absolutely.   Angela Tuell  18:52 You’ve been known to have a dance party or two at the Waffle House with the two cutest girls I’ve ever seen this. You have to fill us in.   Tony Rehagen  19:02 It’s crazy. I worked at Atlanta magazine for about five or six years. Where we lived in Atlanta, there was a Waffle House everywhere. There is literally a place where you can sit in the Waffle House and see another Waffle House across the interstate. Really, they’re everywhere. And they’re awesome. They’re just great places to go, especially with young kids because there’s not a lot of expectation of decorum. We went off hours. So it’s like you go three o’clock in the afternoon or six, and there’s nobody. We have one here in O’Fallon, which is a neighboring town here outside of St. Louis that we go to, but it’s really just super laid back and the staff there is great. It’s weird how cultures kind of pervade everywhere. No matter what Waffle House you walk into, it’s the same and they all have this awesome jukebox, which includes unique waffle house music. We were just there and the girls wanted to do something. So we put some money in the jukebox and then my youngest, Josephine, just gets up and dances and tries to get everyone else to dance. That’s something we’ve missed a lot during the pandemic, but we still get carry-out from Waffle House. Both of the girls were born in Georgia. They’re Georgia girls, they say, even though their memory of that is probably fading quickly. They always remember Waffle House and that’s kind of our touchstone.   Angela Tuell  20:25 Have you posted those videos on Twitter, we’re going to tell everyone how to find you on Twitter at the end.   Tony Rehagen  20:29 Not on Twitter, but I should and in fact, I always think the businessman in me is missing a huge marketing opportunity because the Waffle House is totally done. That’s the other cool thing is when I was working in Atlanta, I got to write about Waffle House quite a bit. And they are the most media savvy, they totally get it. They totally know what their brand is. They totally know that people are like, you go to Waffle House at two o’clock and get shot. And they’re like, we don’t want people to get shot. But we’re going to own the fact that it’s a little sketchy. And they own that. They’re just like, hey, we’re Waffle House. That’s what I love about them because they’re just really savvy about it. So yeah, I probably missed opportunities to advertise it on Twitter. So maybe I’ll have to post those up there and see if I can make some extra money that way.   Angela Tuell  21:11 Definitely. And before we go, we have to talk about another talent of yours, music. Some of our favorite memories. My husband, Brian, and I, with you and your wife, Erin, were on weekend nights at a Broad Ripple bar in Indianapolis where you were performing. Has music always been a passion?   Tony Rehagen  21:28 It has predated the journalism bug by far. I’d say I’m a failed musician.   Angela Tuell  21:35 I wouldn’t say failed, because you’re amazing.   Tony Rehagen  21:37 Well. It’s crazy. Because my two talents are writing and music, which is extremely hard to make a living. I’ve been able to turn writing into a career so thank God for that. I performed on Facebook during the pandemic, because I got a captive audience. My mom plays this huge pipe organ in the Catholic Church back in St. Elizabeth, Missouri, where I grew up in population 300, down in Central Missouri, and I grew up singing in the choir. And so, music has always been a part of my life. My mom’s always fostered that in me. And so, I taught myself how to play guitar playing in bands. Since I was like, 15, my dad had to drive me to my gigs.   Angela Tuell  22:33 Are you still in a band now?   Tony Rehagen  22:34 I’m not now. It’s like having three girlfriends at the same time. With all the egos and everything in the business and stuff. Music is weird in that when you’re doing it full time, you don’t have the money to buy the good equipment, right? And when you’re working and can afford the equipment you don’t have time to play music. So now I can buy all these cool toys that I would have killed for when I was like 17 and 18. But you know, I only get to play every now and again. And so it’s a little bit sad.   Angela Tuell  23:04 That is sad. Will you play just a little bit for us? Can I convince you?   Tony Rehagen  23:07 Yeah, let me see, I keep a guitar next to my computer, but it’s not my good guitar, which kind of kept for humidity purposes somewhere else.   Angela Tuell  24:28 Oh, it was wonderful, Tony. I miss those days. I’ll keep listening on Facebook Live for now. Thank you so much for joining us today. It was fun to talk with you. Tell Erin and the girls we said hi!   Tony Rehagen  24:49 Absolutely, thanks for having me. Say hi to Brian and the family.   Angela Tuell  24:54 You can find Tony on Twitter and Instagram or at TonyRehagen.com. That’s all for this episode of Media in Minutes, a podcast by Communications Redefined available anywhere you get your podcasts, you can find more at CommunicationsRedefined.com/podcast. I’m your host Angela Tuell. Talk to you next time!

On this episode of Media in Minutes, we welcome freelance journalist Tony Rehagen. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, ESPN the Magazine, Popular Mechanics, GQ, Politico, USA Today, and Atlanta, Indianapolis and St. Louis Monthly. Tony’s interviewed astronauts, moonshiners, murderers and sports legends. He tells us about his most memorable interviews and shares a special talent with us. 

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