While listening to a podcast or talk radio program, the work seems easy — record, press play. However, the path to a product that presents itself as effortless and easy to digest takes teams of people on the same page with the same goal. Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member Devin Mellor has spent the last six years as an essential behind-the-scenes staff member at National Public Radio’s New York City bureau.
“I don’t think I appreciated the amount of work that went into it until I was near it, until I worked here and realized like, ‘Oh, this takes a lot of time, a lot of revisions. Tracks and retracks,’” he said.
Mellor was promoted to associate project manager in July 2022, and he has worked on some of NPR’s well-known shows, including AltLatino, It’s Been a Minute and Planet Money. The position brings together his experience in office administration and stage productions as well as interest in history.
Listener to project manager
From a family full of creatives and artists, Mellor became interested in storytelling at a young age. The Toupin family descendant wrote his own characters and comic books and participated in theater in high school. His creative writing teacher saw his talents and imagination and introduced him to his first NPR show — the comedy-trivia program Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. Mellor was hooked.
“What I ended up doing was downloading episodes onto my iPod because this was 2005. Podcasts were sort of a very abstract thing at the time. So, I would download the episodes onto my iPod and listen to them during study hall, and that’s sort of how I got introduced to public media,” he said.
Mellor attended Skidmore College in Sarasota Springs, New York, double majoring in history and government with a minor in creative writing. He also spent a summer at American University as a part of the Washington Internship for Native Students Program in Washington, D.C., and took an Indian law class. After graduating in 2012, he began working as a clerk for a NYC law firm while considering attending law school.
At that time, some of his favorite NPR shows and other podcasts included Fresh Air with Terry Gross, This American Life with Ira Glass and Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.
“I knew pretty quickly (law) wasn’t (for me), but NPR content was really helping me get through the day and keeping me sane,” Mellor said. “And it was kind of one of those thoughts like, ‘Well, I have a background in office management and administration. Why don’t I see if they need admins?’ … I was able to interview with a former NPR employee who told me when we met, ‘Devin, don’t take this the wrong way, but you look and sound like you already work at NPR.’”
Now, he has worked on and pitched ideas for Planet Money, one of NPR’s successful economics podcasts, and helped produce a live stage adaptation of the Planet Money Buys a Superhero series in 2022.
“I can actually remember listening to my first Planet Money piece because it was an episode of This American Life. But I can remember very vividly where I was when I was listening to it, and being like, ‘Oh, this is fascinating,’” Mellor said.
He has also assisted with relaunches of Alt.Latino and It’s Been a Minute, a pop culture podcast focusing on Latinx community arts and music and a look back at weekly news, respectively. As an associate project manager, he appreciates the variety that each day brings.
“That’s been really interesting to see how the comms team, the marketing team, all of these different business-oriented departments within NPR function and how the project manager is really kind of the center of that web. A lot of times I’m responsible for translating the business speak into editorial speak and vice versa,” Mellor said.
Mellor admits that sometimes journalists prove difficult to manage because of their inclination to question almost any decision, but they remain on the same page throughout the process.
“The people who are here care about the product they’re making and care about the listeners. And of course, the mission is to make a high-quality product basically for free for people. It doesn’t get much better than that,” he said.
Genealogy from afar
With a deep interest in history, Mellor satisfies his desire to learn by researching his family’s stories. He is a descendant of Paul Toupin, and most of his Native ancestry comes through his mother’s matrilineal line. He is also of Irish and English descent.
Mellor considers himself fortunate that some of his relatives have done genealogical research, and the pandemic presented an opportunity for him to take a closer look. He realized all the pieces of his family’s history were there, but no one had put them together. Mellor began creating a book for his relatives in 2020.
“I was like, ‘Why don’t I try to consolidate all this into one family tree?’ And then I ended up with a sprawling tree that covered my living room floor. It was like, ‘Okay. Maybe family tree wasn’t the right way to represent all this information.’ And so what it’s become is kind of a … series of vignettes. Each family member has their own little chapter,” Mellor said.
He continues to work on the project today and finds the process rewarding. Compiling the book shined a light on “how interconnected all of humanity really is.”
“When you go back a few generations and you see, ‘Okay, this person had six kids, and all of those kids had kids of their own,’” Mellor said. “And suddenly, you look around and you’re like, ‘Oh, I might have a lot more cousins out there than I realized.’ And we should treat each other with kindness and consideration because you don’t know.”
His extensive history knowledge paired with the decades-old photographs of his ancestors made him consider the present in a new way. It reminded him that after an event passes, the historical references that follow are snapshots, not the entire picture. However, Mellor knows his family was complicated and loving and survived hardships and accomplished great things — generation by generation.
“I felt compelled to try to restore some of their humanity and think about, ‘Okay, these people we read about (were part of) a battle or a forced march or a famine.’ I felt compelled by the times in which we’re living — pandemic, civil unrest, climate change — to think about how we’re feeling all of these things. … They also lived these experiences. And what must that have felt like to them? How did it change them?” he said.
Mellor connects with his Potawatomi heritage while in New York by meeting with a Native employee group at NPR, attending CPN district meetings and visiting other Indigenous events in the NYC area. He also makes small pilgrimages, when possible, to visit cemeteries and find his ancestors’ graves in Illinois or anywhere else he finds connections to either side of his family. His desire to learn about this culture and ancestry deepens with age, even if he lives far from family sites.
“We’re all on our own journeys, right? It takes everyone different amounts of time, but I think we all get there eventually. I keep my ribbon shirt in my closet ready to go on a moment’s notice,” Mellor said.