Local journalist Stephanie O’Neill is a multi-faceted reporter with a vast resume of experience in professional radio, print and television. She’s currently the Health Care Correspondent for Southern California Public Radio.
“One of my other reporters described her as the only extrovert in public radio,” said Gisele Grayson, the senior producer on NPR’s Science Desk. O’Neill works as a health policy fellow for her along with 17 other reporters. “Reporters tend to be grumpy about the world, and kind of cynical, and Steph has this magical quality of being open and an extrovert.”
O’Neill began her career at the age of 16 in the San Francisco area. Knowing she wanted to pursue journalism, she signed up for a class in high school, but only three people enrolled and the class was cancelled.
She then had the opportunity to participate in a Regional Occupation Program which got students internships with local businesses, including the Contra Costa Times. Other students went into the sales department; she went into the newsroom.
She said her time there exposed her to “real life experiences, including swearing and drinking,” but mostly, learning about journalism.
“I loved nothing more than being in a newsroom and reporting and writing,” she said.
Her first story involved interviewing Sammy Hagar, who was at one time the lead singer for Van Halen.
“Meeting Sammy Hagar as a kid was amazing,” O’Neill said. “Having that experience with him helped me when I interviewed all sorts of other people – governors, senators – I realized that they’re just people, so I didn’t get intimidated by them.”
During her senior year of high school, she was able to work at the newspaper for half credit. She continued her education at Diablo Valley College and then transferred to UC Berkeley. There she took her first and only journalism class, taught by an experienced journalist, Bill Drummond. He became her mentor and the two keep contact regularly.
“She worked really hard,” Drummond said. “She was always in the front of the pack.”
After observing her talents in class, he recruited her to contribute to a radio program called “Silicon Valley,” which highlighted some of the innovations coming out of that area before it became the technological giant it is today.
“I was continually surprised because she hadn’t even graduated yet,” he said. “She’s really interested in getting the story right and getting everything correct and doing it according to the book.”
O’Neill said that not many schools had journalism majors during that time, so her editors and mentors advised her to get a degree in something she enjoyed. She decided to major in political science because she thought she would become a political reporter.
She moved to Sacramento and worked for the LA Times. As an intern, she was getting page 3 and page 1 bylines.
She then decided to go into broadcasting. She worked for a new radio show, CalNET, which had five reporters covering the entire state of California. After funding for the show dried up, she decided to go freelance and started her website, radiotvprint.com.
Then came a time when journalism was changing, and being unsure about the future of journalism, she decided to go to law school and get her law degree. After that, she worked for the California Report for two years and then worked for TV for 10 years.
Now she’s focusing on her favorite platform: radio.
“I adore radio,” she said. “There’s this immediacy and intimacy in public radio especially. When I can get out there and actually get sound that helps me tell the story, and tell it with the sound and with the people … it’s really fun for me to do. Every step of it I love.”
In her current job, she’s a “one-woman shop.” She’s responsible for coming up with story ideas, finding sources, calling them, setting up interviews, doing the interviews, logging the tape, and producing the story.
She even records her script in a makeshift studio – her closet.
O’Neill had no experience in covering healthcare before she got her current job, but with her law degree, she was very interested in the legal aspect of the Affordable Care Act.
“It’s an exciting topic to cover, because you as a reporter, could potentially effect policy by either highlight problems in the system or successes in the system, how it does work how it doesn’t work, and people are actually listening,” she said. “None of us were actually interested in health insurance before this, but now a lot of people are talking about it.”
O’Neill has won multiple awards for her reporting. In 2013, she won both first and second place for investigative reporting for stories she did for KPCC.
“I cannot imagine a better job than being a reporter,” O’Neill said. “Every single day you’re learning something new. You meet the most interesting people. You get to be a witness to history.”