When veteran radio producer Dave Isay started StoryCorps in 2003, three of the five people on his staff were graduates of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland.

The nonprofit organization has gone on to record tens of thousands of interviews with people across the country, pieces of American oral history preserved by the U.S. Library of Congress and broadcast to millions of listeners weekly on National Public Radio, with Salt graduates continuing to play a major role.

“Salt has been a real one-of-a-kind program, churning out radio folks. It’s been a feeder for our staff,” said Isay. “There are some great journalism schools, but there’s probably no place with a better bang for the buck than Salt.”

Salt was created by English teacher Pam Wood as a Kennebunk High class in 1973 but evolved into a one-semester certificate program for college graduates. Its small size – about 10-25 students per semester over the past decade – belies the large impact its graduates have made on the national media landscape.

Emily Kwong, host of NPR science podcast Short Wave, says at Salt, she learned “to be accountable to a community even if that community is one person.” Photo by Farrah Skeiky/NPR

Salt grads have founded magazines, made films and written books. They’ve worked as reporters, photographers, editors, podcasters and audio engineers, including at The New York Times and National Public Radio.

“It’s where I learned how to tell stories and be accountable to the community, even if the community is only one person,” said Emily Kwong, 33, who attended Salt in 2013 and hosts the NPR science podcast Short Wave. “When I tell peers I went to Salt, their eyes pop out.”


Salt nearly ended in 2015 when management announced it would have to close because of dwindling enrollment and a lack of consistent funding. But passionate alumni from the around the country and here in Maine lobbied to try to keep it alive. Eventually, Salt was saved and became part of the larger Maine College of Art and Design on Congress Street in Portland, beginning in 2017.

In its earlier days, Salt offered programs in writing and photography but now offers 15-week graduate certificate programs in either short film or radio production and podcasting. The tuition is around $12,000.

Salt is hosting a 50th anniversary celebration next weekend, with a reunion for alumni and some public events. On Friday night, there will be a pop-up gallery and shop at Maine College of Art and Design’s 49 Oak Gallery, featuring Salt poster and magazine cover designs from the past, as well as copies of Salt books and magazines for purchase. On Saturday, there will be a Salt Showcase of film, audio, photography and other work by program graduates, at Space on Congress Street.

Here is a look at the paths of a few Salt alumni, how they were impacted by the program and where it led them.

Local alumni of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies pose for a portrait at Maine College of Art and Design’s 49 Oak Gallery in Portland, which will soon display posters and magazines to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Salt. From left: Aubrey Calaway (2022), Galen Koch (2014) Emma Joyce (2010), Rachel Hurn (2008), Whit Richardson (2004), Mira Ptacin (2003) and Herb Baum (1973). Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Timothy Rhys, 1982, founder of MovieMaker Magazine

Rhys, who was born in Bangor and graduated from Bucksport High, was a journalism major at the University of Maine when he heard about Salt. He became a fan of the school’s Salt magazine, full of interesting stories and photos of Maine people. He wanted to learn how to put out a magazine, but until he heard about Salt, didn’t know there was a place so nearby where he might do that.


He worked on an in-depth story about Portland’s Italian community, interviewing older immigrants who barely spoke English. He studied photography, traveling to Boston to shoot people on the streets there, and learned to develop film.

His Salt experience led to two magazine jobs in Maine, working as an editor at Maine Life and at Farmstead. After working at Farmstead for a few years, he decided to go to Hollywood to try to write screenplays and ended up at Vancouver Film School in Canada.

After film school, offers from film producers weren’t exactly streaming in. With two young kids and needing to make a living, he decided to combine his experience and passion – magazine production and movies – and started MovieMaker magazine in 1993.

Timothy Rhys, left, with actor Olivia Wilde. Rhys, who attended Salt in 1982, founded MovieMaker magazine. Photo courtesy of Tim Rhys

Rhys went from interviewing farmers in Maine to interviewing some of his favorite actors and filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Rod Steiger and Martin Scorsese. Rhys moved back to Maine in the late 1990s and ran the national magazine from an office on Exchange Street for a few years, but it was mostly based in Los Angeles. He sold MovieMaker a few years ago after running it for about 27 years.

Rhys has also produced and directed independent films through his company, Vagabond Pictures. He lives in Manchester, Vermont, where he runs a bookstore.

“Of all my influences, (Salt founder) Pam Wood is up there. No matter how much producing or directing I do, I think of myself as a journalist,” said Rhys, 60.


Krista Mahr, 2001, senior international editor for New York Times Opinion

After getting a bachelor’s degree in literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1998, Mahr moved to New York and worked in publishing. The California native said she really wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life, though, until seeing an in-depth story in the New York Times magazine about Sudanese refugees that happened to be written by Portland journalist Sara Corbett.

She then started looking online, using search terms like “documentary journalism,” and found Salt. While at Salt, she worked on reporting and writing about Maine’s Cambodian community, and its efforts to locate a temple. She said her instructors at Salt, and that project, taught her the importance of really listening to people.

Krista Mahr has traveled the world as a reporter since her time at Salt in 2001. She’s now an editor for the New York Times opinion section. Photo courtesy of Krista Mahr

“I really learned how to interview people and how to really listen, to not be in a rush to get what I thought I needed out of  the conversation,” said Mahr, 47, who is based in Washington, D.C. “It was a real lightbulb moment for me.”

After Salt, Mahr went to the University of California at Berkley for graduate school in journalism. Since then she’s reported for publications around the world, including in Hong Kong, Cambodia and South Africa. She spent several years as a writer for Time magazine and also did reporting abroad for National Public Radio, the Washington Post and the Reuters news service.

She said learning to sit back and listen to the people she was reporting on has helped her in some dramatic moments, including covering the aftermath of an earthquake in Japan, or people dealing with violence and social trauma in places like South Africa and Afghanistan. She was also a reporter for Politico in Washington, D.C. before joining the New York Times opinion section this year.


“I loved Salt so much. I feel like the program has such an outsized impact. You’ll meet somebody just randomly and find out they’ve done it, too,” said Mahr.

Mira Ptacin, 2003, author

Ptacin was finishing up her degree in anthropology at Western Michigan University when a professor showed her one of Salt’s recruiting posters, featuring Salt students’ photos and sent to colleges around the country. She said the key words for her on the poster were “storytelling” and “real people.” She hadn’t really thought about writing as a career, but had studied for a while in Mongolia and was fascinated with the people and their stories.

At Salt she spent a lot of time with a family that ran a funeral home in South Portland for a story she was writing. She tried hard to win their trust and ended up going along when a body had to be picked up. She said she learned about the compassion needed to run that business.

“The instructors at Salt helped me understand that you can be curious and want to tell stories with passion or empathy, and that this is a totally legitimate career and we’re going to help you get there,” said Ptacin, 43, who lives on Peaks Island.

Mira Ptacin, of Peaks Island, has worked as a writing teacher and became an author since her time at Salt in 2003. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

After Salt, she went to Sarah Lawrence College in New York to get a master’s degree in creative nonfiction writing. She moved back to Maine in 2011 and got a job teaching at Salt. She’s published two nonfiction books, contributed work to other books and worked as a ghostwriter.


Her 2016 book “Poor Your Soul” is a memoir “about the uterus and the American Dream,” focusing on her unplanned pregnancy at age 28 and the diagnosis that her baby would not survive outside the womb. It also weaves in her mother’s immigration from Poland, also at age 28, and her experience with motherhood and tragedy.

Her 2019 book “The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums and Legends of Camp Etna” revolves around the story of a camp near Bangor that has hosted generations of spiritualists since the 1870s. She’s working on a book called “All That You Have Is Not All Yours,” about living on Peaks Island and people’s sense of community.

Emily Kwong, 2013, host of National Public Radio’s Short Wave podcast

As first a reporter and now host of NPR’s Short Wave science podcast, Kwong says her main job is to take science “out of academia and make it accessible.” The first time she did that in a meaningful way was at Salt, when she did an audio story on longtime Maine newspaper reporter Doug Harlow, based at the Morning Sentinel’s Skowhegan office.

Harlow’s vocal chords were removed in 2005 after a throat cancer diagnosis, and his larynx was removed eight years later. He was given an electrolarynx, a battery-powered device he could hold to his throat to speak. He continued working as a reporter, calling people for stories while enduring hang-ups because of his robotic-sounding voice.

Kwong, 33, spent time in her audio documentary explaining how the electrolarynx works and how Harlow played it like an instrument. While spending time with Harlow for her story, she learned a lot about reporting and how to get people to open up about their daily lives. Despite his electronic voice, Harlow could do that.


“Just watching him work, Doug taught me so much. He would work the phones with such warmth and light,” Kwong said of Harlow, who died in 2019 at age 70. “I owe Salt and Doug everything.”

Emily Kwong, who attended Salt in 2013, is host of the NPR science podcast Short Wave. Photo by Katherine Rose/KCAW

Kwong, a Connecticut native, had gotten a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and human rights from Columbia University in New York City before attending Salt. She said she was considering grad school but thought she couldn’t afford it and wasn’t sure she wanted to make the time commitment. But Salt, for one semester and about $8,000 at the time, was the perfect middle ground.

After Salt she had internships and entry-level radio jobs before working for four years as a reporter and host at KCAW, a non-commercial community radio station in Sitka, Alaska. She then began working at NPR and in 2019 became a reporter on the network’s flagship science podcast, Short Wave. She’s been the podcast’s host, based in Washington, D.C., since 2021.

“Our society is so polarized, with people struggling to understand each other,” said Kwong. “Salt’s whole mission is about understanding people.”

Jenny McGee, gallery manager at Maine College of Art and Design’s 49 Oak gallery, holds a stack of Salt magazines. The gallery will soon display posters and magazines to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


1973 – Pam Wood’s high school English class at Kennebunk High starts Salt


1974 – Salt magazine #1 comes out

1978 – Salt becomes an independent organization

1984 – The program expands to college students

1989 – Salt moves to Portland, on Pine Street

1990 – The program expands to college graduates

2000 – Name officially becomes Salt Institute for Documentary Studies


2001 – Documentary radio introduced as course of study

2015 – Salt announces it will close

2017 – Salt becomes part of Maine College of Art in Portland.

SOURCE: Salt Institute for Documentary Studies

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