Best Public Information Officer 2020 | Jennifer Liewer | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

You may not realize it, but much of the news you hear starts with a PIO. These are the bureaucrats and assistants of elected officials who are paid to try to answer the annoying questions of reporters without pissing off their government bosses, the public, or both. It's a delicate balance that Jennifer Liewer of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office has handled well for many years. Her résumé is a tour of state government, with experience in Phoenix, Glendale, the Arizona Supreme Court, the Department of Education, Tempe Union High School District, and now the MCAO. Liewer seems to genuinely care about keeping the public informed, takes pains to return a message, and can make a reporter feel like she's trying her best when the info spigot shuts off. The latter point is important in her current job in the highly political prosecutor's office, where sooner or later, the bad stuff hits the fan. If Allister Adel survives her challenge in the general election and retains Liewer, the public can be confident they're getting the most information they can from the office.

If you see a state official promoting the Holy Ghost, who you gonna call? The Secular Coalition for Arizona, that's who. This freethinking organization celebrated its 10th anniversary in the state this year, and many Arizonans are glad to have it. The group protects the rights not just of nonbelievers, but of all Arizonans who don't think public money, resources, and messages should be spent pushing religious dogma. Chaired and directed by Zenaido Quintana, and with high-powered hitters like lobbyist and spokesperson Tory Roberg and progressive attorney Dianna Post on the payroll, this is a group that regularly gets attention. Whether it's slamming Governor Doug Ducey for posts about Jesus during Easter, denouncing Bible studies in public schools, or fighting for atheist lawmakers' rights to give the invocation at the State Legislature, the Secular Coalition for Arizona has been the state's voice of rational disbelief.

It sucks, but for most of 2020, the first thing we've done in the morning, (okay, not the very first thing), is doomscroll Twitter for information related to a certain horrible virus. The good news is, Garrett Archer of TV station ABC-15 makes this complicated topic pretty accessible, providing raw percentage figures and charts and pointing out trends that other media outlets tend to pick up on later in the day. While most of the Valley's news corps struggle to make sense of the seven-day rolling averages and case positivity rate numbers put out by the Arizona Department of Health Services, the "Data Guru," as Archer calls himself, has already tweeted. He's useful around election time, too. (A former senior elections analyst for the Arizona Secretary of State, Archer took an "odd path to journalism," as his Twitter bio notes.) But he's not stodgy. He'll take the time to congratulate Maricopa County's Geographic Information System Department for the "awesomeness" of their new web interface, and let his lack of coffee take the blame for a typo. Not that he lets his caffeine level ever run too low. He must have a chart for that.

Most states do not have their own private National Geographic. Arizona does. For nearly 100 years, the Arizona Department of Transportation has published Arizona Highways, a monthly magazine of travelogues, historical writing, and world-class photography that is the envy of state tourism marketers all over the country. The Arizona depicted in its pages — glorious desert sunsets, majestic mountain ranges, an almost impossibly romantic Western lifestyle — is so alluring that in 1965, the Soviet Union reportedly banned Arizona Highways on the grounds that it was propaganda; the Russians were worried that citizens who encountered these images would pitch their parkas and light out for the Grand Canyon. (Quite understandably, we would argue.) Now that relations between our two countries are again heading in a frostier direction, the Kremlin might consider cutting off access to the Arizona Highways Instagram account, which posts an extraordinarily well-curated mix of old magazine covers, archival photos (1940s dude ranches, sheep camps, reservation life), and hi-res modern landscape photography. They're pretty pictures, sure — but also a motivational reminder to get out and explore the wilds of our state.

Sam Walker left her long career with the BBC after falling in love with the desert Southwest. Along with her husband and two kids, she made the move from England to Arizona, where she launched the Desert Diaries podcast, which follows the family's adventures in a new culture and a new landscape. Through weekly episodes blending childlike wonder with dry humor, Walker helps listeners see the mundane and quirkier elements of life in the Sonoran through fresh eyes, even as she encourages them to find and follow their own dreams. Walker's work blends tough realism with flights of fancy, helping listeners navigate everything from parenting to pandemic life.

In a world where we're constantly bombarded by neverending digital visual stimuli, it's sometimes nice to just sit and listen. When we need such an audio balm, we turn the dial to KJZZ, the National Public Radio member station based at Rio Salado College. The listener-supported radio station presents a mix of international, national, and local news, along with classic jazz and blues. You can start your day with The Show, featuring in-depth interviews focused on local issues, or wind down at night with relaxing music. KJZZ presents an eclectic range of podcasts, including Untold Arizona and Defining Moment, and its Frontera desk keeps listeners abreast of stories happening along the U.S.-Mexico border. It's an essential resource for listeners who want to stay informed, connected, and inspired to participate in the civic life of metro Phoenix.

KCDX is an oddity and outlier among local radio stations: no DJs, no advertisements, and no B.S. — just a freeform playlist of rock rarities, B-sides, and deep cuts compiled by the station's owner, an enigmatic and reclusive entrepreneur called The Guru. Its 2,700-watt signal, broadcast from the Pinal Mountains outside Globe, reaches a large chunk of the Valley but will sometimes fade into static depending on your location. When KCDX comes in clear, though, it's pure retro gold. One minute, the trippy riffs of "The Bomber" by James Gang fill your ears; the next, it's the arty post-punk of Television's "Venus" getting a spin. A little later, Dr. John's "Jet Set" is cued up after some album-oriented rock by Crack the Sky or another band rarely heard on commercial radio. Sure, overplayed standards like "Hotel California" slip in occasionally, but we're willing to forgive The Guru for such transgressions, as long as he keeps feeding us a steady diet of these beautiful rock 'n' roll transmissions.

Dana Cortez takes her position as the first Latina host of a nationally syndicated morning radio show seriously, but her a.m. program on FM serves fun and food for thought through such segments as "WTF Stories" about people doing wacky things in the news (like the guy who proposed to his girlfriend while being arrested) and "CholoFit" exercise sessions with comedian Frankie Quiñones, a.k.a. Creeper. The banter between Cortez and her co-hosts Anthony A and DJ Automatic (her husband of 12 years) is always honest and often edgy, and fits with the station's hip-hop music format. Cortez has said she considers the show's listeners family, and she constantly interacts with her listeners via on-air phone calls and games and provides resources like virtual job fairs. The show even coordinated "The World's Biggest Quinceañera" shortly after launching in the Valley in September 2019.

Cindy Dach is the co-founder of Changing Hands Bookstores in Tempe and Phoenix, two of the Valley's greatest treasures for readers. She's literally made words her life, so it's no surprise she can tell a good story. Though Dach stays busy trying to keep Amazon at bay and participating in the local arts scene, if you're lucky, you can catch one of her personal storytelling performances at a local Bar Flies event (for now, flying in the virtual world). On stage, Dach doesn't try to act out her stories — it's her words and humor that pull you in. She's got the ability to make you see scenes from her own life and the people and things in it: her grandmother's diamond ring, her father as he dies of cancer. You know that full feeling you get after finishing a good short story that taught you something new and profound about the world? That's how we feel listening to Dach.

For nearly four years, this quarterly collection of stories from the Black community has enlightened and entertained local audiences. Performers in the series, which recently shifted to online streaming, are coached by spoken word pro Rachel Egboro, who founded the event and curates each installment. A recent Whole Story included monologues from a man who'd been training for boot camp his whole life; a woman who grappled with raising a daughter in today's politically charged world; and a man who turned his HIV-positive diagnosis into a life's mission. Egboro, recently named one of Phoenix Business Journal's "40 Under 40," has thus far brought us 46 storytellers who've told 61 stories from the Black perspective. We're looking forward to hearing many more.

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