Mining the Untold Stories of the Black Gold Boom

April 22, 2016

Roughnecks, Bakken, North Dakota

Photo by Todd Melby


When fracking brought a crush of jobs, giant trucks and “man camps” to the Bakken Formation in northwestern North Dakota, media coverage likened the oil boom to a modern-day gold rush.

Minneapolis-based radio producer Todd Melby saw that the reporters chasing the economic and environmental stories were omitting the human narrative — the blue-collar workers who’d lost jobs and homes in the Great Recession in search of a fresh start.

“It was a lot like The Grapes of Wrath,” said Melby, a western North Dakota native. “It was like the Joad family coming to North Dakota to work because they’d lost it all.”

Todd Melby, photo by Ben Garvin
   Todd Melby, photo by Ben Garvin


Melby was one of 10 public media producers hired in 2012 by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, as part of Localore, a CPB-funded project to develop new types of storytelling. Paired with Prairie Public, North Dakota’s public media network, Melby moved to Williston, N.D.  With additional funders and partnerships, the yearlong project blossomed into a three-year, award-winning multimedia experiment chronicling the untold stories of the Bakken oil boom.

“This was a project that had impact for the people of North Dakota and elsewhere, both by uptake from national programs and by the reach of the web,” said Bill Thomas, Prairie Public director of radio. Melby provided much-needed coverage for the statewide network, which did not have the resources to cover the oil boom consistently, he said.

Melby’s work, at, includes radio coverage carried nationally on NPR, video that aired on PBS NewsHour, and two online interactive reports. A 30-minute Black Gold Boom documentary chronicling the Three Affiliated Tribes’ decision whether or not to drill aired on World Channel and numerous PBS stations.

“From down-and-dirty views of life among the oilfield workers, to the unexpected deathly dangers of measuring storage, to human examples of the economic impact, to local government's struggle to respond, the reports helped explain what was going on,” Thomas said. Melby, he added, also led the way for Prairie Public’s radio reporters to add photos and video for digital versions of their work. 

“Public media plays a key role in both delivery and experimentation for important projects,” Melby said.

With Localore’s support, Melby enlisted a photographer, a cinematographer, a digital designer and others to explore multimedia production, telling the stories of not just the oil workers, but of others trying to make a living on the periphery.


Examples of the multimedia content include Oil Country: A View From the Air, a gallery of photos by Ben Garvin with audio interview; Fight Night in Crude Country, combining photos, audio and video; and a public art campaign in which posters of interview subjects were placed around Watford City, Williston and Tioga, with QR codes linking to the reports. Melby’s first online interactive documentary, Rough Ride: The Oil Patch Tour, conveys the human and cultural landscape, including roughnecks looking for work, a traveling truck sticker salesman and a 21-year-old waitress who carried a gun, a knife and a Taser for personal protection.

Backed by a grant from CPB-funded ITVS, Melby and his two Native American associate producers earned the trust of the Three Affiliated Tribes to film its debate over drilling. Melby’s team won another grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to explore workplace deaths in the oilfields. Their second interactive documentary, Oil to Die For, incorporates videos, audio clips, and data graphics into a timeline plotting oilfield worker Dustin Bergsing’s life and death at age 21 from hydrocarbon poisoning. Interspersed is the story of a Marathon Oil whistleblower, with the two converging at the end when there is an out-of-court settlement with the Bergsing family.

Throughout, Melby learned the importance of trying new things to meet audiences where they are – online and through ever-changing social media platforms.

“Todd is AIR's poster child for what a risk-taking, intrepid independent radio producer is capable of,” said Sue Schardt, AIR executive director. “He came to Localore as a veteran indie radio producer who morphed into a brilliant collaborator and filmmaker.”