Storytelling Up North

Karen Sunderman (Photo by Steve Ash)

Karen Sunderman identifies herself as a storyteller. Her formidable body of work over the last two-plus decades at WDSE, Duluth’s PBS station, has played a significant role in defining Minnesota’s Arrowhead region.

Sunderman’s award-winning work highlighting the area’s people, places, history, and culture has earned her celebrity status in the Duluth area.

“It’s an absolute honor and a privilege to be in a position that I get to tell stories,” says Sunderman. 

A college study abroad program sparked Sunderman’s curiosity and eventual career path. As a 20-year-old English major, she learned about contemporary British theater in London. Traveling and meeting people unlike herself was transformative. 

After Sunderman returned to college in River Falls, Wisconsin, with a broadened view, she thought about how the rest of the world sees the United States. Contemplating different people’s perspectives inspired her to add journalism as a second major.

Sunderman started her professional life as a news reporter. Since then, she has worked for PBS for 24 years, helping to create documentaries and series, like “Venture North” and “The PlayList.” 

When she first worked on “Venture North,” which explores areas of Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin, she combed grocery store bulletin boards for story ideas. That and a show suggestion box, email tips, and Facebook messages, are how she finds stories. 

Sunderman stresses that interpersonal communication remains a critical part of the research process. “You can find interesting people everywhere if you just listen and pay attention and take the time,” she says.

She prefers the stories of the north. “People here are resilient and creative and come at the world from a different angle than maybe folks in Chicago and folks in the Twin Cities.” 

With her new show, “Making It Up North,” Sunderman showcases artists, artisans, and entrepreneurs. Episodes have included a basket weaver, a cartoonist, and a coffee roaster. The common link is that they are making a living through their crafts, fueled by passion and creative problem solving. 

“I’m attracted to and curious about people who have found a way to make their passion their work, and make a living doing it — in this day and age, in this economy, with everything changing all the time,” she explains. “It’s an evolving project.”

Sunderman continues to evolve herself, amidst a constantly shifting digital landscape. She’s now building relevance and engaging people beyond the broadcast world on social media. 

“I am a woman of 52. So that makes me a dinosaur in some ways,” she admits. “Experience tells me to keep learning and adding skills to my tool kit. I’m not done yet.”