The 334… with Rickey Stokes
Dothan bail bondsman Rickey Stokes has seen his hobby for “sharing local news with friends” turn into a second full-time job over the last eight years. RickeyStokesNews.com has become one of the area’s most popular websites, offering independent community news and commentary from its outspoken owner. The site has built its credibility among readers by providing on-the-spot breaking news from the scenes of auto wrecks, fires and crimes. Without all the usual corporate media filters, the site definitely feels a little rough around the edges (spell check, anyone?), but Rickey and his team of reporters call it like they see it at all hours of the day or night, usually well before the rest of Dothan’s media shows up.
1. Where did you get your passion for reporting local news?
I like helping people. That’s really my passion, but I’ve always been an information junkie. When I was 15 I would ride my bike down to the courthouse to hear cases. I got on the Sheriff’s Department payroll at 16 as a dispatcher. I got into the media business because as a bail bondsman [Stokes’ day job] I was having a war with a former sheriff who was arresting me every time I showed up at the jail to pick someone up. The politics of the situation was a game – I needed to level the playing field out, so I approached a local radio station about giving them news coverage for free. It grew from there, and then I started a little print paper followed by the website. I saw there was a real need for local news here. Plus, I like having my finger on the pulse of the community and I enjoy sharing it.
2. Are you a blogger, a journalist or something else?
I provide information to people about what’s going on in their community, so I look at my website as being news-oriented. I definitely approach everything from a “this is what’s happening” perspective. We don’t have a lot of comment sections on the site for people to discuss things, but there are opinions in some of the stories, especially if I’m passionate about an issue.
3. Does it bother you that people are often critical of the actual writing on the site?
I’m not really a professional writer myself. We report on a lot of emergency responder news. What I look for in a reporter is someone who can listen to the police and fire scanner radios and hear the subtext, the tone of voice and things which might be out of the ordinary. For example, early one Sunday morning I was at McDonald’s drive-thru and I heard “30-20 has been notified” on the police scanner. Well, that’s the chief deputy’s signal. I’m thinking to myself that it’s early on a Sunday morning, so what are they notifying the chief deputy about? I made a couple calls and it turns out there was a standoff unfolding with someone holed up in a house out in the county. I knew something was going on from that one comment. I’ve got one full-time guy, a volunteer fireman, who goes out and gets our breaking news and photos. I don’t look for an ability in writing so much as people who can be flexible to drop everything to cover breaking news because they know what to listen for on the scanner.
4. What was the most awkward time your phone has rung with yet another emergency you felt you had to cover?
I got a call while I was working the sound system at church on a Sunday morning. The choir and congregation are all singing so I ducked down in the sound booth and talked to a guy who was listening to his scanner in his bathroom that morning. He started telling me about a bad wreck at Fort Rucker as all the songs are being sung in church. I quickly called my news guy and sent him off to find the wreck.
5. You often post breaking news well into the early morning hours, long after Dothan’s traditional media has gone to bed. How much sleep do you get every week?
I’d say maybe five out of seven nights a week the scanner will wake me up with something. I’ve got the Dothan Police Department, Houston County Sheriff’s Department and and local fire scanners turned up in the bedroom at night. After 24 years, my wife has gotten used to it. I’ve been dispatching since I was 16 years old, so I can have it in the background and be able to tune it out until something happens – I might be asleep, butalert tones of voice will catch my attention. Often I’ll get up and leave to cover something, come back and Marsha never knows I left.
6. You’re always ready to share your opinions about local government – what’s one easy fix you see around town which could make government work better?
I’m in the bonding business, so one easy fix I see would be to hire a payment manager for people’s court fees. We deal with a lot of people who make eight or nine bucks an hour, but they often have the same bills as everyone else – rent, car, insurance, food, kids. If they’re in construction and it rains one week, they have a choice: pay the court or pay to keep a roof over their head. Right now they don’t have anyone in the court system to go to in order to have payments reduced or deferred if they have some problems. They have to get a lawyer to file a motion to get to the judge to get an order and by the time they do that they’re in arrears. Then the District Attorney’s office files a show-cause motion, which adds 30 percent to it. A payment manager could help these people figure out a budget for paying off their fees over time. The court system is always fussing about money – this would help them collect it.
7. What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to report on your site?
The toughest story I ever posted was back in 2009 when my father-in-law killed my mother-in-law and then committed suicide. It was a real news story, but it obviously affected all of my family very personally. I was in Montgomery when it happened, so all the way back to Dothan I was on the phone making arrangements for my kids to be picked up by neighbors and friends and dealing with the shock of it. Another one of our writers covered the story but that night, once everything had calmed down some, I wrote something for the site because I felt I owed it to our audience to address what had happened.
8. Any changes coming to RickeyStokesNews.com in 2012?
I would love to cover youth sports and school news more. I really think our kids need more recognition for what they do and there are lots of sports out there. It’s tough for our staff to be everywhere, so I’ve encouraged folks to send us pictures and updates for us to post. I’ve even given local school administrators their own user login for the website so they can post some of the positive things happening in their schools. We also give local funeral homes their own user logins so they can post obituaries for free. Sometimes I don’t know what’s on our site until I read about it on the homepage like everyone else.
9. What’s something people are always surprised to learn about you?
I think my public perception is totally different from who I really am. I have disagreements with some people, but I’m not this mean person who’s always looking for something or someone to jump on. Reporting on government is like hunting on a baited field.
People are guarded around me, especially when I’m dealing with something for one of my other jobs. Many times when I call the jail for something I have to clarify that I’m calling as a bail bondsman and not for anything news related. I can change hats. I serve as deputy coroner in Henry County – I got a call on a weekend morning about a wreck with three fatalties. I worked the wreck, taking photos as a deputy coroner. No other media knew about it. The only story you saw on RickeyStokesNews.com was a press release that was later put out by the state troopers. I think people are surprised to know I can separate the news site from my other duties.
10. Do you ever get away from town take a break from reporting?
We have an RV and we go up to the lake sometimes but it’s hard to get away from the site. For instance, on Thanksgiving I was in Gainesville with my son at a big motorcross tournament. We were in the RV having Thanksgiving dinner with a bunch of other motorcross folks and I started to get some text messages about a little girl from Samson who was injured when an ATV turned over. I’m looking at the six kids gathered around our motorhome table thinking about how on Thanksgiving Day there’s a little girl in critical condition being flown up to the children’s hospital in Birmingham to try and save her life. I believe in the power of prayer. I felt I had a responsibility to call people to pray for this little girl, so I got up from the table and wrote about it on the website. A couple weeks later she got out of the hospital and I saw a story on WTVY which followed her to school that day – she was using a walker – so she could visit with her friends. I never met the little girl or talked to her family, but I’m thankful to have a forum like RickeyStokesNews.com to call people to prayer for her. I really do like helping people. That did my heart good.