Christina Estes

602. Public radio reporter from Phoenix pens first mystery novel

Christina Estes took the golden novelist advice of “write what you know” and put her own spin on it. 

A senior field correspondent for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix, Arizona, Estes just completed her first book, the debut novel in a mystery series called “Off the Air.” With more than 20 years’ experience living and working on Phoenix, she had plenty of material and first-hand knowledge to use for her main character. 

“‘Off the Air’ introduces Jolene Garcia, a local TV reporter in Phoenix, trying to cover real issues in a society that’s obsessed, or seems at least, with clicks and viral videos. A controversial radio talk show host dies on air and her managers are thrilled because she had the last interview with this guy,” Estes says. “They’re promoting it, they think they’ve got this great advantage on the story. It didn’t last long because the national media descends upon Arizona. They bring bigger budgets, get better scoops and Jolene ends up fighting not only for her job but for her life.” 

In her real life, Estes created her own beat at KJZZ covering local government, the kind of work that used to have multiple reporters from the local newspaper but, due to budget cuts and the closing of outlets, doesn’t get the attention it used to. 

“It’s disheartening to say the least what’s happened in local news coverage. Everyone in commercial broadcast media chased the newspaper because that’s what everyone got,” she says. “I work for the local public radio station and, because our business model is different, we don’t rely on advertisers. We rely on members, people who care enough about the coverage we do that they give us donations. We also count on corporate underwriters and all that, but the good news is you won’t hear any political ads coming up in Arizona in the next couple of months. I love it because I feel very connected to our audience because they care enough about what we’re doing that they open their wallets or support us in other ways.” 

Estes admits she “made the mistake” of thinking writing a novel would be easy because she’s a reporter who writes daily.

“It is hard, it’s a completely different beast,” she says. “I may get 30 seconds or three minutes to tell a news report; that’s completely different from writing a 300-page novel. I don’t know why I was so dense about that. I could’ve saved myself many years if I had come to that revelation sooner. I needed to learn before I could write.” 

Estes also had to learn more about her character, creating a backstory that made her care about Jolene. “Like me, she grew up in the Midwest, so when she came to Phoenix, she felt like a fish out of water. It’s pretty different when you’re plopped into Phoenix where you’ve never been before. I’m able to, I hope, help people understand she feels like an outsider but she’s very passionate about her job and wants to report real stories that matter.” 

Estes received a Tony Hillerman Prize for the novel, recognizing it as “the best first mystery set in the Southwest,” a prize founded by Hillerman who wrote a series of books that went on to become not only regional but national best sellers. She’s already at work on her second book. 

Christina Estes, a senior field correspondent at Phoenix NPR station KJZZ, recently penned “Off the Air,” a mystery novel that was inspired by her career as a broadcast journalist.

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