Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) politics reporter Stephen Fowler has put more miles on his Toyota Prius over the last year than most people put on their cars in five. Fowler’s travels throughout the state covering Georgia’s wild political landscape have most recently seen him reporting from campaign stops held at restaurants, coffee shops, and small businesses ahead of another consequential midterm election.
Radio spots are recorded while hopping between assignments. A jacket and tie might be hanging from the hook in the back seat of his car, just in case Fowler has to make a quick appearance on TV for GPB or other outlets. But finding time to eat is a big priority for Fowler, who says restaurants and food both play pivotal roles in his reporting, and in politics throughout the South.
Fowler’s been with GPB for six years, having landed a job as an afternoon radio producer and fill-in host at the Atlanta bureau after graduating from Emory University, where he was the digital editor for the college newspaper. He even had his own Atlanta brunch column.
“I first met the [“All Things Considered”] anchor at the time, Rickey Bevington, when she came to MC an event at Emory and stayed in touch until I graduated,” says Fowler. “They took a chance on me.”
Prior to 2018, Fowler had covered some political races for GPB, most notably the special election between John Ossoff (D) and Karen Handel (R) for Georgia’s 6th congressional district and the Atlanta mayor’s race between Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) and Mary Norwood (R). Fowler recalls his GPB boss asking him one day to continue covering politics, as 2018 was shaping up to be another significant election year in Georgia.
But a turning point in Fowler’s then fledgling political reporting career came on January 3, 2021, when he was one of the first reporters to break the news of that infamous recorded phone call between former President Donald Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The Georgia politics beat now keeps Fowler more than busy on most days, with more than a few of those spent on the road.
“GPB is the only truly statewide outlet in Georgia,” Fowler says. “I try to get out and about and actually talk to real people and get the real stories.”
Those real stories and people, including many politicians, are often sitting across the table from him having a meal, whether that’s in Thomasville covering the 2nd congressional district race or a protest in Atlanta. Fowler says he spends as much time as possible getting sound bites. While a phone call or Zoom might yield the same information, it’s different than capturing the actual sights and sounds at a local bar hosting an election night watch party or standing with a candidate as they chat with people at a barbecue joint or coffee shop on the trail.
He admits finding time to eat a decent meal is challenging, especially when running from place to place for a story. It’s not always possible to sit down at a restaurant, instead resorting to grabbing an $8 combo meal at a drive-thru. However, Fowler says he tries to make the latter the exception, not the rule, strategically planning his workday around the next meal, where he might conduct an interview over lunch or finish up story research on his computer during a late breakfast.
One of his favorite spots in Atlanta to conduct face-to-face meetings in the morning is Home Grown in Reynoldstown. It’s just a 10-minute walk from Fowler’s house. In the afternoon or early evening, Fowler might meet people for a story just a block away from Home Grown at Muchacho. After work, he enjoys unwinding on the patio at El Tesoro in Edgewood or relaxing out back with a beer and hot dog at Red’s Beer Garden in Benteen Park.
“I do a lot of food-based meetings. Where you might have the same level of conversations with people, there’s also comfy chicken biscuits involved and all of this humanizes the interview and conversation,” says Fowler.
Fowler gravitates toward restaurants serving Southern comfort food or a hole-in-the-wall offering barbecue when he’s on the road. It’s typically where locals dine, too. For a 2021 story, Fowler shadowed then U.S. senate candidate Kelvin King (R) on a multi-city tour through southwest Georgia. The day ended with a meal at fried chicken restaurant Carter’s in Cuthbert. It was the first time Fowler tried chicken gizzards.
“There’s plenty of these mom-and-pop places that aren’t big chains throughout the state, and they are the places that most closely represent the community, and that’s why I like to visit them.”
If Fowler is at GPB’s Macon bureau, he frequents Francar’s Buffalo Wings next door. He loves the Mercer Gold flavored wings. He also never misses a chance to hit the Buc-ee’s off of I-75 in Fort Valley. The smoked brisket sandwich is typically his order or one of the breakfast biscuits, if he’s around in the morning.
Fowler says he’s even eaten a Buc-ee’s brisket sandwich at 1 a.m. on the way back to Atlanta with another reporter after covering a Trump rally at the Perry Fairgrounds. They sat under a beaver-branded pergola eating their sandwiches while people walked into Buc-ee’s wearing pajamas to buy groceries or a gallon of milk, or for one man, to purchase a cattle skull head. He likens the scene to Waffle House, where nobody bats an eye at the characters who frequent such places.
During a recent reporting gig in Savannah to cover the U.S. senate debate between Raphael Warnock (D) and Herschel Walker (R), Fowler dined on tempura fried chicken and Belgian waffles at Collins Quarter in the city’s historic Forsyth Park. He tries to stop at favorite childhood spots like Spanky’s in Savannah or the Crab Shack on Tybee Island, and praises the fresh seafood he’s had covering conventions on Jekyll Island.
When he’s reporting on candidates from the trail, many events feature catering from local restaurants, like the historic Fresh Air Barbecue in Jackson or Shirley’s Sole Food in Toccoa. After interviewing owner Shirley Combs for a story, Fowler enjoyed some of the best fried chicken he’s ever had at her eponymous northeast Georgia restaurant. In 2020, Fowler recalls picking up an order at Atlanta soul food institution Busy Bee Cafe with Kamala Harris.
“A lot of campaigning and politics, especially in the South, centers around food. I meet with a lot of people, whether that’s at the local barbecue place or a coffee shop. You can really get the sense of the environment,” says Fowler. “As long as I’m not shoving a big microphone in someone’s face mid-bite, sitting down to some food while I conduct an interview, people are pretty amicable.”