Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

800-257-1257 after 40 Years of NPR

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As I read throught the pile of books written about public broadcasting, I saw a picture on pg. 11 of  “This is NPR: The First 40 Years” that fascinated me.  It is a 1980, black and white photo of Ellen McDonald, Michael Richards and Nina Totenberg.  But the phone number on the TV near the upper left corner of the photo is what drew my eye.  The number is 1-800-257-1257.  For some reason, I got stuck on wanting to know the history of that phone number.

1 – In July 1983, the Louisville Kentucky Courier Journal ran a classified ad for a subscription to Barron’s Magazine that featured that number (

2 – In 1991, the number was listed as a contact number in Starlog Magazine, December issue #173 in association with a Space Calendar sold by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (

3 – In 1992, it appreared in the Lifestyles section of the Adirondack Mountain Sun Newspaper, December 24, 1992 in a rant over corporatism on Christmans Eve and the number in TV commercials (

4 –, a free reverse phone number search engine with a Canadian address (96 Mowat Avenue, Toronto) that WHOIS Icann says has been in existence since 1998, associates the number with a 23rd Street address in Ragland, Alabama (

5 – Teletech Communications, Inc., that WHOIS Icann says has been in existence since 1999, associates the number with a fax line belonging to the telecommunications service provider, the Gary Larsen organization in Conifer, Colorado (

6 – I visited toll free directory assistance (, the toll free directory ( and toll free before posting and could find no listing or use of the number.  But Toll Free Numbers dot com says the number has been in use since 1999 to an AT&T customer.

7 –, another phone number search engine with the same Canadian address that WHOIS Icann says has been in existence since December 2000, says it was the phone number for Lakiesha Sicard (  I found nothing that associated the name with the address of #4.

8 – The now-defunct Infomercial Index website, which had copyright notice dates at the bottom of its webpage from 1996 to 2002, listed the number to call for a collection of Zamfir’s Songs of Romance (

9 – In 2003, the Astral Pulse message board asked if anyone had heard of a condition known as synesthesia and a commenter recalled late night commercials with the number in different colors (  According to Wikipedia, in this form of the condition, known as grapheme-color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored.

10 – In 2010, a blogger for the site “Liner Notes” mentioned how he remembered seeing a Canadian commercial for Zamfir, King of the Panflute (

11 – In April 2013, a post on the RetroJunk message board mentions the number connected with commercials run on CNN in the 80s (

9 – Facebook shows a conversation of lovers of WTBS Night Tracks (an competitor to VH1), between 2013 and 2015 about the ad which appeared in 2004.  The commenter on a mobile phone remembers seeing the number (  This comment shows up in the Google search of the number but does not appear in the post itself.

12 – Between November 2015 and May 2016, numerous complaintants received scam calls on everything from social social security, online dating, payday loans, credit cards and general harassment from the number (

13 – In May 2016, a commenter on said it was the number used by a phone scammer that was pretending to represent the IRS (

That number, in a strange way, is now a part of NPR’s history.  I wanted to know what that history has been since 1980. From Barron’s Magazine subscriptions to phone scams, how far it has fallen in fortunes.  The number hasn’t fared nearly as well at National Public Radio.

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October 23, 2016 at 07:31

Chain of Command

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Billy Bush’s cancelled appearance on NBC’s Today show is justified.  But let’s take a step back and look at this with a little more distance.

It’s likely what happened in the days leading up to that 2005 interview with Donald Trump was there was a lot of coordination between Trump’s people and Bush’s managers at Access Hollywood.  Mr. Trump and his “The Apprentice” were riding high in the ratings and no doubt the network really wanted his face on their program to nudge them even more.

Also no doubt, after that video was shot, everybody from the camera operator, to Mr. Bush, to someone above Mr. Bush’s in his chain of command watched the video in some edit bay somewhere.  Maybe several somebodys watched it.   We don’t know if that person or those people also snickered and laughed.  We do know Mr. Bush did.  And, as everyone who works in a company knows, management wants to know everything but wants deniability in case anything goes South.

We also know that video didn’t see the light of day until about 72 hours ago.  Until then, that video and everything it represented was kept like a family secret in Access Hollywood and NBC Universal until somebody looking to juice things up remembered to go through the archive searching for any file containing the keyword “Trump”.

Like any public relations disaster, the first people to fall are the footsoldiers, the expendables.  But over time, the wheels of corporate justice start to grind slowly forward like the gears in a Don Quxiote windmill and everybody gets outed.


Written by Interviewer

October 10, 2016 at 10:22


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As I read up on the innards of public radio while working on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I’ve found something interesting.  It has been said that it’s important that public radio continue to focus on the audience it has; a 25% or so slice of the total listening audience (described as Innovators and Thinkers) while pursuing other segments of the audience not based on their skin color but on their interests and values.  That assumes the audience members in that sought after segment make no connection between the color of their own skin and their interests and values.

It reminds me of why non-traditional casting, as a rule, doesn’t work in the theater community.  I sat on the board of an African-American theater non-profit for a year and a half.  Audiences are comfortable seeing black actors playing in productions like “Porgy and Bess”, “Ain’t Misbehavin”, “Jitney” and a number of other productions written with the black experience in mind.  They are OK with the ocassional, high star power substitution.

But a black actor in a traditionally white role is a very uncomfortable experience for many non-black audience members.  This 1998 NYT Letter to the Editor makes that argument.  Nearly 15 years later, no less than the director of the London’s Stratford Shakespere Festival is still defending its validity.  Not much has changed.

To me, it’s an example of how even if the story is a human story, skin color is the lens that determines who sits in the audience to see it.  So making the assumption that doesn’t also work in the other direction, i.e., non-whites will consume public radio on the assumption they themselves don’t view culture through the lens of their own skin color, that is incorrect no matter what any data set says.


Time versus Carefulness

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There was an interesting conflict between broadcasting necessity and journalistic necessity this morning on CBS This Morning.  Susanne Craig and David Barstow, both reporters of the NY Times, co-wrote a story which they broke about the taxes of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Apparently, Ms. Craig discovered three pages of Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax return in her NY Times mailbox.  After she and Mr. Barstow verified the authenticity of the pages with the tax professional that actually prepared the return the pages seemed to come from, the reporters released the story.  The reporters were asked if they feared legal consequences for writing the story based on documents Mr. Trump’s campaign said were obtained “illegally”.  They responded that a  tenet of journalism is that if a reporter does nothing to solict the receipt of such documents and they are verified as true, they can report the story as factual and be held harmless.

Ms. Craig spoke succinctly and briefly about how she got the documents, while Mr. Barstow was extremely measured in how he talked about conversations with staff attorneys, odd presentations of numbers on the form itself and getting the preparer to verify his work.

But because he took so much time carefully going through those aspects of the story, Charlie Rose and Gayle King began getting cues from their director that time was running out and that they need to wrap so the show could go to a break.

It was ironic that the journalists at that table, all of which were seeking the truth in the spirit of the First Amendment, were also essentially at odds over the amount of time available to tell that truth.

The chasm between TV news and newspaper reporting has been an open secret for decades.  If you notice, TV people are often reading stories written by newspaper people.  Newspapers reporting has been and remains the backbone of American journalism while TV is the compromise that adds pictures and speeds things up while removing much of the useful nutritional information.

I understand the program clock.  I understand affiliates down the line waiting their turn to insert local news, weather and traffic.  And I understand the need to make sure advertiser’s commercials get aired since ultimately, that’s the fount from which everything flows.

It just made me a little sad that such an important story was abbreviated.  To read the full, fascinating article at your leisure, visit

Ridin’ the Train

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I rode Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” to Chicago three weeks ago from Portland, Oregon and from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Portland, Oregon yesterday.  It went across the top of the nation with a stop in Glacier National Park, past the Continental Divide and through the geographical center of the U.S. Here’s my take on the ride to and fro:

Dining Car
Snack Car
Observation Car
Gorgeous scenery
No taking off your shoes
Coach seats deeply recline for sleep
Wide seats
No baggage fees
Much less hectic/stressful than flying
More bathrooms
Less costly than flying (if you don’t get a sleeper car)
Less fearful than flying (if you have a fear of flying)
Power outlets

Coach seats reclined not quite enough for my 6-foot frame
May not serve locations I need
Tiny bathrooms identical to airplane bathrooms (However, there was one large bathroom for the disabled.  It was mostly unoccupied).
No Wifi

It left on time, arrived on time and was only delayed in North Dakota as it shared common rails with freight and oil trains.  The customer service people (Rhonda) were great, the conductors were professional and the ride was smooth.  If I am in no hurry to go where I need to go in the future, I will be taking the train. Except for emergencies, there is no reason for me to not plan ahead for the time it takes the train and choose it over the planes, cars or buses.

P.S.  Can’t make the seats longer, can’t go much faster than 70mph, isn’t going to more places right now but, hey Amtrak, you CAN improve Wifi for other than just along the Eastern corridors.

Written by Interviewer

September 30, 2016 at 01:24

Keepin it Real

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Peabody Award

I watched tonight’s episode of ABC’s Peabody Award winning “Black-ish”.  And I was amazed at how raw and honest it was.  In fact, I’m not sure the entire thing wasn’t an ad-lib.  And when co-star Anthony Anderson had tears in his eyes as he described the fear I had as I sat on my couch and watched out new black president and his black wife walk down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day 2009, I wondered if my tears were what the writers expected.

Four-hundred years ago, a great crime was perpetrated on one group of human beings by another group of human beings.  Maybe, 400 years from now, that crime will be a distant memory and both groups will have since worked together to solve no only the problems we know, but the problems to come.

But right now, at the halfway point, there’s still a lot of shit in the way.  And in the meantime, I’m working to do my part to make things better between people of color and the police.

But as far as this comedy, which is really satire, which is really – sometimes – a slap across the face, … wow, ABC.  That’s all I can say.  Wow.

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August 25, 2016 at 13:09

Paying Tribute

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Boxing Gloves

Listening to the tributes pour in for Muhammed Ali earlier this year, I was thinking about what kind of person gets tributes.

I wonder if the first type of person doesn’t necessarily seek tributes.  Instead, as they follow their passion, they come up against people who don’t like what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, why they’re doing it or even who they are.  But they continue to follow their passion to do whatever it is they’re doing even as they both gain admirers and haters.  These people are eventually recongized for being the best at what they’ve done not only because their passion has honed that perfection, but because they’ve done it in the face of those who hate everything about them.  And a key element seems to be that a lot of people must hate them.

A segment of our culture reserves the highest rewards for those who not only surmount the professional obstacles, but almost as important, overcomes the obstacle of the rest of us.

Meanwhile, I wonder if the second type of person seeks tributes and doesn’t have any shame in how they get them or who gives them.  Whether it means being the loudest black, women, jew, hispanic, muslim, lgbt or homeless hater, or whether it means doing hurtful things to those people in the dark, or whether it means always “Me first”, this second type of person is about expediency, not morality.  What is the quickest way they can be known for something, since to that point they may have never been seen or known or acknowledged for anything.  They will twist all we supposedly call sacred into a banal justification of every perversion just so they can feel people are paying attention to them.  A key element is that they seem to need a lot of people to notice them.

A segment of our culture reveres these people too because evil is easy and cruel is pile-on fun.  Burn a church, deface a monument, spray obscenities, slash some tires and they can feel alive and not the weak, festering lump they are locked inside.

I’ve often thought about the concept of First Cause, and I haven’t yet heard a good argument that counters the thinking that every good thing we humans conceive is a response to something hideous we thought of first.  All the non-profits, corrective laws and religous edicts that we employ to fix our failings always seem to be in pursuit of, not in front of on par with, those failings.  It makes me wonder which is easiest for us to be; kind or cruel?

What are we?

Muhammed Ali’s first cause was, reportedly, to become a boxer because he wanted revenge for a stolen bike and a cop told him to channel that anger to the ring.  As he was laid to rest, a lifetime of good wiped out that incentive of anger.  But his work was consistent, not the two steps forward, one step back, constantly relearning kind – constantly unlearning bigorty wheel we seem to be stuck on.  I wonder why the world is never lacking for people who carry their fear and hate like a cold stone at the center of their chests with no goal but to be the best thing they can be, even if that thing is putrid.

When I feel a little overwhelmed like this, and I need a little hope, I think … Thank God for babies.

Written by Interviewer

August 15, 2016 at 23:58