Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for May 2013

New Track: Jonathan Schuppe Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Jonathan Schuppe Interview”:

Jonathan Schuppe is a crime and government reporter who has spent much of his reporting life in and around Newark, NJ. In that time, he’s seen first hand the results of shattered lives and their effects on children. But he tells a different story in his new book, “A Chance to Win.” Don Merrill talks with Mr. Schuppe about a special man who got a bunch of inner city kids interested in forming a sports team. And not basketball or football.

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May 31, 2013 at 09:39

Posted in Scratchpad

Author Interviews

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Terry Gross and Stephen King

Several months ago, I decided I didn’t want to interview solely musicians. I wanted to also focus on other creative types like authors and comedians as well as scientists, policy makers and entrepreneurs. And it’s funny … sometimes, when you ask for something (and work toward it), you get it. In the last several months, I’ve talked with all of those, but I’ve especially noticed my shift recently.  In the last few days, I’ve done two interviews – one was with an author, and the other was with a comedian and humorist turned author. And I’ve realized something about interviewing authors. They want to read from their book. I talked w/Jonathan Schuppe, author of “A Chance to Win.” It’s a story of a man who was made wheelchair bound by a drive by shooting ten years earlier, and realized that he needed to be more than he was, so he started a baseball team for inner city New Jersey youth. It was Mr. Schuppe’s first book, and I knew how proud and excited he was to be talking about it. But only after we said goodbye did I realize it would’ve been great to have him read from it.

I didn’t make that same mistake during the next interview. Jonathan Goldstein is the host of a CBC program called, “Wiretap.” Wikipedia describes it as “a program which does not fit easily into the comedy category. The show has been described as “a weekly half-hour of conversation, storytelling and introspection, culled from equal parts real-world experience and the warp of Goldstein’s imagination.” And when talking to comedians and humorists, I always expect them to be “on.” But Mr. Goldstein was quite pleasant, cogent and enthused about his book, and in no way felt any need to play any role while we talked. Fortunately, I remembered to ask him to read from his book, and the selection dovetailed perfectly into a path we were following about aging and family.

Authors are, at the same time, proud and full of eqo, and wanting to feel like people care about what they have to say.  In those respects, they aren’t much different from the rest of us. But how they are different is they have done something incredibly difficult. Sitting alone, and sticking to the job of creating something, with only yourself as company can be both empowering and torturous. You lay all of your opinions of yourself bare while you see if you are actually worthy of them, since writing a book is only you. If you don’t follow through, all of the big talk you have for yourself is shown to be pretty worthless pretty quick.

The other thing about book interviews is the author has to kind of go through a song and dance to get people to pay attention to his or her Herculean effort. It’s how the industry is geared, and it’s kind of unavoidable, but it must get kind of grueling too. Most agents are just as concerned about how you will promote your book and what resources you will bring to the table to promote it as they are about how good the writing is or how compelling is the story you’re telling. The author, having just finished this massive task, now has to put on their seersucker suit and pork pie hat and start shaking hands.

I’ve talked about it before that media and authors are in this promotional dance. And I don’t envy them for it. Hell, at some point, I hope to be one of them. But every now and then, it’s nice to be reminded that no matter who you are, you have to do it.

And that brings me to an interview I recently heard between NPR’s “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross and novelist Stephen King.  Those two are definitely at the top of their respective games – Terry Gross is the reigning Queen of the interview.  And Stephen King is everywhere, has been everywhere, and judging from his newest releases and TV adaptations, will be everywhere for the near future.  So when these two A-listers talk about what I’ve just spent several paragraphs talking about, it shows that authors and interviewers are feeling it.  Here is an excerpt beginning from about 34:30 in their conversation.

“You know, the whole thing is a little bit like carny, isn’t it?”  King asked. “The whole book promotion deal, the whole movie promotion deal.  You do this thing, and it’s inside the tent.  So then you have to kind of come out and do a little cooche dance to get people to come inside.”

“I know you must feel that way,” Terry replied.  “From my point of view on the other side of the mic, it’s like, this is my chance to talk to you about things I love to talk with you about.  And I know the reason why you’re here is that you’ve got a book to promote.  But to me it’s like, what a wonderful opportunity to have this conversation.”

“I don’t mind,” King answered.  People generally go in a barber shop or in a diner and get a cup of coffee and start talking about these things.  And it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, see you later.  I’ve got a job to do.’  But this is your job and my job and I get to talk about these things.  It’s kind of cool.”

To hear this whole, great interview, follow this link –

Written by Interviewer

May 31, 2013 at 05:29

New Track: Jonathan Goldstein Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Jonathan Goldstein Interview”:

Jonathan Goldstein is the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Company program “Wiretap”, a satirical look at relationships and existentialism from the perspective of a middle-aged Jewish man. That perspective is now also in print in Mr. Goldstein’s first book, “I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow.” Don Merrill talked w/Jonathan about his love for words and their power for good and ill.

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May 30, 2013 at 05:39

Posted in Scratchpad

The Profession of Arms

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That’s what military service is called. It’s a term of art for those who dedicate their lives to the protection, preservation and defense of our country and its people. My love for those troops, who are, right now, in Artillery Batteries in Incrilik, Turkey, or Infantry Battalions on Korea’s DMZ, Armor at Fort Bliss, or on a submarine under the Arctic, and even in space (Astronauts are US Air Force) is unwavering.

Let’s make a distinction between the troops and their leadership. Their leadership is swayed by money (defense contractors flood the Pentagon to lobby the military to push Congress to continue funding for programs the military doesn’t even want), by influence (the revolving door between military service and work in the private industry is more obvious than a red light in a backstreet Parisian whorehouse), or entitlement (if the officer in charge of the military’s anti sexual harassment arm can be arrested for sexual harassment, then we have a problem).

Other failings of leadership? There are plenty. Arlington National Cemetery management of remains so poor that they aren’t even sure who is buried where, or who is in the caskets they inter. Walter Reed Army Medical Center coincidentally closed after revelations of despicable treatment of wounded soldiers. And the VA, unable to come to an agreement with the Pentagon over a computer system to help distribute help and manage the medical records of returned soldiers, while those soldiers wait years for that help.

Clearly, these armchair warriors, as Bruce Hornsby accurately termed them in “The End of Innocence” do often fail. By contrast, the soldiers who follow those orders rarely do. It is no wonder that in talking about the horror of battle and the service to our nation, Abraham Lincoln didn’t mention the bureaucracy when talking about those who gave their last full measure in the service to an earlier United States.

There was a recent discussion on Linkedin about whether corruption is an inherent part of human nature that we must all live with as part of the cost of doing business, or whether it could be eradicated for a much more pristine outcome. I am not so naïve’ as to think that we will always be able to overcome our base natures. But if we willingly buy into some of it, shouldn’t we, for the sake of morality, try to be all in?

Namely, if a civilian leader understands that military power yields to civil power, shouldn’t civil power wielders understand the responsibility they have to carefully hold and fiercely steward the lives of those men and women who fight our wars? And if a military leader understands the oath of service, shouldn’t they be willing to do whatever it takes to protect their troops with every ounce of everything they have, whether at the front of a convoy in a humvee or behind a desk?  Should civil leaders and military leaders be complicit in padding the pockets of the military industrial complex while using our sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers as gear grease in that machine?  Should we support regimes who we befriend solely because they are the enemies of our enemies?  Should we participate in conflicts with no clear strategy for winning, no clear path for leaving and no good rationale for joining?  Poor leadership says, in order, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

I have served as both a civil servant and a soldier. And I can tell you, without hesitation, if you respect and love your boss, you will figuratively and literally go through hell for them. You will be cause you know they will protect you and kick your ass when you need it. As corny as it sounds, you know it’s because they trust you, they get out of your way and let you do the job they hired you for, trained you for. They love you and you love them.

And if you don’t love and respect your boss? It’s because you see your boss is more concerned with themselves. You see that your boss takes your effort and gives you no credit. You see your boss working to undermine you. You see them not as they portray themselves, but as they are; weak, cowardly and full of betrayal. This person you do not love, or respect. These people rely on patronage, and tenure. On manipulation of the rules. They are surrounded by the fat of their position, whether literal or figurative. They may seem enlightened and proactive and think of themselves as such, but they are pedestrian and reactionary.  They are seduced by themselves.  Poor leaders never think they are poor, which is part of the tragedy. They do not realize that they simply are not worthy of being followed.  For the good of the people they serve, they need to be extricated and forgotten in every way except as lessons to future leaders. They know who they are.

The troops, that’s another story. My best memory of troops is one morning, me and a small group from a detachment I was with out of the Pentagon, were on our way to morning mess at Fort Bliss. It was about 0400. And because Fort Bliss is a large, sprawling post, it has a very wide and very long company road. And on this morning, there were several Battalions of troops marching to breakfast. Each battalion was calling its own cadence, and they were trying to out call each other. I looked up and saw a black sky full of stars. I looked up the company road as far as I could see and saw troops singing. And I looked down the company road as far as I could see and saw troops singing. A chorus of thousands of voices singing different songs, but all singing the same music. And I cried because it was so beautiful.

That may sound militaristic to some. But what it was was a brotherhood and a sisterhood of people who do what nobody else does knowing they may, at any moment, be asked to die doing it. My love for the service was sealed in that moment. And though I may no longer be in the military, I will always be military. So, when I see the troops coming home, wounded, inadequately cared for, neglected and forgotten, I think, “I am healthy. I am strong. I can think cogently. I will do what I can to help right this. To not forget this.”

I can tell their stories. I can donate money. I can be a witness.

Amat victoria curam

New Track: Enola Aird Interview (Short)

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A new track on SoundCloud “Enola Aird Interview (Short)”:

Eliminating the negative messages that have been aimed at black people has been a daunting task. But Enola Aird, President and founder of the Community Healing Network, says she and her organization will be well on the way to doing that by 2019, the 400th anniversary of slavery having been introduced to the US. Don Merrill talks with Ms. Aird about the work of CHN and the plan to accomplish that laudable goal. Hear the full length conversation at

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May 26, 2013 at 07:09

Posted in Scratchpad

It’s a Jungle Out There

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People are always ready to tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about or what you’re doing. And while it’s true that sometimes, you can’t see the forest for the trees, nobody knows your situation better than you and in the end, you are the main one who has to make your choices and live with them.

People get passionate about the spillover, though. Maybe they’re really, really invested in your decision and your choice changes something in their life that they don’t want changed. Or maybe it’s a credibility issue; if you break away from their opinion or expertise, they lose their authority somehow, so their goal is to shoot holes in yours. But even the “experts” can be wrong, and the people who have the gut feeling can be right. I found this on the Wikipedia about the Monk TV show while researching the last post.

“During the first season of Monk, the series used a jazzy instrumental intro to the show by songwriter Jeff Beal, performed by guitarist Grant Geissman. The theme won the 2003 Emmy Award for Best Main Title Music. When season two began, the series received a new theme song, entitled “It’s a Jungle Out There”, by Randy Newman. Reaction to the new theme was mixed. A review of season two in the New York Daily News included a wish that producers would revert to the original theme. Shalhoub expressed his support for the new theme in USA Today, saying its ‘dark and mournful sound,…[its] tongue-in-cheek, darkly humorous side…. completely fits the tone of the show.’ Newman was awarded the 2004 Emmy Award for Best Main Title Music for “It’s a Jungle Out There”.”

Sometimes, the only opinion that matters is the person down in the arena who is actually fighting the lion.

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May 21, 2013 at 00:07

Greek Chorus

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Greek Chorus

I need me a Greek Chorus. Everybody great has had a Greek Chorus. I’m not saying I seek greatness, but I am saying I need three smart heads around me to keep me out of the ditch where I occasionally end up sometimes. There are lots of examples, especially in contemporary TV, where the power of three heads was better than two and a lot better than solo. To wit …

Dr. Gregory House: Chase, Cameron and Foreman. Are they his foils or his slaves or his torturers? Whatever they are, when he lost them, he went downhill. You can’t replace passion, reason and, uh … whatever, with an entire classroom.

Captain James T. Kirk: Bones, Spock and Scotty. Again, passion, reason and something in-between. You need that something in between that is part, “Jim, don’t do it” and “Captain, we don’t have the power!” Again, you’re not necessarily going to argue with three brains that know your one brain all too well.

Marshall Matt Dillon: Doc, Kitty and Festus (or Chester). A gritty brain trust from the mid 19th century that never steered James Arness wrong. Doc was old but feisty as hell. Kitty was a gravelly voiced barroom beauty with a mean sucker punch.  Dennis Weaver as Chester was eager and loyal and was replaced by Festus who I just loved. Festus was a man for the ages. If you had a Festus, you had nothing to worry about. Newly never seemed to fit in the clique. Never.

Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs: For our more modern times, Ziva, McGee and DeNozo. Are you seeing a pattern here? The person with the Greek Chorus is usually someone with great responsibility. They’re almost a tragic figure in how the Gods have positioned them to do their duty in the world.  Mark Harmon’s character drives his charges as hard as he deeply loves them and savagely protects them.

Colonel Robert E. Hogan: Kinch, LeBeau and Newkirk. A passionate Frenchman, a methodical Irish con man, and an African American geek genius. Together, they advised, protected and beat up on Bob Crane’s cool concentration camp colonel. Although Hogan’s Heroes was comedy, Crane probably could’ve used a Greek Chorus off set.

Detective Adrian Monk: Randy, Sharona (or Natalie) and Leland.  Tony Shalhoub’s brilliantly played OCD suffering character was best served by his chorus by their compassion for him.  The totally understood this heroic figure that they saw shot down by the murder of his wife, and they did everything they could to clear the path for him so he could at least function.  Eventually, their love for him led him to redemption and recovery.

Oh, and let’s not leave out many of the reality talent shows; The Voice, So You Think You Can Dance and of course, American Idol.  Although most choruses are represented in threes, (American Idol had Randy, Paula and Simon for eight seasons, until the ninth, when they added a fourth judge), many other reality shows have four or more.

In many cases, the Greek Chorus foretold of impending disasters that would befall the hapless person they were singing about by pointing out weaknesses that would bring them down if they didn’t change course.  Or, it represented the fears or hopes or rage of the main character that he or she could not openly express because to do so would jeopardize their position of authority. While I ain’t the boss of nobody, I wouldn’t discount the advice of three people who knew me as well as I knew myself. Think of the places we could go? Maybe I’ll put something on Craig’s List.

New Oreo Commercial

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Commercials are funny things. The trend throughout the 70s and 80s was 60 second commercials. Then it dropped to 30 seconds in the 90s. Then, for awhile in the 00s, marketers experimented with 20, 15, 10 and even 5 second commercials on the thinking that people didn’t have the patience to watch long commercials anymore and that a quick, focused ad would stick in the mind better. It’s the same thinking that eliminated the black between commercials. Remember that? Commercials used to fade completely to black and the sound used to go completely silent. Then, after a second, the new commercial would start. But stations started editing the end of one to the beginning of another because network bean counters realized that over the course of an evening, they might be losing as much as several minutes of potential revenue to black which could add up to hundreds of thousands of lost dollars a day.

Kinda sorta the same thing with program intros. I think of old school intros like Gunsmoke, or the Rockford Files or Gilligan’s Island. Maybe, more recently, Law and Order, as intros that were at least a minute. But Hawaii Five-O has an intro version that is less than 15 seconds long.  CSI’s isn’t much longer.  Again, the longer the intro, the shorter the time for commercials.

But this new Oreo commercial is delightful in that it is a luxurious minute and a half long. That is crazy! That makes it longer than the intros to Psych, NCIS or the Big Bang Theory. And it’s full of animation that reminds me of Prince from his Paisley Park days, but with robots and monsters and vampires.  It’s totally fun.  Could Oreo be onto something? Do they think that our culture has suffered enough blazingly short commercials and that now it’s time to swing the pendulum back? I mean, who cares if the local attorney or used car sales man has a 180 second ad on at 3:17 a.m. But, Oreo? That’s Nabisco, and Nabisco doesn’t screw around with its revenue. The Oreo cookie was the best selling cooking in the US in the 20th century, and is still the best selling cooking well into the 13th year of the 21st century. Let’s see what everybody else does. Expect down-and-dirty-in-a-minute-thirty copycats.

UPDATE:  Many of the drug companies are now using 1:00 to 2:00 commercials to promote their drugs and discuss the potential hazards of them.  According to, they include 1:00 commercials by the makers of Lyrica and Embrel.  The maker of Eliquis is running some 1:15 spots and a spot for the drug Xarelto is 2:00 minutes long.  These represent hundreds of thousands of dollars for drug companies, for example.  It is no wonder time and space for commercials has become a hot commodity.  Wasting a second of time is not in a network’s interest.

New Track: Greg Palast Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Greg Palast Interview”:

Investigative journalist Greg Palast talks with Don Merrill about his latest book Billionaires & Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps. Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Armed Madhouse. He is best known in the US for uncovering Katherine Harris’ purge of black voters from Florida’s voter rolls in 2000. Palast’s last book is Vultures’ Picnic.

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May 17, 2013 at 13:09

Posted in Scratchpad

New Track: Eve Ensler Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Eve Ensler Interview”:

Activist, playwright, and author of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler talks with Don Merrill about her new book, “In the Body of the World”, a visionary memoir of separation and connection. The book ties together the work she did against the violence done to Congolese women while fighting Uterine cancer that was simultaneously doing violence to her own body.  

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May 17, 2013 at 12:10

Posted in Scratchpad