Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘PRI

What is Old is New again

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As I continue working on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I came across a quote from Susan Stamberg’s “Every Night at Five”, published in 1982.

“We ask people what they make of the tax cut, the threat of radioactivity, Watergate.” “Their reactions are barometers of the political climate.  Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have said that when Walter Cronkite criticized his Vietnam War policy, he knew he’d lost ‘Middle America’.  During Watergate, when a Nixon voter in Manhattan, Kansas, told us he’d lost faith in the president, we knew Richard Nixon was suffering heavy losses.”

I found this the day after reading Kyle Pope’s critique in the Columbia Journalism Review on how the media missed the in/out debate by paying too close attention to the left/right debate.  That, after hearing Scott Simon commenting on criticism of the media in wake of the election.  And that, after discovering an interview PRI’s Andrea Seabrook did with Current magazine back in August where she articulated the same thing; the “what unites us is much more than what divides us” argument, and how many people are angry about the same things.  For example, in Portland, Oregon, KBOO news director Lisa Loving said she was pitched a story of Wall Street Occupy protestors reaching out to Malheur Occupy protestors.

Ms. Stamberg’s quote reminds me that the media goes through cycles of lucidity.  With the election of our president-elect, it seems it has, again, emerged from a period of darkness.  And while it parries criticism, it will double down on a new way to explore something that it once learned, forgot and has apparently found again.

Written by Interviewer

November 15, 2016 at 03:01

Wake up and Smell the Coffee in your NPR Coffee Mug

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NPR coffee mug

Public radio listeners can be an insular bunch.  In some ways, they are opposite to American citizens in general and a contradiction to one of public radio’s main selling points.

American citizens, in general, are interested in what happens in other states even though they themselves live in one state.  Public radio listeners, by contrast, like to think of themselves as citizens of the world, but have little to no idea what is happening elsewhere in the public radio universe.  In part, it’s the fault of the public radio stations themselves.  They have, each and every one of them, set themselves up like little Levittowns.

Every listener need is met.  Every street has a grocery store, a hardware store, a restaurant.  There’s no reason for anyone to leave their own block and that’s the way station’s like it.  If you never feel the need to go anywhere else, then all your time, attention and money stays here.

But that means public radio listeners never hear of the turmoil elsewhere between stations that are fighting over audience, or the white knuckled panic with which affiliates and networks eye each other over the effect of podcasts on funding, or state cutbacks to public radio support and the struggles stations are having over when and for how long to have fund drives that are both, effective and don’t drive listeners away.

Stations have succeeded too well at making things comfy.  And that is where some of the responsibility needs to shifts to listeners.

They could afford to be more engaged with the state of public radio, not just their local station, because of domino effects.  In these times of tight budgets when state A decides to cut or end support to its public radio station, states B, C and D, looking across the border, start wondering where else besides public radio they could put their money.  And while station A in Nebraska misses a fund drive goal, and its board sells its frequency – making it disappear, listeners in Connecticut are blissfully absorbed in the soft tones of Garrison Keillor.

Public radio listeners pride themselves on being advocates for every cause NPR, PRI or APM reporters haul out before them.  But they also need to pay attention to the medium as well as the message because without the medium, there is no message.  Contributing to your local station is fine.  Volunteering for your local station is great.  But your public radio community is a lot bigger than your neighbors your public radio station serves.  It is part of a hemispheric network of wheels and cogs.  All of them, together, make this amazing thing called public radio.  If any of them start to grind, or strip, the whole thing could come to a smoking stop.

I know it might seem unlikely.

But unlikely things are happening everyday.


Written by Interviewer

June 30, 2016 at 03:00

Bye Bye Q

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It is interesting that John Sepulvado of OPB, who was one of two fund drive pitchers for OPB’s one-day, end of year drive early this week, talked up the interviews of “Q”, the Canadian radio variety program that was airing at the same time.  But OPB is dropping Q as of January 4, 2016.  And nowhere in any of the pitches during that hour of Q was that mentioned.  Also, nowhere in any of the announcements from OPB that “All Things Considered” is moving from 4 p.m. to 3 p.m. PST was it said that as PRI’s “The World” moves from 3 p.m. to 2 p.m., that Q is disappearing completely.  They have been announcing the coming change for about two weeks.

It’s reasonable for Q’s loyal listeners to think that if ATC is moving, and PRI is moving, Q must also be moving.  Why not just say it’s not?

They will no doubt meet the disappearance with first, confusion.  Then anger and then, possibly, resignation.  But I wonder what kind of explanation they will get.  They may never know why Q has gone away.  That public radio stations regularly do this is not unusual but it is, at the very least, insensitive to the people who support their favorite programs as a demonstration of trust in the stations which air them.  They deserve more than that.

The omission of the future of Q shows how public radio is so afraid of criticism that it talks up the positive while avoiding anything that could possibly stir up bad feelings from listeners and jeopardize future giving.  This is an example of much I’ve read about the need for greater transparency in public radio.  I mean, if an opportunity to say something so logically obvious and appropriate was so purposely avoided, listeners might reasonably wonder what else isn’t being told especially when openness is the supposed currency of public radio.

Written by Interviewer

January 2, 2016 at 14:44


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The nomination window for many radio journalism awards has closed for this year.  But Daniel Estrin, a reporter for The World, a newsmagazine for Public Radio International, should be at the top of the list to be nominated next year.

Mr. Estrin reported on a film circulating amongst the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel that encourages men and boys to refrain from masturbating.  This post isn’t so much about the film.  I mean, how much conceptualizing does one need to do?  It’s more about the thinking outside the box.

When was the last time you heard a story about masturbation?  Terrorism, daily.  Police violence, frequently.  Plane crashes, ocassionally.  Sex between the elderly, rarely.

But masturbation?

The editorial staff at The World definitely get credit for this.  I consider it a ballsy decision.  I mean, I can imaging Mr. Estrin heard of the film and approached his news director.  Or, I can imagine his news director heard of the film and approached Mr. Estrin.  Either way, I’ll bet whoever got the news that a story about, um, … spilling “sacred sperm” was being considered, got a little bug eyed for a second.  Finally, somebody probably said, “Oh, why not?”

Like I said, this isn’t so much about the content as about the decision to tell the story.  But, I did have a few questions.  Like, the story didn’t mention women at all.  So I’m guessing that even a taboo subject like masturbation among men and boys has its own taboo aspects that are absolutely unthinkable among Orthodox Jews.  Tackle that next, in a few years.

Still, it was a shocker.  I was cheering at the radio almost the whole time.  He went there.  And although at that moment, I wasn’t letting the story raise the curtain on my “Theater of the Mind”, I was reassured that radio can tell any story if it is … handled properly.

Radio tells a lot of stories that many consider questionable.  Unfortunately, most either reinforce our own immutable views or continue to numb us with their violent or inane ubiquity.  Every now and then, one comes along that is neither too vile or too predictable but some magical combination of both that manages to give a little slap.

And to top it off, Mr. Estrin ended his story by calling the whole thing, “A touchy subject”.  Wowzers!

Well done.

Written by Interviewer

February 27, 2015 at 08:02

Is There One …

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Interviewers are no different than anybody else.  They sometimes like shortcuts.  Like those “Top Ten” lists that the Late Show with David Letterman helped make famous, these lists are crib notes for what is the hottest, most talked about and supposedly, most important things on people’s minds at the moment.  So when an interviewer asks someone to give them the top five, or three or one “thing” as it refers to a person or a situation, guests as a way of showing how on top of things they are, are quick to oblige.  I have never heard one not accommodate the question.

Until today.

Marco Werman of PRI’s “The World” was talking with Kenny Irby of the Poynter Institute, a journalistic school in St. Petersburg, Florida.  They were both talking about three-time Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Michel du Cille, who died of a heart attack this week in Liberia while on assignment for the Washington Post.  Mr. du Cille was chronicling Ebola patients when he passed away.  And in an earlier interview with his Post colleagues, Mr. du Cille said he was excited to go to Liberia because he felt he had “a responsibility to tell the story and we have a responsibility to tell the story in a poignant and respectful and dignified way”.

During the course of the conversation, Mr. Werman and Mr. Irby talked about the various other human tragedies Mr. du Cille covered and how he treated all of the people he photographed with dignity and respect.  At the end of the interview, Mr. Werman went to the interviewer’s default; “Is there one of his photographs that will always define who Michel du Cille was as a photographer?”  And Mr. Irby answered honestly and refreshingly.

“No, there are numerous photo galleries of Michel’s work in my mental photo album and I think it would be unfair to try to identify one single frame out of an individual whose life has been committed to documenting the experiences, both horiffic and the harmonious experiences.  It’s interesting that you see his body of work and he was able to show hope in hard times and in dark places as well as the tragedy.”

I sometimes wonder what is the intent of smashing something so big into a space so little.

A life uncompressed for a change.

I like it.