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"Radio is invisible, and it keeps a certain aura of mystery."

Interview With Lisa Phillips, Author of Public Radio: Behind the Voices

I love public radio. And I’m not alone – most of my relatives and friends also listen to it. Many is the time when I will sit in a driveway not ready to turn off the radio and go inside until I finish listening to an interview by Terry Gross or a segment on This American Life.

In her new book, Lisa Phillips, who has done her own share of work in public radio, provides an excellent, incredibly thorough look at most of the NPR personalities.She describes what it is like to meet some of these people, what their insecurities are about their voices and abilities, and relays anecdote after anecdote that are hilarious and revealing.

If you like public radio, I suggest you read this book – it will add another layer to your understanding and relationship with these personalities.

What made you decide to write this book? Was it more difficult than you expected?

I had the idea for about ten years before I got the nerve to start working on it. While I was working at a small public radio station in rural Iowa in the early '90s, I took a train trip from Iowa to New York. When I’d meet people in the dining car, all I had to do was say I worked in public radio and I got hit with lots of questions, many of them about the prominent voices in the business. They wanted to know what Terry Gross was like, Scott Simon, Bob Edwards. At the time all I could tell them was the little things I’d heard here and there. But I realized that people who listen to public radio want to know about the lives behind the voices, and I thought it would make a great book.  There's something to the relationship listeners have with public radio hosts that goes beyond simply the voice that delivers the news, etc., and I wanted to take that relationships further.

The book was difficult to write in some respects. I think I had trouble setting limits on who I would talk to. I profiled 43 people, a group that was not set until the final weeks of writing the book because I was very concerned about getting the right balance of people to represent what public radio is and who I thought listeners would care about the most.

Was it hard to summarize the life and career and personality of each personality in just a few pages?

Hard, yes, in a way, but a wonderful creative challenge. I should say that for the most part I only had an hour, sometimes less, to interview each person. So, if I had been given more time I probably would have struggled more. I think most journalists always contend with a conflict between space/time and material and you quickly get used to spotting the most compelling/revealing moments in an interview and developing those.

Which personality was more different in person than how they would seem on the radio?

I actually didn't interview Renee Montagne in person – we talked over the phone – but I immediately think of her because on the air, she's absolutely professional and concise the way the host of a fairly fast paced daily news show should be. But in conversation, she's very, very talkative, like your best girlfriend — practically bubbly at times. The stories she tells have lots of lovely tangents. The next morning, listening to her on Morning Edition, it was wild to think this calm and controlled pro was the same person who'd been telling me elaborate stories about her pioneer ancestors in Nebraska.

What do you think it is about listening to public radio that is so special, that makes it seem like such an intimate experience?

I think it’s because radio holds back. Television hits you visually as well as aurally. The Internet can function in a similar way. Radio is invisible, and it keeps a certain aura of mystery.

What was the relationship with NPR like for this project? I noticed a few places – with Bob Edwards and Linda Wertheimer – where NPR was criticized and wondered if NPR tried to discourage that.

Once I had my book contract in hand, NPR was very supportive of my process. The PR staff there helped me set up interviews, and I was allowed to do a great deal of observation of shows in progress, staff meetings, etc.  NPR was not given any kind of control over my manuscript, so NPR as an organization did not have the opportunity to discourage criticism or anything else. Please keep in mind that though "NPR" is often seen as synonymous with "public radio," public radio is produced and distributed by a number of organizations, including Public Radio International, American Public Media, and many others. I interviewed several hosts from organizations other than NPR.

Which NPR personality are you most like and why?

I think I would prefer to put it this way — which hosts did I identify with and for what reasons? Otherwise I fear I would be guilty of hubris.

I identified with Jacki Lyden as someone who felt pulled toward both radio and literary writing, though I don't have her guts — I am too fearful to make a good foreign correspondent. I identified with the mothers of young children: Michele Norris and Melissa Block. Michele called balancing work and parenting at times like "juggling chainsaws." She got that one right! 

What was your favorite moment of the whole project? What was the most disappointing?

The best day for me was interviewing Bill McGlaughlin at his home on the upper West Side in New York.  I describe the interview in the book, so I don't want to give it away entirely, but there was something about the expansive feeling of the afternoon, as if both of us had all the time in the world, and the beautiful late summer weather (coming after a very oppressive heat wave), that I will always remember. He is a genuine artist in the old-fashioned sense, very passionate about his work in radio and as a composer. I should also say that I was getting quite close to finishing the book, and I felt like he was sending me into the home stretch with a blessing.

The biggest disappointment was getting the final word from Terry Gross's staff that she would not give me an interview. She's my hero. I was crushed.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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