AT (not to be confused with ET) is editorial extraordinaire at NPR’s Tell Me More. Please join me in welcoming AT to our local T&B station. Below AT talks about her experiences with the iconic organization.
One of the things I love most about working at NPR is being able to interview people – shooting them personal questions, tough questions, questions that make them pause and ponder.
Guests can make me experience a range of emotions, especially with their responses and intimate stories. This often happens when I produce a segment called Behind Closed Doors which encourages discussions on private issues. For example, being sexually abused by someone you deeply trusted, or grappling with the stigma attached to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Journalism isn’t just fact-finding – it’s storytelling. It’s people telling me about their lives, which compels me to question my own life and values. I still can’t get over the time when former death row inmate Wilbert Rideau told me that I would never understand freedom. (Rideau received the death penalty for murder in 1961, but his sentence was amended. He spent 44 years behind bars, mostly at America’s largest maximum security prison: Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.)
I’m amazed at how much this work requires of me intellectually – on a daily basis. So what if I graduated magna cum laude from UCLA … one quarter early … with a double major? Brain power goes far beyond academic achievement. It means probing deeper, where others haven’t considered or cared to consider. It’s means finding if and why Joe Schmoe in Idaho would care about the heated election in Liberia. It’s means analyzing various data and statistics, and being able to see the weight and difference between a study and a survey.
My colleagues also help me see that there’s a fine line between pushing hard and pushing too far. My senior editor once said that I “hunt down big guests like a wolf.” Before I explain the pitfall of excessive persistence, let me illustrate why I persist so much in the first place.
In January 2011, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot by a gunman, and her intern Daniel Hernandez rushed to her aid. I called the young man’s scheduler more than 50 times to book an interview with him. It took days before he agreed to speak with the Tell Me More’s host. That interview became a top hit on NPR’s home page. The payoff felt good.
This didn’t feel so good: getting on the Supreme Court’s watch list and ruffling feathers of a highly respected correspondent at NPR. What in the world did I do? Again, make copious phone calls. I was trying to reserve an audio booth at the Supreme Court in fall of 2010. Apparently, press/public information officers didn’t appreciate me ringing them outside of business hours (in addition to during business hours). When the high court information officers complained to my boss, she pulled me into her office and made sure the door was shut. I thought I was going to be fired (and if you know me, then you understand that being at NPR is my dream … so just imagine my fears). But she applauded my effort and said she had never met someone who worked so hard. Weeks later, I was promoted from “temporary” to permanent, full-time staff. I thanked my lucky stars. But I’ll try to take a less stressful route toward the next promotion.
Another lesson: I might be done with college, but that doesn’t mean the tests are over. In fact, the margin for error is much smaller. If a falsity slips onto the airwaves or on the web, it – first and foremost – makes me feel incompetent. And more painfully, it produces stress for others. It makes my host look bad — like she didn’t know what she’s talking about, but in fact, it was me who did not triple-check that sentence in her script. Then my editor feels the burn for not catching my mistake. Sometimes we have to do some re-recording, alert member stations to the correction and amend the web teaser and transcript. Needless to say, it wastes time … time that could’ve been devoted to next-day stories and future stories. And let me tell you – one conversation takes a lot to prepare for: researching, writing and rewriting the script, chasing and booking the guests and their studios, engineering the audio interview, and editing the audio.
So in the end, to those who ask what it’s like to work at NPR … my answer is, in the broadest sense, never boring.
*: This is the first year in which T&B has given out the “best new hire at NPR” prize. We expect it to go on to be a prestigious prize on par with either the Nobel Peace Prize, or its Ig cousin.
We’re also very thankful that AT picked up our pesky calls at the 49th time. She was really awesome for agreeing to make a guest appearance here, without either much nagging nor blackmailing involved.