Public Radio Behind the Voices: Profiles of Public Radio’s Favorite Personalities

The mother of a two-year-old daughter named Clara, former Iowan Lisa Phillips now lives in Woodstock, New York, with her husband, painter Bill Mead. A freelance writer for such publications as the New York Times and Poets & Writers, she also teaches journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz. The competence, commitment, and energy this schedule requires is something Lisa shares with 43 radio personalities profiled in her new book, Public Radio: Behind the Voices, published in April 2006 by CDS/Perseus Press.

In it, the 27 million listeners of public radio are given access to finely crafted and insightful portraits of some of its most familiar voices. We meet What D’Ya Know’s Michael Feldman over lunch, have a chat with former Morning Edition anchor Bob Edwards in his new studio at XM Broadcasting, and talk with the “Fallopian Jungle” trio Cokie Roberts, Linda Wertheimer, and Nina Totenberg.

I first met Lisa Phillips on an early Wednesday morning in 1993. She strolled cheerfully into the breakfast café for the homeless I was managing for the Episcopal Campus Ministry in Iowa City. After discovering she had some pretty sharp moves on the grill and was especially gracious with the café’s guests, I also learned we shared a passion for writing, public radio, and spicy food. She became a great friend. I was pleased to discover with the publication of this book, she has become as excellent a writer as she is a friend.

Lisa will be in Iowa City on June 27 to read from her new book at Prairie Lights. During a recent break from her nationwide book tour, Lisa stole a rare bit of quiet time (Bill and Clara were snoring downstairs) in order to answer a few questions about the book, her career in radio, and her time in Iowa.

Lisa, you have worked for, I believe, six different public radio stations. What drew you to the field to begin with?
I think I’ve always been taken with the sheer magic of radio. I can get on the air and talk to people I can’t see and they’re out there listening to someone they can’t see. Voices are so powerful and so intimate. If you’ve ever had the experience of being able to say something on the telephone that you know you couldn’t say in person, you understand what I mean.

Also, I studied fiction writing in college and graduate school, and I’ve found that good radio reporting has some of the same mandates as good literary writing: you’ve got to vividly portray setting, character, etc., mostly through language, and radio has that added fun of “nat sound,” or ambient sound, to make you feel like you’re on the scene.

You began your own broadcasting career here in Iowa. Can you tell me a little bit about your time here and the beginning of your work in public radio?
My first real job in public radio was as the news director of KTPR in Fort Dodge, a city in north central Iowa mainly known for farming, gypsum mining, and veterinary pharmaceuticals. As someone who grew up in suburban Connecticut, this was quite a change. I was insane enough to take the job sight unseen—I just got into my car with my futon on top and drove up there. For two years, I had to get up at 3:30 in the morning to be at the station in time to turn on the transmitter and do the local announcing during Morning Edition. Not a fun schedule.

But I really, really wanted to get into public radio, so I went out there and did it and actually really loved it. There were plenty of interesting characters there: a former monk; an African-American man from Brooklyn who’d played baseball for the local community college and hoped to get on a team at a Big Ten school but ended up dee-jaying jazz instead; a New Age and Space music aficionado who often played his didgeridoo on the air during the last hour of his shift, just for the heck of it. We all worked out of this little blue mobile home on the edge of town. Now KTPR broadcasts the signal of WOI in Ames, meaning there’s really nothing there in Fort Dodge anymore, which is a little sad.

And, as you know, after I left KTPR, I spent a year working for the wonderful WSUI in Iowa City. Iowa City felt like Paris after Fort Dodge.

What do you miss most about Iowa?
The tomatoes. You just don’t get the same kind of sun and heat in the Catskills, so the tomatoes are always slightly mealy. I remember in August and September neighbors and friends in Fort Dodge giving me huge bowls of tomatoes every day and I’d eat them all by the next day.

I also miss the yard sales. Up here, antique pickers from New York City cruise all the yard sales and the prices are inflated as a result, not to mention the real finds are gone by 8 a.m.

In the book, you say that Terry Gross is your role model in terms of the perfect interviewer. What is it about Gross that you find so compelling?
She is a magnificent listener. She holds conversations rather than conducting interviews. She keeps a sense of wonder in her conversations, yet her own awareness and knowledge level remain incredibly sophisticated.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg, and Linda Wertheimer—the so-called “Fallopian Jungle.” Did you experience any difficulties as a woman working as a broadcast journalist?

I remember I didn’t get hired for a job at a lefty community station in Minneapolis because the entire staff was female and they felt they should have at least one man. But then again there was another job where I know being female was one of the deciding factors in hiring me. That’s job hunting in the 1990s, I suppose. . . .

Does everyone ask you about this chapter? That term “FJ” is rather, well, evocative.
The chapter is a big reminder of the struggles ambitious and talented woman went through in the ’60s and ’70s to get meaningful work. The fact that some brainy yet obviously insecure male staff member called Cokie Roberts, Linda Wertheimer, and Nina Totenberg “the Fallopian Jungle” says so much about how formidable and powerful they were and how petty he was. They won, going on to fabulous careers, so the title is more amusing and revealing than dangerous and insulting. You feel sorry for the guy. These days, he’s probably in upper management, either in public radio or some red-tape-entangled place . . . still feeling like he could have been a great radio reporter, if only those “you know whats” hadn’t been running the show in the NPR newsroom back in the day.

Do you have a chapter of the book that you are especially fond of?
There are a few. I love giving public readings of the chapter on Scott Simon, because he showed so much of his character in the 40-minute interview I had with him and the chapter takes on a nice shape, with a fun beginning and an emotionally resonant ending. I also had a rather enchanted afternoon with Bill McGlaughlin, who hosts St. Paul Sunday Morning. We hung out in his Upper West Side apartment one August afternoon and he really opened up to me, and the challenge of the chapter was to portray that.

One of the fun personal tidbits we learn about in your book is that Nina Totenberg and Bob Edwards dated during the early days of NPR. Ever date any of your radio colleagues? If so, got any fun stories?
Well now, Ms. Meg White, you know I dated my radio colleagues! Why else does one go into radio but to meet men in the record library? My first college boyfriend and I met over a Louis Armstrong record in the campus radio station. I also dated the redneck jazz deejay who cued my newscasts in while I was doing a graduate assistantship at WSIE near St. Louis. I had a three-year relationship with that ex-monk I mentioned at KTPR. He’s who brought me to Iowa City back in 1994. I’m not even mentioning all the public radio fans I’ve dated. It’s great to get a phone call from a suitor asking, “Is this Lisa Phillips, the radio celebrity?”

You wrote this book while you were pregnant with your first child. In the chapter on Daniel Schorr, you talk about being five months pregnant, running to interview him, and feeling intimidated about meeting such a giant in the field of broadcasting. Can you tell me a little more about that?
For me, pregnancy was an enormously productive and energetic time. I did yoga, started my freelance career, scored the contract for this book, and traveled all over the place doing interviews for it. I found my big belly helped me connect with people, especially the working mothers of public radio but also the working dads. Everyone likes to talk about kids and how they balance it all. Cokie Roberts told me to “relax and enjoy” working motherhood, though Michele Norris, who has two young children, called balancing career and family sometimes “like juggling chainsaws.” Both women were right.

Can you talk a little about what your writing process was for this book?
Meg, it was quite a sprint. I did most of the actual writing of it after Clara was born. I had to adjust my process considerably. No more ten-hour stretches at the computer. . . . Thank goodness for my husband, who works part time and had her many mornings, and good child care.

But the book was ideal for the situation, in that it is comprised of short, focused chapters.

How is the book being received so far?
Plenty of public radio stations are using it as a pledge-drive premium, which is thrilling because that’s so important. I think I’ve done something like 20 public radio interviews. As for reviews, I’ve had some very nice ones, some mixed.

I feel I’d be remiss as a Public Radio aficionado if I failed to ask you what you think the impact of the Margaret Kroc’s historic monetary bequest to NPR has been and will be? I’ve heard some criticism about this.
The Kroc gift is positive. NPR is beefing up its news staff and having the kind of long-term financial security that it deserves. I do worry about who NPR is hiring, though. Mostly people from newspapers. There’s nothing wrong with that if they are well trained in radio, but I’m finding that at times I listen to a whole hour of Morning Edition and think any of those stories could have been in that morning’s newspaper with very few adjustments. Good radio stories work with the medium of radio, using sound to tell a story. They’re not simply audio versions of print stories.

The other worry is that people don’t understand that member stations did not get any of the Kroc money, as far as I’m aware. They are separate entities from NPR—subscribers, if you will—and pay huge fees to broadcast NPR’s programs. So NPR’s riches do not necessarily translate into WSUI’s, and it’s important to keep supporting local stations.

You met with and interviewed so many wonderful people for this book, Lisa. I know it’s a difficult question, but I have to ask—who did you most enjoy meeting and why?
Yes—you sense this is not my favorite question! I loved meeting Jacki Lyden, who is an incredible writer [Daughter of the Queen of Sheba] and a fine radio reporter/host, and the two pursuits feed each other and her own sensibilities in a wonderful way. She is an intellectual and an artist and a very brave woman. I mentioned Bill McGlaughlin already. Then there’s Susan Stamberg. Delightful. Really. I always loved her thing, the Yiddishkeit way she asks questions, her personality, her humanity on the air, and she is every bit that person in person. I remember asking her for a hug after our interview, not something I do much as a journalist!

Is there anything else I should know? (Wink—Lisa ends all interviews with this question.)
Contrary to one published report, I’m not pregnant again! I love motherhood very much but one is just plenty for now.