Here & Now is a live production of NPR and WBUR Boston and reaches an estimated 3.7 million weekly listeners on over 424 stations across the country. The show, which is co-hosted by award winning journalists Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson, began in 1997, expanded to two hours in 2013, and features innovators, artists and newsmakers from around the globe. I recently reconnected with Dean Russell, associate producer of the show and someone with whom I have had the pleasure of working on a few stories over the past two years. He was kind enough to talk to me about the show, what makes it so unique and poignant, as well as his thoughts on the future of radio.
EY: How did you get started in radio-what led you to Here and Now?
DR: I studied music technology and composition at Northeastern and after a series of disappointing jobs doing sound design, I took an internship with The Jim & Margery Show before it moved to WGBH. That got me more interested in radio, and so I took another internship with On Point at WBUR. I started out doing mostly technical sound production, but shifted into the journalism side. On Point was a fit so they hired me. After three years with them, I moved over to Here & Now for a change of pace and production style. I have been here for a little over a year.
EY: What is your favorite story you have worked on at Here & Now?
DR: Two moments come to mind. The host Jeremy Hobson and I just wrapped on a weeklong obesity series. We explored obesity rates, demographic shifts, healthcare costs, the latest research, and the food industry. One of the best conversations was with three people living with obesity and the challenges they face. The second conversation was part of Here & Now’s American Music series that I am fortunate enough to produce. We spoke with hip hop artist Le1f about what the term “American music” means to him. As a young rapper, a trained ballet dancer and an African-American gay man, Le1f’s perspective on music is unparalleled and it came through in the segment. Listen to that story here.
EY: What in your opinion was the story that had the most impact this year?
DR: There is no definite answer to this one. An example might be one small story about Qirat Chappra, a terminally ill 18-year-old who spent most of her childhood at a children’s hospital in Houston. Chappra had not seen her parents, who live in Pakistan, for 13 years; they were having trouble getting a visa to see their child one last time before she died. Friends and family started a petition on the White House website to try and get her parents an emergency visa with little luck. We ran this back in November. The story made it to the right people and the parents were granted visas. They arrived in Houston just days before she died. Listen to that story here.
EY: What makes a good radio story?
DR: A good story is unbiased and makes clear why it matters to the listener, no matter who that listener may be. It may elicit curiosity or outrage or a sense of quiet reflection. It is accurate and fair and for a national show, the story must have national resonance.
EY: What do you need from a PR pitch for it to work for radio?
DR: This is a difficult thing to do, no doubt. A PR representative is, by definition, working to shape the public image of his or her client, representing that client’s interest. When making the pitch, it is important to understand why anyone other than the client will and should care. An interview with a home builder may not be interesting to the average person and only acts as a promotion for the home builder. If you want an ad, buy ad space. But an interview with that same home builder done just after a new report shows home sales are skyrocketing? That’s interesting because he or she represents a primary source in a larger story. Remember that from our perspective, a producer is finding the story, not creating one.
The other thing to remember is that Here & Now is a national show. We are often pitched stories that start with Boston or the Boston-area. They could be great stories, but think about someone in Casper, Wyoming or Galena, Alaska. There should be national resonance. That often gets confused because we do air local stories, but again they are an example of something that happens nationally.
Also, keep it simple and short. If you have a good story, you can probably communicate it in two or three sentences.
EY: Do you think radio has more staying power vs. TV? People are watching less and less TV but radio seems immune. Why is this?
DR: This is a question for much smarter people than myself. What I can say is that the way we consume is changing on all platforms. People view less TV on TV, true. But web and streaming are soaring. For radio, people still drive their cars, and still tune in. But there is a future ahead of which no one can be sure. Think podcasts and phone streaming and something yet to be invented.
I think the more important question regarding the issue of TV and radio is what makes them different, especially in the news world. The answer is the reason I work for public radio. There is more freedom to do the stories that would not usually make the cut on TV network news. The strange, quirky segments. Public radio lives in a world between documentaries and network news. It covers what’s breaking, but it does not ignore the slower paced and personal stories. On top of that, the lack of visuals requires imagination on the part of the listener. That could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on who you are. For me, it’s a good thing.
EY: What can potential spokespeople do to be more comfortable when they conduct a radio interview? (See my blog post on interview prep for more tips as well.)
DR: As Allen Iverson said, “Practice.” Practice for the hard questions. Practice for the easy questions. And after all the practice, remember that it’s a conversation, not a Q&A. A guest can be prepared for anything, but being prepared is not the same as preparing a statement. Good radio comes from real conversation. It is organic and the best parts are never predetermined. The more open the potential guest is to real conversation, the better they will be.
H&N believes in respecting its guests and its listeners. We do not believe in “gotcha” questions, but we will not ignore criticism. I press this because a lot of times, people are hoping for the softball interview – or worse, they are expecting it. What is often ignored is that softball interviews are condemned by news consumers. Anything in that interview is automatically rejected as false, even if it’s true. So getting the hard question may actually be a good thing. It just depends on how it’s handled.
EY: Who is the best interview you have had on Here & Now and why?
DR: I’m going to have to disappoint and offer no answer here. We are talking thousands of people, stretching back years before I came aboard. The best interviews are the truest. The ones that make you say, ‘Yes! That person gets it!’
EY: Anything I should ask that I haven’t?
DR: There’s a particular skill to making a pitch. Typically we are all bogged down with deadlines that we can be blunt. I urge anyone making a pitch not to take offense. If you have a good story, keep trying. But you have to believe it is a good story. And be clear about what you are offering. Is the person a good talker? Are they clear? Are they interesting? Do they speak like they are speaking to regular people? Or do they sound like they’re reading corporate bullet points? In the end it comes down to knowing what sounds good, what feels human and what is accurate and fair.