The Transom Review

Volume 2/Issue 6

Corey Flintoff

July 1st, 2002 | (Edited by Sydney Lewis)

Corey Flintoff

We all know Corey’s voice. And, somehow, his name goes so well with it. Warmth and strength. Combined with his deceptively simple news writing, the whole package gives us something solid to lean up against every evening. I believe some measure of the trust placed in NPR derives from its Corey Flintoff-ness.

It’s no wonder that Corey was drawn to Mongolia. I once slept on his living room floor with his sled dogs in Bethel, Alaska. As I recall, there was one tree in the whole town. It was in Corey’s front yard by the dog house. He called it the Bethel National Forest. Like Mongolia, it was vast, frozen, dark, and barren up there… good radio country.

I’ve been anxious to hear what Corey’s trip was like. Below, he tells us. He’ll be around to answer your questions about radio in Mongolia, or about reliably newscasting for all these years. Jay A

Getting the Hell Out: Toward New Radio in Mongolia

We Found Ourselves in Ulaanbaatar

Corey and Kazahk Eagle Hunter

Corey with a Kazahk eagle hunter in far western Mongolia.

Download this document in PDF

Sometimes you just have to get the hell out.

That’s pretty much the gist of what Ishmael has to say in the first chapter of Moby Dick, and it’s good advice, even today. I got the hell out of NPR for six months last year on a Knight International Press Fellowship to teach journalism and radio production in Mongolia, and while I didn’t come up with enough material for a 600-page novel, it gave me a lot to think about.

Why get out? Sometimes even the best job starts to feel stale. I like newscasting on All Things Considered, but it’s a long way from my roots as a radio reporter in rural Alaska. I got into radio first, and journalism second. I got into radio because I love stories, and news is just a subcategory of stories. I was influenced by six years of listening to Studs Terkel on WFMT in Chicago, but I didn’t find out about NPR until I’d actually started volunteering at KYUK in Bethel, Alaska. NPR was still a new-kid phenom in 1977, but lots of us quickly tried to apply its style at our local stations. I did commercial salmon-fishing stories in the business style of Robert Krulwich, stories on the aurora borealis in the scientific manner of Ira Flatow, and city-council politics a la Linda Wertheimer. I even did radio drama in multi-leveled imitation of Tom Lopez. I tried to cram sound into everything I did, sometimes drowning what I had to say in an ocean of ambience. It was fun. After working in Washington for 12 years, I missed it.

Why Mongolia? When I was 11, my mother gave me a copy of Harold Lamb’s Genghis Khan for Christmas. It was wonderful, as remote from anything I knew as Oz or Outer Space. I never forgot it. It came back to me a couple of years ago when I was writing some articles about NPR for the Encyclopedia of Radio. Sooner or later, everything I researched led back to Bill Siemering (see comments with Mongolia photos), the man who’d envisioned that NPR style that I’d been so enamored with when I first got started in radio. Bill now works for the Soros Foundation, planting public radio stations and public radio ideals in places as diverse as South Africa, Bulgaria and Ukraine. When I finally met Bill, he had a stack of photos from his most recent travels — in Mongolia. One of the photos showed a leathery guy in a steeple-topped cap, perched on a camel in a wintry desert. It showed me that the Mongolia of Genghis was still there. I had to go.

Bill told me about the Knight International Press Fellowships. The program bills itself as a journalistic Peace Corps, helping the growth of free media in developing democracies. It sends reporters to host countries for anywhere from 2 to 9 months and helps connect them with training programs. One of the program’s limitations is underlined by the fact that it’s called the Press fellowship, meaning its main experience has been with print journalists. That’s good, as far as it goes, but in countries with far-flung populations and low rates of literacy, radio can often go a lot farther. The International Center for Journalists, which administers the Knight Fellowships, is trying to add more broadcasters to its rolls.

My wife, Diana Derby, is a former production engineer for the Alaska Public Radio Network and Pacifica. Somehow, Mongolia didn’t seem implausible to her, or to my daughter Claire (but then Claire was 9 at the time). We applied, and in June of last year, we found ourselves in Ulaanbaatar.

Pretty Tape & Cheap Receivers

The capital of Mongolia is spread out on a plain surrounded by green hills, where Genghis (he’s called Chingis in Mongolian) and his successors held yearly encampments. Half its 700,000 people live in Soviet-style apartment blocks, while the rest are camped around the city in felt yurts, called gers. It got the name Ulaanbaatar, meaning “Red Hero,” following the 1921 revolution that made Mongolia the world’s second Communist country, after Russia. Since the collapse of the Communist regime in 1991, the Socialist edifice has been crumbling, while Capitalism takes root in the cracks. Horsemen in long robes and boots herd their cattle in the streets, while young women pick their way through the rubble in miniskirts and the kind of stiletto heels that used to be imagined only in cheap detective novels.

The state of radio in Mongolia reflects all this. I did most of my teaching in dusty provincial towns where the Soros Foundation, USAID, and UNESCO are funding small FM stations, most of them with no more than a 100-watt transmitter. A typical station has about five staffers, including the station manager. Combination deejay/reporters work seven days a week for the equivalent of $25 to $35 a month. This is not good money even by Mongolian standards. The shortest joke in Mongolian is “I live on my salary.” Everybody moonlights, which exposes journalists to all kinds of temptations and conflicts of interest.

Bill Siemering has been working to get decent equipment into the stations, but many of them are still encumbered with ancient gear from Eastern Europe. The standard is a clunky Hungarian cassette deck, heavy as a Nagra, with the fidelity of a telephone answering machine. All this is left over from the Socialist system, when national radio was hard-wired into everyone’s apartment. You still see these cheap receivers hanging on hotel-room walls, the perfect symbols of totalitarian government. Since there’s no choice of stations, there’s no tuning knob, only a volume control. (I suppose if it were a perfect symbol, there’d be no volume knob either).

Because state-run radio had never really bothered with sound quality, no one at the independent stations was aware of it either. I spent a lot of time badgering my students into wearing headphones when they were recording and showing them how to set levels. I was reminded how much of our craft is really learned through apprenticeship. You learn by doing and by making mistakes. You learn faster when there’s someone to show you what to do.

I was also reminded that you have to listen to a lot of good stuff before you can set standards for yourself. I’d brought a lot of pretty tape with me, thinking that the great production would be apparent, even to people who spoke no English. That didn’t work, of course, because great radio is all about the sound illuminating the meaning. I had to start projects at each station that would produce Mongolian-language examples of what I wanted to demonstrate.

I also had the good luck to come by a “bad example” tape early in my travels. Old Time Socialist radio isn’t quite dead in Mongolia yet, especially in the still-Red provinces in the south and west. We visited one station in a town that was controlled by a local Communist boss. There were four reporters at the station, guys in their mid-fifties, who’d spent most of their careers under Communism and had no interest in doing things any other way. They read government news releases in authoritative voices, larded their copy with statistics and punctuated their stories with staticky actualities. Most of the day they sat in the studio, smoking and cracking jokes. They were masters at doing what people in totalitarian states do best, evading the Authorities. They gave me copies of their news programs, which I was able to use ever afterward as examples of what not to do. I did take care to cover up their identities. After all, they were guys my age. In another life, they could just as easily have been me.

Radio From The Rock

This craft of ours is a practical thing. If you’re like me, you don’t really learn anything unless you have to put it into practice the very next day. I tried to leave each station with a project or two that would force everyone to use the ideas and techniques we’d gone over in the workshops. At Dalanzadgad, in the south Gobi desert, we did a preview of the town’s upcoming Naadam festival. Naadam celebrates what Mongols call “the three manly sports,” archery, horseracing and wrestling. (Actually, women are pretty formidable competitors in the first categories, and the men are said to be afraid to let them into wrestling.) The program called for us to go out and record the twang of archers’ bows, the grunts of wrestlers, and the ululating howls of child jockeys as they pounded over the finish line in bareback horse races. We spent half a day in the desert, looking for the camp of the region’s best horse trader. We interviewed him in a cool, shadowy yurt, crowded with 16 members of his family, all silent as they passed around bowls of fermented mare’s milk.. He was a tall man of great modesty and delicacy. When our reporter asked him what he hoped for in the big race, he said he hoped he would come in second to Erdenejargal’s white stallion, which was the fastest in the neighborhood. He said he hoped nobody got hurt, and he wished that people would remember not to drink so much vodka.

In Dalanzadgad I heard a curious story from a man named Batbold. (Most Mongols use only one name). He was a former Communist official who’d become a silversmith after the collapse of the government, making traditional silver ornaments for saddles and bridles. He told me there was said to be a crescent-shaped cliff to the south of town, not far from the Chinese border, where, if you stood in exactly the right place, you could hear radio signals coming from the rock. We never got time to go there.

About halfway through my time in Mongolia, I began to see patterns emerging in the stories that people told me. People my age tended to talk nostalgically about Socialism. It was their youth, after all. They talked about how hard it had had been to make the transition to the market economy. People in their 20s and 30s talked about how strange it was to have been raised Red, but then tossed into the economic chaos when they should have been getting their first job. Some of them survived as smugglers and black marketeers. It was This Mongolian Life. It was Stud’s Terkel’s Working turned upside down. It was the stuff of radio documentaries.
I wrote a grant request to the Soros Foundation, proposing a nation-wide oral history project that would record people’s stories as they made it, or didn’t make it, through the great transition. I asked for minidisk recording kits, computers, editing software, and training money. In the end, Soros gave us enough to equip and train seven stations.

I get e-mails from time to time from Ganhuyag, my former translator. He tells me that the oral history project is going well, and that the stations are putting their new equipment to good use. I’d like to get back there sometime and see how things are going for myself. I’d like to go back and find out whether you really can hear radio voices in the rocks of that strange cliff.

Getting Out

Sometimes it pays to get the hell out. For one thing, I’ve always found that my reputation is enhanced when I’m away from my usual haunts for a while, whereas it tends to tarnish a bit when I’m present. For another, being away refreshed me and restored my enthusiasm for radio. Teaching something you know from long experience makes you look at that experience with new eyes. Teaching something that’s relatively new to you (like computer editing) makes you learn it with desperate alacrity.

The Knight International Press Fellowships are only one of the ways that you can go out and spread the gospel of good radio. If you’d like to find out more about the Knight program and others, check out the International Center for Journalists’ Web site at One caution: the Knight program doesn’t allow participants to file stories while they’re on the fellowship. It’s not designed to send reporters and producers to exotic locales where they can do their own thing. The ban on working forces you to concentrate on your teaching and your students, which is what this program is all about. It’s probably not necessary to add that the program is not designed to make you rich, either, although it does pay generous expenses and an honorarium. We did fine in Mongolia, where living expenses are cheap. We were a little short of cash for awhile when we got back, but that just meant I’ve had to put off fixing the muffler on my car. So far I’ve managed to evade the Authorities.

Maybe it’s time to unravel some of the strands that might be good discussion topics in the coming month. I’m obviously interested in the idea of getting away, whether it’s “lighting out for the territories,” like Huck Finn, or just doing something that demands a steeper learning curve at home. I’m curious about how we Americans regard the ideas of Experience and Adventure. I’m interested in storytelling, and how good storytelling works, especially on the radio. (I’m fascinated by the mechanics of storytelling: dramatic structure, suspense building, patterns, timing and the like.) I’m also interested in the mechanics of good teaching. I’d like to hear from people who teach practical skills, such as cooking, welding and radio production that can transcend themselves and become art.

About Corey Flintoff

Corey and camel

Corey on a camel in the South Gobi desert.

Corey Flintoff has been a newscaster and reporter with NPR’s Washington, National, and Foreign Desks since 1990. Prior to joining NPR, Flintoff was executive producer for Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN), supervising the production of all news programming and hosting an evening newsmagazine. While at APRN, Flintoff filed freelance reports for NPR, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Monitor Radio, and the Associated Press. He won a 1989 Corporation for Public Broadcasting Silver Award for his coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Flintoff earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, both in English literature. Flintoff’s first radio experience was at a bilingual English-Yup’ik Eskimo station in Bethel, Alaska, where he learned enough Yup’ik to announce the station identification information. He has also been a novelist, dog-musher, and commercial herring fisherman.

66 Comments on “Corey Flintoff”

  • Julia Barton says:
    radio cultures

    Hi Corey,

    I guess I’ll get the discussion started since you and I have already talked about my own pending fellowship to Russia. One thing I didn’t ask was this: did you find that Mongolians would react differently to certain elements of radio production? When I taught a radio workshop in Armenia, one student was adamant that it was "disrespectful" to use ambience in any stories about serious topics, i.e. an investigative piece. She just associated it with light, frivolous reporting. Then there are issues of what’s respectful in an interview situation, and what sort of language (formal newspeak or everyday slang) radio announcers should use. I’d love to hear whether any of this was an issue for you in Mongolia. Thanks!

  • william warner says:

    Hello Corey –

    What was the atmosphere like during the war in Afghanistan? Was the news coverage pointed or slanted in any way? Do Mongolians like Americans, or do they pay as little attention to us as I do to them?

  • Susan Jenkins says:
    kindred spirit of late

    Hi Corey,

    What a surprise. I just returned from my own "getting out" in Uzbekistan and Bangladesh, brief sojourns but nonetheless long enough to form a familiar taste in my mouth when reading your Mongolia mani.

    The two places couldn’t be more different. but one thing was consistent–curiosity. I was mainly speaking in various events and workshops about photography, but had the chance to play my recent Transom piece (Only Us Down Here) and describe how it came about to some Bangladeshi photographers who were my captives for a workshop. They had never heard anything like it, but it clearly excited them to know that this kind of thing can be done.

    The curiosity levels in Uzbekistan were more, er, restrained. Nonetheless, I met some American journalists there who were teaching on 6-month fellowships. There seems to be some opportunity and interest beneath the surface of restraint.

    How much resistance or openness did you find? What seemed to influence the level of curiosity, and how did you negotiate that?

  • Jay Allison says:
    Corey is back

    Corey is back from Alaska and ready for your questions. Once we get him re-outfitted with his password, he’ll be here.

    Corey, did your trip to Mongolia affect you at all in the way you are on the air — your voice, your writing, your thinking?

  • helen woodward says:
    How refreshing…..

    to hear someone with your experience and well-established career, talking about the importance of travel, adventure, renewal, getting away from it all.

    Every time I go away somewhere foreign (not necessarily outside of the US) it’s like all your senses are given a shake up, even the most basic of one’s needs that would normally be taken care of without a second thought require you to reach out in a way that one doesn’t have to at "home" and try and be understood, things smell more intensly, food tastes better, the smallest interactions require more of you, and when you come back things seem different too.

    all of which leads to some questions: what did you miss while you were away, and what didn’t you miss that you expected too? what felt different when you came home? was it difficult/sad to get back into the swing of npr things?

  • coreyflintoff says:
    Radio cultures

    Hi Julia (& everyone!)
    I didn’t find that Mongols were resistant to using ambience, music, etc., in news stories, but I think your Armenian student raises a provocative question: namely, are we teaching our students to use sound in the most meaningful ways? My Mongolian students, like many others I’ve encountered, were inclined to use sound as decoration, rather than support for the meat of the story. Having been guilty of this myself, I tend to be fairly sensitive about it. I use the example of good television reporting, where the text doesn’t just comment on the pictures and the pictures don’t just illustrate the text. In good television reporting, the text and the pictures should tell parallel stories that enhance each other. Same with sound and acts ‘n tracks. The sound establishes things like place, time, emotional temperature, etc., at the same time it moves that narrative forward, providing transitions and punctuation. It’s tough to get all this across until you’ve constructed a good example in your students’ language. Sometimes it’s easier to show how badly chosen sound just detracts from and confuses the message in the rest of the story. I suppose that would fit the Armenian student’s idea of disrespect.
    Formality of language was an issue in Mongolia. In fact, older people frequently criticized young reporters and announcers for using slang. Like other language groups, though, Mongols have the myth that there was once a "high" language that has steadily degenerated down to the present, so I suppose they see radio as a further corruption. I hate the newspeak that we create every day here in Washington, but I don’t like slang, either, since both of them are really just about the creation of cliches. I tend to favor the sparest language for newscasting, and something a bit short of Scott Simonesque phrase-making for reporter pieces.

  • coreyflintoff says:

    Hi William,
    Mongols do like Americans. It’s culturally inappropriate to talk about death, but Mongolian friends overcame that to express their sympathy for the victims of the September 11 attacks. I didn’t notice that coverage of the Afghan War was slanted in one director or another, but it seemed very distant. The main impact of the Afghan War in Mongolia is that commercial airplane flights were diverted into Mongolian air space. Every additional contrail that you saw in the Mongolian sky was worth about $750 dollars to the government. People out on the steppe would look up at passing planes, smile & wave. Corey

  • coreyflintoff says:
    kindred spirit

    Hi Susan,
    I’m dying to go to Uzbekistan, ever since seeing some Uzbek musicians and dancers in far western Mongolia. I think photography and radio reporting have a lot in common, and in fact I know quite a few radio people who are also good photographers (Karen Michel, for one). There’s something about the sensitivity it takes to walk up to someone and make an image of them, whether it’s photo or sound. How do you get that image to be natural, not stilted by your own presence? I’m far to shy to be a good photographer, because I hesitate to ask people if I can take their pictures, but somehow a microphone doesn’t seem so intimidating. Mongols, incidently, generally dislike having their pictures taken by strangers, although they love it if you’re a guest and you share the photos with them.
    I encountered a lot of curiosity on the part of students, who asked a lot of questions about how reporters in the U-S handle issues like anonymous sourcing. Since most of them work in very small towns, most of their sources wanted to be anonymous, with all the attendant problems.
    I also encountered er, restraint among the older, more Socialist reporters. It turned out that they’d had a lot of training, and they were fond of saying "Oh we’ve done this before. This is nothing new." Then, of course, you’d find they didn’t know how to do something when it came to a practical exercise.
    The level of curiousity seemed to hinge on peoples’ willingness and ability to change. I spent a lot of time asking people what their visions were for their radio programs, what they wanted to accomplish, and tried to go from there.
    By the way, what kind of program were you on, and would you recommend it?

  • Viki Merrick says:
    parlez-vous mongolien?

    I was delighted with your manifesto…daydreaming about where I’ve been, where I might like to go and bemoaning my waning sense of distant adventure since the appearance of my 2 children. You’ve put a playful pebble in my shoe.

    How’s your Mongolian? Based on your story, I’m assuming it’s not too fluent. I am fascinated about teaching something that involves the actual use of language without speaking that language. How do you know WHEN ambi distracts from spoken content or enhances it, how do you revel in a soundbite, or share the revelling or the distraction? This has got to be verrrry difficult and challenging. I don’t mean to be flip, but "a translator" can’t be a good enough answer. I’ve done a lot of translating in news and documentary and that’s a lot different because I am RELAYING and have replaced the genuine thing. Surely you have some good stories to share on this aspect of teaching. I’ve pulled up my chair….

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    Speak Mongol? Hell….

    Hi Viki, You’re right. I could barely ask my way to the bathroom in Mongolian (assuming there had been one), much less grasp the subtleties of a soundbite. (And yet, having had so many stories translated to me, I now imagine them as if I had heard them directly in English, complete with all the verbal tics and ornamentation of the original storytellers. I imagine that’s because I had plenty of time to study people’s faces as they talked, so I was able to supply many of the nuances of emotion, humor and so forth, that might not have come through in a translated sound bite or a transcript.)
    As far as teaching was concerned, i had to fall back on the way a particular soundbite appeared to affect the Mongol listeners in the room. I’d ask my students what the cut told about the speaker, above and beyond the information content of the words alone. That is, can you tell the person’s age, their emotional state, their truthfulness, what they might look like, etc. I encouraged them to choose bites that offered multiple levels of content. After all, the narrator can always relate "facts" and "information," but good interview cuts can express so much more.
    It’s interesting that you, as a translator, seem not to completely trust translation. What kinds of warnings would you offer a reporter or documentarian who’s working through a translator?

  • Jeremy Hobson says:
    Writing Newscasts

    Hi Corey!

    I hate to change the subject–because I love hearing about Mongolia. After all, I let the downstate-Illinois public radio audience know that you were there on the first day you were missing from All Things Considered last fall. But I have a couple of questions about newscast writing–since that’s one of my tasks in Boston. We try to keep most stories to 20 seconds…which makes it difficult to sum up the basic facts of a story that has new developments. For instance, when there is a new allegation against defrocked-priest John Geoghan, there is hardly any time to write about what Geoghan was defrocked for…in case some listeners are unaware (which I’m sure some are). How do you decide what to include as background information, and how do you and your fellow newscasters coordinate what background information is being read on air throughout the day/week/month? Certainly there are many stories that are only covered in the newscasts, and there are some listeners who rely solely on NPR for information. Therefore, you provide them with the only information they receive on some stories. So how do you decide what and how often to tell them information that is a sentence or two after the headline. Also, as far as breaking news is concerned–how come NPR newscasters don’t sound alarmed when they are reporting on planes hitting the WTC (not that that’s a bad thing–I’m just wondering)? Are you guys told not to sound too surprised on the air? Those are my questions for now. More later…


  • Viki Merrick says:

    Corey – what a great answer for me to chew on – I was intrigued because in your manifesto you never mentioned language as an impediment to your teaching and I see by your response that it wasn’t ! I’ve been thinking about it for a while. Your approach to teaching based on the listeners’ interpretations is fascinating and I’m curious about discrepancies you might have encountered among their responses…
    You took your lead by WATCHING the faces as they spoke. If one of our senses is shut down, we move on to the next. Non-visual translation is often void of innuendo and subtext, people saying one innocuous thing with a wry smile brings in another meaning – That’s why v/o’s often sound so, uh…diplomatic.
    It’s interesting that official simultaneous translating is the most difficult skill to acquire because you do it without the benefit of human stuff- vibes, gestures, eye contact. You’d think it would be easier because you only have to deal with THE WORDS, no need for ALSO having to interpret intent or emotion. (indeed maybe that’s why I dropped that program – our "fun" assignments where you actually got to see a person, were translating the nightly news…) Verbal communication carries stuff with it hopefully, it’s supposed to (hence our affection for good radio).
    In translation, if you remove that human presence it’s just EXTREMELY difficult to interpret, never mind simultaneously. Once you "achieve" that skill – it becomes like breathing – and many booth translators can knit and write post cards at the same time, sort of robotic. but I digress…
    I wasn’t trying to send out a signal flare on translators – just that no matter how keen I am in my observation as a translator, the soundbite becomes mine, dressed from MY baggage. I’ve heard lots of translations where I’ve thought – hmm I wouldn’t have said that or I would have said this. it’s not that it’s WRONG, it’s just slightly different, ever so slightly different. If I were to issue a warning, I’d just tell them to pay very close attention to body language, demeanor, tone – all the stuff you did when you couldn’t understand the words – so that when the story gets told some of the original might be preserved. It’s a subtle thing, but the best reporters I worked with overseas were sensitive to it and would comment something like: well he’s SAYING this but he SEEMS a little antsy…

    I admire your undaunted attidtude about going to teach this kind of language sensitive stuff in a tongue about as similair to yours as Urdu. It’s certainly not quite like teaching the how-to’s of something like growing corn, or building a house. Before you left on your teaching adventure to Mongolia, were you at all worried about this language thing – how on earth does one "plan" for this? I think I would have to decide to go and just leave the next day.

    (p.s. I’m not a "real" translator – more like a "fixer" who always ended up translating or rather, interpreting.)

  • Lorrelmae says:
    Hullo Corey!

    ( Do you know an officer by the name of Terry Aspberry? (Around(?) Bethel) Do you find Mongolia palpable? The images onscreen from the site make it look as though I ought to settle there.

    Happy travels, and duck where applicable.

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    News Haiku

    Hi Jeremy,
    You’ve hit on one of the hardest things about this peculiar little craft of writing newscasts: deciding how much context to provide for any given story. It’s neither useful to the listener nor fair to recite facts without context. Witness the Middle East conflict. If you don’t provide political and social context for what’s going on, your coverage just turns into a litany of horrors. Since we do hourly newscasts, it’s possible to reduce many stories to just a couple lines of new information and a couple lines of background, with the hope that we can flesh a story out over several hours. In the case of John Geoghan, the background is always more or less the same "…convicted of child rape," or "accused of molesting as many as X number of children." The reduction to absurdity comes when we try to distill the background into a catchy adjectival phrase, such as "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. Obviously that doesn’t characterize the guy for anyone who doesn’t know the story, and it includes a prejudgement that his lawyers would probably quarrel with. It doesn’t help to try to fudge the judgement, either, as a lot of newspeople do, by calling him "suspected or so-called American Taliban…" I think the only way to avoid this kind of stuff is be suspicious anytime American journalists seem to settle on a convenient cliche for describing people. Getting back to the issue of writing short while providing background, though, I think the simplest approach is best. I try to think about how I’d blurt a story out to a friend of mine, "Guess what!…," because the story tends to fall into a natural order that way, with the newest or most important fact first.
    The newcasters at NPR doen’t consult much on how much background to give a story. We all work such different shifts that we don’t get to see each other that much, but we do listen to each other newscasts.
    Newscasting is a funny form of rhetoric that doesn’t allow much space for expressing your personality. I try to avoid showing too much emotion, just because most emotional reactions are judgemental.
    When’re we going to see you back at NPR, Jeremy?

  • Jeremy Hobson says:
    Details at 11


    Very good advice. Best of all is to write the way you would blurt out a story to a friend. Although, it wouldn’t work that well in commercial television. When was the last time you said to a friend: "Hey Susan…thinking about having children? Think again! A new study out says doing so could cause problems in your love life. Details at 11."

    I’ll be back at NPR sometime this summer for a long weekend…so I’ll see you soon!

  • Alison Freeland says:
    Story radar

    Corey, I’ve been working on a story for Transom, and therefore thinking about how to recognize a good story when we come across it. I was wondering what triggers your story radar. Can you identify the elements that get your attention in a situation, and tell you you’ve got a good one on your hands?

    Also, on a totally different topic, but slipped in on the same email–I filled in recently producing the national and local news at the top of the hour on a news/talk radio station. I began to think humans may not be built to digest such quantity of information, much of it startling or disturbing, from so many locations, multiple times a day. Do you struggle with this thought as a news presenter?

    Glad you’re on Transom this month….All best

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    Story radar

    Hi Alison,

    My most reliable story radar is the gossip test. Would I tell a story to my wife or a friend? Have I spent more than a few minutes thinking about it myself? Did it move me in some way; i.e., cheer me up, make me uneasy, make me mad? Does a story seem credible? Sometimes you can get a good angle by challenging some piece of gossip that’s making the rounds but doesn’t seem quite plausible. Does a story surprise you? Does it thwart your expectations in some interesting way? Ira Glass likes to say he knows he’s onto a good story when he realizes it’s not turning out the way he expected.
    On the second topic, I agree with you — there’s way too much information out here, and it’s unsettling at best. Research has shown that people who regularly watch television news tend to be more anxious, more pessimistic, more susceptible to stress. People can probably absorb one or two disturbing stories at a time, but a whole list (that is, a newscast) might just be hazardous to your health.
    NPR does a lot of political stories, which at least deal with issues you can do something about (vote, write a letter, etc.), as opposed to murders and disasters, which you can only fret about. (I tend to be kind of clueless in my own life, which protects me from stress).

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    Okay, I’m ducking

    Hey Lorrelmae,
    Don’t know any Terry Aspberry from Bethel. But Mongolia reminded me a lot of Alaska, like a freezer-burned version of Bethel. It is palpable, if not exactly embraceable; also audible, gustable and olfactable. Best, Corey

  • Susan Jenkins says:
    kindred spirit thread

    Hi Corey,

    I’m a little delayed in responding to your response (sorry). I was only away 3 weeks, but it was one of those trips that marks the end of one world and the beginning of another. Since I’ve been back it’s felt this way.

    Uzbekistan had the flavor of intense hospitality in the midst of an otherwise restricted (and strained) society. The mixing of east and west and south over centuries has rendered a unique cultural blend with subtlety far beyond fusion. Most of my trip there was consumed by visual arts, but I suspect the music delectable.

    The former soviet presence still permeates day to day life but doesn’t dominate. At the press conference I felt like I had to encourage the reporters to ask questions.

    I was on a cultural exchange trip for the US DoS relating to my work at Ground Zero and with Joel Meyerowitz, accompanying an exhibit of his photographs. Kind of a cultural diplomacy "parachute" trip involving multiple cities rather than a long committment to one place. My programs varied with the places, and I often found that the places wanted me to talk about all kinds of things not relating to the reason I was there in the first place. A parachuting portal to the west for the east.

    Now another question: One of the things I really like about radio is the way it can set up a sense of place through sound…especially when it’s an unfamiliar place. Here we’re so globally oriented that it’s just as often sound from across the world as one in our own backyard. Were the Mongolian radio producers interested in sense of place? And was it mainly local?

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    Don’t Just Read About Camels, Ride Them!

    Dear All,
    So, like the idea of going to Mongolia to do journalism? Turns out there’s a way to get there, at least if you’re a journalism grad student. The USAID program, Gobi Initiative, is looking for a journalism intern to work in Mongolia for six to twelve months. The intern would work on the program’s news magazine, the Rural Business News. It’s open to anyone currently enrolled in a Masters level program who would receive academic credit for the internship.
    Among other things, it calls for someone willing to "regularly travel long distances by vehicle to remote areas of Mongolia, including the Gobi Desert."
    To find out more about the Gobi Initiative, visit To learn more about the intership, contact Dan Spealman at (Pact is the organization that administers this program for Mercy Corps.)

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    Retro Replies + NPR-Israeli-Palestinian question

    Dear All,
    Jay just pointed out to me that I missed responding to some folks who posted at the beginning of this discussion, when I was off to Alaska. I’ll try to get back to everyone in the following. In the meantime, I have a question: what do you think about the Israeli-Palestinian-NPR conflict. I’m referring to the CAMERA-led boycott of WBUR for its (and particularly NPR’s) allegedly Palestinian leanings. This has been one of the biggest and most difficult sources of controversy and heartache for us at NPR. I’m curious about how other people perceive it.

  • Jay Allison says:

    Here’s a link to an article in the public broadcasting newspaper CURRENT which will give you some background on the boycott.

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    Corey is Back

    Hi Jay, This is to yours of May 20th.
    Actually, We all — Diana, Claire and I — thought we were going to be irrevocably changed by this experience, maybe so much so that we could never go back to our old ways. The quick answer to that was "Naawwwwwww." We’re pretty much the same as we were. The changes turned out to be far more subtle. For instance, having been in a culture that was less transparent to us (not opaque, exactly, but more like translucent), we learned not to judge people and events so quickly. We’re more likely to wait and see what unfolds. That’s how I feel about news, as well — which may not be such a good thing in someone whose job it is to produce as-it-happens headline news. I think more things ought to be allowed to unfold a bit before we start yapping about them on the air. Take the guy accused of plotting to set off a "dirty" radioactive bomb. All the media leapt to that bait like a trout jumping for a fly, which perfectly served the interests of John Ashcroft, et. al. Since there was comparatively little information about Abdullah al-Muhahjir (or Joe Padilla), we trotted out mini treatises on the possibilities of a dirty bomb attack, such as where the radiation might drift if it were set off in downtown Washington (according to the Washington Post, it would go right over my house). So far, nobody has really challenged the government’s case against this guy. So, I guess the long answer is that exposure to another culture, to other levels of ambiguity, has made me a bit more deliberate in the way I respond.
    Since I spent a lot of time preaching about how announcers should be more aware of the intimacy of the medium, I also try to remember that I’m really only talking to one person at a time when I’m on the air, and tone down the big announcer-voice rhetoric we all fall into.

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    How refreshing…..

    Dear Helen,
    Sorry to have missed responding the first time around. Other than friends, we didn’t miss all that much when we were away, but then, six months isn’t long. It’s now been a year since we packed most of our stuff in boxes so we could rent our house. Most of those boxes haven’t been re-opened, and I think it’s because we’ve found that we can do fine without all that stuff.
    The big footprint in the middle of our Mongolian experience (as in everyone else’s) was, of course, September 11th. Once we’d gotten over the initial shock, we felt profoundly isolated from our friends in New York and D.C., and we realized fairly quickly that they’d been through something we’d never be able to completely fathom. We felt we were missing out on that fleeting sense of unity and purpose that held everyone together. I really missed being with my colleagues at NPR, sharing in the rush of pulling together on a huge story. (Selfish reactions, it’s true, and that’s another of the disadvantages of being away: everyone’s reactions are selfish, or at least self-centered, but when you’re on the scene, you can at least ameliorate your own self-centeredness by doing something to help other people.)
    It wasn’t that hard to get back into the swing of things at NPR. The advantage of doing daily news is that it starts fresh every day. Best, Corey

  • kimberly kinchen says:

    re the exchange b/t Corey and Allison…

    I love the idea that part of Corey’s test for " is it a good story" is the gossip test – as an obsessive compulsive eavesdropper I can appreciate that….

    as for too much information….I can hardly watch tv news because it infuriates me how quickly it skips from one thing to the next, and years ago i stopped waking up to NPR, even, because the brevity of too many of the reports (too much to take first thing in the am, I wait til later))….as I said in my comments about Allison’s piece here on transom, I’d prefer an hour to the 15 minutes, even,…I want that depth, and that depth gives me a lot more information around one theme, gives me something to bite into, something to think about. Not so with the little bits and pieces. you hear just enough to get exasperated, and then they are moving on to the next thing, and its like some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome induced from news watching…I think it is really less disturbing to give people much larger chunks of information around fewer topics, because the issues get a chance to be fleshed out and put into a context, and even for less-than-pleasant topics, having that context maybe lends a kind of understanding that you can’t get from the avalanche method of news reporting. For me, this is true.

    I know this isn’t practical and it certainly isn’t marketable, but I’d prefer my news in large chunks over several hours, rather than small bits repeated every 15/30/60 minutes…But then the question is, what distinguishes news from documentary, and what about what is in between and beyond those two poles?

  • Sydney Lewis says:
    back to mongolia

    You mention beginning to see patterns emerging in the stories that people told you, stories that came out of people’s reactions to the changes in their economic/political landscape. I haven’t been out of the country since spending the summer hitching around England, Wales and France in ’70 (even the shrub now has more out-of-country travel experience than myself). I remember being amazed at how politically sophisticated young people there were — they saw their lives in a larger context than young people over here did. Yet we were all exposed to pretty much the same level of information, even thirty years ago. But Mongolia, well… what sense did you have of young people’s sense of the outer world in terms of the stories, or were they all pretty much Mongolian centered? I know nada about what level of exposure to world events the average Mongolian has. I’m also curious about how you taught the mechanics of storytelling — "dramatic structure, suspense building, patterns, timing and the like" — while working in a foreign language. The rhythm of language and life must have been so foreign to your ears and being. It seems daunting to work at a level beyond assessing how much information any speaker’s voice and words carry.

    Have you any plans to cull any of the Mongolian oral history project for our ears?

    Also, when you returned, did you "hear" public radio in any new ways? Find certain things annoying? Have any surprising reactions?

    Thanks for answering whatever you feel like addressing….

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    Kindred spirit thread

    Hi Susan,
    Mongolian radio producers were very interested in a sense of place. Maybe it’s a function of living in a largely nomadic society, but people wanted to be quite precise about where they were. Of course, the same cues that evoke a place to us don’t always work for them. For instance, I wanted my reporters to use a lot of nomadic camp sounds, such as the clink of horse gear, the rattle of a stove, kids playing, goats bleating, etc. That was rich, exotic sound to me, but it was quite ordinary, generic stuff to my reporters, who couldn’t see much point in using it. Their idea of locating a place was mainly verbal description; i.e.; "the other side of Black Mountain, just beyond Munkhjargal’s well." Pamela Brooks, a radio producer who now lives in Malawi, is working with a couple of groups in Mongolia to produce soap operas, and I know she’s trying to get people to be more sound/place oriented.

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    Analogue…the wave of the future (I like that!)

    Dear Kimberly,
    You’re right (and here I’m undercutting my own job again), fewer topics and more information would probably be healthier for us as news consumers. That, after all, is how people exchange informtion in indigenous societies — leisurely talk and story-telling. I suppose radio talk shows and C-Span satisfy some of that kind of demand. On the other hand, even if the really in-depth news coverage you’re talking about were available, you’d still need a menu, and I guess that’s what newscasts are for.

  • Jay Allison says:

    Thanks so much for these responses, Corey. It’s interesting to consider what qualifies as a truly "life changing" experience — trips to Mongolia, terrorist attacks, being on a death penalty jury (see Death Qualified here on Transom). Sometimes the things you expect to change your life, don’t.

    Regarding this issue you raised above:
    >"…the CAMERA-led boycott of WBUR for its (and particularly NPR’s) allegedly Palestinian leanings. This has been one of the biggest and most difficult sources of controversy and heartache for us at NPR. I’m curious about how other people perceive it."

    I’m wondering… do the CAMERA-type tactics work? Does NPR tend to self-censor or second guess as a result? Or does it piss off the staff and make them disregard the criticism as purely biased and unfounded? Or does it actually make the news organization more careful, which could be positive? Again, does the tactic work?

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    Back to Mongolia

    Dear Sydney,
    Mongols actually have a pretty wide view of the world, except that it’s from the perspective of the former Eastern bloc. People who were Communist Party functionaries before the transition all spoke Russian and almost all traveled to Eastern Europe. Most provincial towns still get a channel or two of Russian TV (mostly wonderfully bad comedy/variety shows). Ulaanbaatar gets around 20 channels of cable TV, only about 3 of which are Mongolian. The rest include BBC, French, Italian, Chinese, Russian, Korean and occasionally even CNN. Their newspapers are very tabloidy, so international news is big on sensational stuff, not very big on policy. The Mongols are such a small population that they have to take a pretty wide view of the world. American news always seems very parochial to foreigners, and they’re right.
    I talked about the mechanics of storytelling in movie terms. Mongolia had a small but highly productive movie industry in Socialist days, and some of the movies were very well done, by Russian-trained directors. Movies were an important propaganda vehicle and they were (and still are) shown all over the country, even in rural settlements, so people know their movie vocabulary. I’d start out by telling students to imagine their piece as a small movie, with a beginning that sets up the action, a clearly defined problem, conflict or suspense, action, and maybe even resolution. They got it with no problem.
    I don’t have much good tape of the oral histories, but I have a couple of stories that I want to write at some point. My favorite is about a guy named Bao who ran away from home in the early 50s because he wanted to become a Hero of Labor, the title given to Socialist workers who surpassed all quotas. He failed, but had a series of quixotic adventures, including sinking the agricultural cooperative’s tractor in the river while using it to pay a visit to his Russian girlfriend.
    He was one of the ones who wept when he talked about the collapse of Socialism. He said "it wasn’t Socialism that failed, it was us. Somehow we just didn’t do it right."

  • Corey Flintoff says:

    Dear Jay,
    Actually the CAMERA-style tactics do work. We have become much more careful, which is good, but I think it can also have a chilling effect on reporters’ willingness to call it as they see it. The search for balance can also drain some of the color and passion out of our coverage, too. For instance, do we do a poignant story about a Palestinian family if we’re not sure we can get an equally powerful story about Israelis sometime soon? That’s just a hypothetical, of course. I don’t have to make those kinds of editorial decisions and I’m not privy to the discussions of people who do.
    We’re in the midst of analyzing all our Mideast coverage for the next several weeks to see whether it really is accurate and fair.
    Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) has issued a press release saying that NPR President Kevin Klose agreed the survey last month. Sherman is one of those who accuses NPR of "a serious imbalance" in its Middle East coverage.
    "Balance" seems to me to be a dangerously vague word. Do you define it to mean that each point of view should get minute-by-minute equivalence in the amount of air time devoted to it? Do we shoot for balance in the emotional tone or temperature of each side? Or, as CAMERA would have it, is the issue not about "balance" but about "truth." One of the reasons the Middle East conflict is so intractable, it seems to me is that each side sees what it considers to be manifest truth, and can’t understand why any reasonable person would see it differently.

  • Alexa Dvorson says:
    Mongol Kudos

    Corey, Greetings from Berlin and thank you for making this splendid appearance at Transom! Reading your manifesto made me thrilled to read about one of my former Alaska comrades on a KIP fellowship. I must admit I became nostalgic for my own Knight posting in Senegal (1999); I’d do a repeat on a moment’s notice, though I had a tough time with the Osama t-shirts in Dakar on my most recent visit this year.. It’s been awhile since you’ve returned, but I hope re-entry in DC has been kind to you, especially with all the changed emphasis in newsland. Congratulations on the Soros initiative you launched! May it serve as a model for other creative radio endeavors.

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    Knight you are!

    Just to fill everyone in, Alexa Dvorsin is an independent producer based in Germany and a great example of the kind of person who thrives in the odd but stimulating environment of overseas teaching. We first met in Alaska, when she was a reporter covering environmental issues and Native culture, among other things. Anyone in the radio business who thinks overseas work might be for them would do well to consult with her. Hi Alexa, As you know, the trouble with going someplace interesting is that you just want to keep going (or failing that, sending someone else in your place). One of my pals from Mongolia just turned up in Washington today, so I’ll get a chance to find out how the oral history project has been going. Speaking of projects, what are you up to these days and when are we likely to hear it?

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:

    Hey, Alexa,
    please give us the link to the neo-nazi piece on CBC.


    Can you say anything about your perceptions, your awareness of your voice on the air and off?
    I think your voice is bigger than life while not sounding "put-on."
    How conscious of it are you now? How did you/ do you work at it?
    Do you have to think about balancing your thoughts about your breath, the meaning… and what? I’m going on and on here to try to give you leeway to talk about minute details…

  • Jackson Braider says:
    CAMERA, "chilling effect": Whither (wither) a Free Press?

    I am intrigued by the notion that the impact of CAMERA,, etc. has prompted closer scrutiny at NPR of our coverage of the Middle East. In a tit-for-tat environment, surely, there are two sides to cover.

    I’m feeling somehow that we are failing here. WBUR is getting hammered because it happens to be in the place that CAMERA calls "home". But news is news is news — grantor credits shouldn’t be (at least, I don’t think so) a determining factor as to the content of that news.

    My first sense is that NPR should be approaching Soros for a GC that addresses "a free press." At the very least, NPR listeners should be offered an opportunity to boycott those who boycott us because…

    Because, well, no one outside the news should be determining what the content of that news should be.

    I guess that I am responding so vehemently to the actions of CAMERA, et alia because they are occurring *here* and they are occurring *now*. Here, in a place where a one-month-old story can achieve front-page prominence because our Attorney General wants to make an impression from Moscow; now, because any questioning of anything that strays from the administration’s haphazard policy in the Middle East is potentially antipatriotic and therefore answerable to months in a brig not of your own choosing

    My sense is that what CAMERA is doing is not so much boycott as blackmail.

    But my real question is this: is there another phrase we can use in the place of "chilling effect"? Cheney used it to defend the administration’s position on the so-called energy taskforce and the effect disclosure of discussions between economic visionary Ken Lay and economic visionary Dick Cheney might have on further locker-room chatter between oil execs.

    Surely what the NPR news division is doing in the Middle East is a very different thing.

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    Messin with my Sprezzatura

    Dear Nannette,
    I found myself unaccountably reluctant to talk about being aware of my voice until I realized that I’m a big adherent of the Italian concept of Sprezzatura, which means something like making a difficult art or craft seem effortless. Of course, voice work isn’t effortless. I’ve been working at it throughout my career, and I’ve had some good coaching, too, from people like Karen Michel and Audrey Welles. The bigger than life quality stems from the fact that news writing is necessarily different from ordinary storytelling. The information content is much denser, so you find yourself trying to create a rhetoric that sounds conversational while conveying a lot of stuff. Then, I do think about the performance aspects of it, too, trying to make it expressive and conversational. When I read, I have a tendency to bob my head like one of those dogs in the back windows of people’s cars, and I tend to make a lot of monkey-like facial expressions, too. Lately, I’ve had a lot more appreciation of good pacing, the ability to make nicely timed pauses at the end of a thought, etc., and the willingness to let silence work for you. Since you can’t increase your volume to emphasize certain words or phrases, you have to learn to lean on those elements, to stretch them slightly, to draw them out. The other thing is to find your natural timbre and let your reading voice fall into it. I don’t know how to teach that. I think it’s just a matter of listening to your own throat. I have a lot of favorite on-air voices. Aside from the most obvious ones, like Studs Terkel and Scott Simon, I like Steve Inskeep, Jackie Lyden (hers is a real theatrical, 1930s & 40s actress voice)Ira Glass, Madeleine Brand….

  • m lamp says:

    Corey, Greetings from Colorado Public Radio — I wonder if, just as a report by D.Kestenbaum is not the same as one by say, B.Bradley or A.Chadwick — do hourly newscasts reflect something of the newscaster? Other than the newscaster’s voice, I mean. Of course there is nothing of the newscaster’s personal bias or opinion — but is there…something? Something in the choice or weight of stories, some turn of phrase that makes a newscast uniquely Flintoff, unmistakably Stasio? Or do you (I mean collectively) aim for near anonymity, keeping each cast carefully consistent with the whole body of newscasts, regardless of who writes or reads it?

    By the way, the "NPR Quarterly" article, "The News is Next" in which you articulate your "news haiku" philosophy is widely posted and often re-read around the old newsroom here in Denver. Cheers.

  • Corey Flintoff says:
    Chilling Effect

    Hi Jackson,
    You express the dilemma for NPR and its member stations very well. It’s good that we’re scrutinizing our coverage more closely. I doubt that it will ever please CAMERA or other vehement critics, but it makes us a lot more sensitive to the impact, and especially the emotional impact of our coverage. News organizations tend to be hair-trigger sensitive to criticism, and we tend to forget that the most passionate responders are only a tiny percentage of the listenership.
    A lot of CAMERA’s complaints are "kill-the-messenger" responses: that is, if we quote Palestinians calling their suicide bombers "martyrs" or lamenting that the bombers’ bodies aren’t returned, CAMERA and its adherents act as if the words and the sentiments are ours.
    We also get a lot of emails and letters from people who simply and justifably want to address what the other side has said.

  • Corey Flintoff says:

    Hi m,
    It’s actually embarrassing how little coordination there is among newscasters at NPR, so yes, the newscasts do reflect each person’s choices. (Although it’s less so these days, when the newscasts are shorter and everyone has to pretty much reflect whatever’s urgent on the wire). Being a Westerner, for instance, I think I tend to use more Western stories than Ann Taylor, who comes from Tennessee by way of Washington and New York. It’s harder to get Easterners interested in federal lands issues, water rights, etc. Frank comes from Buffalo (as do John Stempin and Rob Schaefer, the evening producer). I think they’re more sensitive to Midwestern coverage. Makes a good case for diversity in the newsroom, anyway.
    Craig Windham comes from a commercial news background, as does Ann Taylor. Ann Boozell worked for VOA for a long time. I think all those experiences affect our styles, even though we do try for that more laid-back NPR sound.

  • Alexa Dvorson says:
    The Alaska-Allemagne-Africa Trail

    Dear Corey and Nannette,

    Sorry I didn’t check in for awhile and thanks for your back-announce, Corey! To answer your query on what I’m up to:

    1) Keeping fingers crossed and singing Mbalax refrains for Senegal’s next performance in the World Cup
    2) Continuing production on a series profiling African writers (for shortwave, using interviews recorded during a recent conference in Berlin on African literature called Versions and Subversions)
    3) Attending an exhausting conference called The Necessity of Dialogue (between Nazi era survivors and perpetrators and descendants on both sides) to get snippets for a long-term radio project, and
    4) Swearing I’ve got to start logging takes from Timbuktu and the Dogon country (Mali) for some pieces I imagine will appear on a radio near you later this year…

    That’s the shortlist. If there were a way to broadcast scents (there must be some way to do this) I would fill this message box with the charmed, uplifting odor of linden blossoms, the sweetest thing my nostrils have ever encountered in nature. This is a magical time in which Berlin gets saturated with this floradisiac for a precious few weeks –even four-lane streets are positively perfumed, can you imagine? In a capital city! I know the DC cherry thing is very special but this is another dimension… And in fine Alaska fashion, it stays light till just past 10:30 pm at the moment, a balmy 80 degrees at 11:30 on an hour-long bikeride home.

    Nannette, the piece on former neo-nazis (thanks for asking) is at On the right there’s an icon of an old fashioned radio. If you click on that you get past-season programs. It’s a weekly show; scroll back to Dec. 12, 2001. The piece is 16 minutes and titled "Same Old Hate." Some of you may have heard it in another longer form on Common Ground, but this version is more up to date (poignantly, you’ll see) and shorter.

    Thanks again for including me in this wonderful creation.
    best to all, Alexa
    (Ironic Curtain Productions)

  • Julia Barton says:

    Just reading over this discussion, I’m getting so many ideas for teaching in Russia (and now, it turns out, I’m going back to Ukraine too). Thanks again, Corey! Do you have a link to that "The News is Next" article?

    Just a thought on American provincialism: last time I was in Ukraine, some journalism students asked about how their country was covered in the U.S. press. A fair question, which we all had to answer with an embarrassed, "Well, it ISN’T covered for the most part." The students looked crestfallen. It made me realize again the importance of foreign correspondents and editors–like the ones in public radio–who still take features, not just news, from places "no one has heard of."

  • Corey Flintoff says:

    Hi Julie, I’ll try to come up with a link to "The News is Next," but as I recall, my contribution was neither long nor profound (which may account for its newsroom popularity. The only gem of wisdom I recall was something everybody who’s on-air should keep in mind: "it’s the producer’s job to worry; it’s your job not to worry." If you’re your own producer, of course, it helps to be bi-polar, as long as you can keep your producing self out of the studio while your on-air self is performing.
    Your observation about Ukraine is really telling. We scarcely ever cover Ukraine, and when we do, we only talk about the handful of topics we already know. That’s pathetic.

  • Jay Allison says:
    dispatch from Mongolia

    Bill Siemering, a public radio founding father, is in Mongolia right now and sent us an email dispatch. I asked Corey if we could post it in his topic and Corey was enthusiastic.

    First, I’ll post my Editor’s Letter intro in the next message. Then I’ll log on as "Bill" and post his message.

    After that, I hope Bill will be able to join us online from Mongolia. He’s asleep right now.

  • Jay Allison says:
    note from Jay about Bill Siemering

    A time when all attention is commanded in one direction may be a good time to look elsewhere.

    "For a few weeks after September last year,
    there was an awareness that the U.S. needs
    to >listen< more to the rest of the world,
    but that seems to have passed. Now it’s a
    lesson that was not learned. Small human
    stories, unrelated to politics, will enable
    Americans to become more aware that life is
    different in most of the rest of the world,
    where half the people live on $2.00 a day
    or less." -b.s.

    Bill Siemering just sent us a dispatch from Mongolia where he is working right now on a clock 13 hours ahead of ours, helping out the local radio service, "Gobi Wave." Bill says, "Gobi Wave is now on Internet and one of the reporters will be taking an English course so they could soon be able to send an audio file report telling what happened in the Gobi this week to a pub radio sister station. They have a Web site that needs further development, but once it is improved, they could have music, photos etc. and the sister station could have a link on their Web site to Gobi. Then, in time, I’d hope there could be a link, ‘To support our sister station, click here.’ The annual operating costs are $8000, the highest of any local development rural station here and a small contribution could make a huge difference."

  • Bill Siemering says:

    Radio in the Gobi

    The famous Gobi wind tosses sand in your face, getting in your mouth. Three story Russian built apartment blocks crouch at one end of an open space bordered by small shops. In the produce stands, I find only onions potatoes, cabbages and carrots; tomatoes are the only fruit. The only cheese was hard brown fist size blocks made from fermented mare’s milk.

    Lunch at the best café in town consists of potato, carrot and mutton soup, steamed mutton dumplings and milk salt tea. The total tab for both my translator and me is $1.34. It’s the same lunch we have everyday because that’s all there ever is on the menu. The cold water apartment is only $6.50 a night, soap not included. Some steers wander outside the window, occasionally raising their voices.

    This is the setting for Gobi Wave Radio in this provincial capital of 10,000 in Dalanzadgad, south Gobi, Mongolia. On the air 12 hours a day, Gobi Wave does a remarkable job of serving local needs with a combination of informative and entertaining programming, all for an annual budget of $8,000 a year. [Near the northern border with Russia, a station with 60% information programming operates with an annual budget of $1,000.]

    When I visited, the story on the opening of school included sound of the hand bell ringing, the kids singing and opening remarks by the principal on the daily 20:00 news program, thanks to training done by Corey when he was a Knight Fellow in Mongolia. In the afternoon, the local appointed Governor came in for his twice weekly live call-in program. The subjects were serious: what to do about the forthcoming winter, what can be done about poverty. After the broadcast he told me that the day before he had taken supplies from the Red Cross to herders who were devastated by last year’s harsh winter: flour and FM radios so they could hear Gobi Wave, the only station they could pick up on FM. When Parliamentarians come to the theater to meet with voters, Gobi Wave takes their Marti and broadcasts it live.

    Here are some of their popular programs.

    Radio Karaoke
    After playing a song, the first five listeners who call in and sing the same song then the listeners vote on the best singer. The winner is awarded the privileged of dedicating a song or sending a message.

    Love’s Guide
    Listeners write love letters to someone in whom they are interested and if the intended recipient of this interest or affection recognizes the writer, they write back. For example, a prisoner is exchanging letters with the daughter of his lawyer. Some letters are very long; others brief: “We’ve just been divorced for one month, but I still love you and miss you.” Ideal for shy people. Eves dropping on other’s love interests has universal appeal. A book of the collected letters has possibilities.

    Let’s Meet
    Listeners call in and describe themselves, their interests, may sing a song and tell the qualities of the friend they are seeking. They are only identified by number. If a listener is interested in meeting number two, let’s say, they come to the station and interviewed and checked out with their job, address, sobriety etc. The station then calls number two describes the interested party and if they want, a meeting is arranged. The station records the descriptions of folks who have no telephone if they come into the station.

    What’s the News?
    Described as “News from the people, for the people,” listeners call in their own news stories. For example, a caller describes a flock of goats that has wandered in the yard and asks the owner to fetch them. Or report a shop selling expired food or where they got a good buy on children’s clothing.

    Learn a Song
    The three reporters play a new song and after the listeners’ votes on their favorite, the reporter teaches the words.

    Greetings, Thank you and I’m Sorry
    Pretty self-explanatory as listeners send personal messages.

    I was amazed to hear the small advertising announcements: a liter of airag (fermented mare’s milk) for $.50 a liter; fresh locally grown vegetables; 40% of on school clothes. They charge $.03 a word and there were 15 in the morning and 30 in the afternoon; they literally walk in the door.

    Simba Ice cream has the most effective ad campaign. A coin (Indian) the size of a half dollar is inserted in an ice cream cone and when someone finds it in their cone (ouch!) they take it to the station and receive a prize: a basketball, cosmetics, an electronic game. (The coin is recycled to Simba.) Simba’s competitor told the manager that people had stopped buying his ice cream and he needed to advertise.

    I asked many why they enjoyed living in Dalanzadgad (it took me a long time to pronounce this fluently) that to Western eyes may seem desolate. Many spoke of the nearby natural beauty and qualities of the people. A reporter said, “My family and friends are more valuable to me than any amount of money anyone could offer for me to move to another place.”

    Having visited here four times over several I’ve grown fond of the place and the people. I’ve also never seen people produce so much with so few resources.

    -Bill Siemering
    Mongolia, September 2002

  • Lisa Peakes says:
    Thanks – delightful

    Thanks for the slice of life from Mongolia – the popular programming descriptions are delightful – an ice cream company in the desert – THERE’s an enterprise!

  • Marjorie Van Halteren says:
    Hearing from Bill

    I love hearing from you, Bill, no matter where you are and what you are writing about. But what you wrote about was wonderful. Radio: the ultimate message in a bottle – and isn’t the internet poised to carry on – maybe?

    I live in the North of France, in a village in Flanders. I was interested in what you said about how people in the rest of world live – and see things. I have such mixed feelings about the Sept. 11 anniversary media blitz. I am so moved by the expressions of the suffering of so many people – so saddened, so touched – all the talk about how we’re good, how we’re not good – and some wise things are being said.

    But I am also so aware if how America gets to do all this because America has the media, the language, the images, etc. This is not the first time for this story. We are not the only ones. Somehow we have to come to understand that.

    I hope to send something into to Transom, too, because I really enjoy it – and how wonderful to hear from old friends. Love to all. Marjorie

  • Bill Siemering says:
    Additions and Corrections from Mongolia

    After sending this piece to Jay, I left for a dinner and sat next to Naranchimeg*, the manager of Gobi Wave and received some facts I’d like to correct. The population of the coverage area is 16,000. In a survey of @1,200 participants 100% said they listened to the station. The Greetings program is really called CHANCE as in "It’s your chance to sing a song, send a message." The also have another program, Open Mocrophone when listeners call public attention to problems such as trash or too many stray dogs.

    The first day of school would have made a wonderful story to send to the U.S. The girls all dressed in black dresses with white ruffled aprons to show the importance of the occasion. Traditionally Mongolians don’t start school until age eight and their literacy rate is higher than the U.S.

    I thank Jay for posting this and it’s good to hear from Marjorie after so many years. I can’t describe my feelings to be in touch with old friends when I’m half way around the world away.

    *Mongolians use just one name since the Russians took away their family names to reduce what they thought was tribalism. Now Mongolians are adding their family names but are still just called by one.


  • Viki Merrick says:
    they put the PUBLIC in radio

    I love this ! It’s so honest, so genuinely public and compared to what we call public radio…I almost feel ashamed – we are too often so far off mark. Gobi Wave is so refreshingly not slick and truly concerned with what the peoples’ voice has to say and what they WANT and need to know about – love, good food deals, where your beasts are and appropriate importance on singing!

    Bill, can you speak a moment about how the program choices came about, were you privvy to any of the considerations? I would love to hear more about this.

    If you hadn’t described those lunches, I’d consider spending some time….

  • Bill Siemering says:
    Reply to Viki


    Good question. I’m not sure how the programs developed. One of the reporters came up with the idea for Let’s Meet, that’s just been on air seven weeks. I’ll try to find out, but it will take awhile.

    When I first did a workshop here, the translator said, "We don’t have a word for ‘community’ as you are using it." Of course it’s not the word that is important but what they >do<.

    This station grew out of the staff of the regional station for Mongol Radio that allows them to cutaway for two hours a week; they wanted their own voice.

    I know of no other station that has so closely connected the people with their government. And they are so much well integrated into the community.

    You can always bring some peanut butter and cheese from Ulaanbaatar.


  • Jay Allison says:

    We like this collaboration idea a lot and are going to work with Bill to make it happen. If it works out, our stations here by the sea will become sister stations with Gobi Wave. We’ll find ways to feature their work for our audiences, and we expect to learn a lot about community radio. We’ll offer them whatever we have that’s useful. As we go along, we’ll chronicle our effort on Transom for other public stations that may be interested in trying a sister relationship with other stations in the developing world. An idealist could imagine all sorts of possiblities for GLOBAL LISTENING which could spring from such a network.

  • Viki Merrick says:
    what’s in a word

    I find it fascinating that there is no word for community in Mongol – I am thinking about why words wouldn’t exist in a language – either because the thing simply doesn’t exist or that it is so integrated that it needn’t be named. Maybe they know community by "we" or we of the Gobi…regardless, based on their programming, community very much exists and their example is inspiring. Beyond the local announcements, it seems the heart of their broadcasting aims at reaching the common interior without nodding to a standard, erroneously formed by the western classist "non-we".
    Which makes me wonder, what sense of class did you find in the environs of Dalanzagad ?

    Peanut butter and cheese would work for me.

    I am excited by the prospect of the sister station and look forward to when the window opens.

    Thanks Bill

  • Bill Siemering says:
    Community is Like Water to a Fish

    Mongolians may not need a name for community because it is a natural part of life. One reason operating costs are low, is because much is done by barter. (Manager salaries are are also about $30.00 a month.) When you stop in a herder’s ger (tent home), they are serving you cheese, yoghurt or milk tea before any introduction. They are just naturally gracious and hospitable because there is no other place to stop on the steppes.

    Spending three days at the station, I got to understand it by listening to folks from the inside rather than as an outsider looking in. In other words, I wasn’t looking at how it fit the Western template of journalism or radio, but how it had evolved there, unique to their culture and place.

    I think Mongolians also feel this connection to nature; they are a part of it. They are not separate from nature. It’s part of the shamanism and Buddhism.

  • Julia Barton says:
    kitchen radio

    Here in Russia I’m becoming fascinated with this Soviet technology of kitchen radio, or wire radio. It’s not really radio but transmissions through a wire bundled with the electric lines to Soviet-built buildings. You just have this speaker unit that plugs into the outlet, and then you get the channel. One channel, on or off. I have it in my hotel room (there was a faulty wire, so I had the volume all the way up and could barely hear it until one day maybe the weather changed its conductivity, and suddenly it was blasting in my room).

    Some of my students in a seminar here work for the kitchen radio, and the nice thing is that they’re very aware of their audience. They know it’s mostly old women and people stuck at home. So these journalists have some version of public radio spirit, though heavily mixed with a sort of propagandistic outlook. Because the sad fact is that kitchen radio hasn’t changed with the times much. It has ads, but it’s dependent on gov’t subsidies and its main purpose seems to be to soothe people and cover the world as if it’s a fairy tale. Still, I’m fascinated by the medium, and i’m going to try to find out more about it. Unfortunately, I don’t know how much longer it will be around because new buildings don’t include the wire connections, and old connections aren’t repaired when they break down. It’s a huge infrastructure that no one really cares to maintain, but it seems like something could be done with it if someone had the imagination.

    I was just wondering, Bill, if you saw anything like this in Mongolia. And also more generally, how they’re adapting the old Soviet infrastructure of broadcasting, or just ditching it all together…

  • Jay Allison says:

    While we wait for Bill, I can tell you that he has pictures of the Gobi Wave station which he showed us in CIncinnati this weekend. It has a speaker mounted over the outside front door, broadcasting acoustically directly to the street.

    Bill, do you have copies of those pictures? If you send them, we can scan them and put them up here, and return them to you when we’re done.

  • Bill Siemering says:
    Reply to Julia

    The cable radio system was common in all the former Soviet countries. Since most people lived in the Russian built apartment blocks it was easy to install and ensure a captive audience. There was, after all, just one station to listen to, just as there was one party. In Mongolia, the local municipality could cut away from State Mongol Radio and originate local government news that was sent on the wire. As these systems are breaking down, Mongol Radio is starting FM station in the provincial centers.

  • Julia Barton says:
    more on the kitchen

    Thanks Bill. I figured the Mongolian system would be the same as Russia’s. I went to interview the director of one of the local (neighborhood level) radio offices–they have a one-hour cutaway from 6-7 pm when they air stories of concern to their listeners, who in this case lived in the area around the giant GAZ auto plant in Nizhny Novgorod. There were 5 people working in that office, 2 part-time, but they had a real enthusiasm for doing local programming. They also knew the system they’re in is dying. As I left, a candidate for mayor came in to answer some pre-recorded questions from listeners. Later I found out he also gave them some cash. So much for idealizing that system or any other. Still, I can’t help but think that this old system is the closest analog to public radio here, if only because they do stories with sound and interviews. Almost everyone else is just reading news off the internet with a music bed…

    I’m really interested to hear how the sister station idea is working out.

  • Bill Siemering says:

    Mongolia Photos
    From Bill Siemering

    You can travel to Dalanzadgad from Ulaanbaatar by following these tracks (the only road).
    Click for full picture.

    …or by flying on this Russian AN 24 prop plane on Mongolian Airlines (M.I.A.T).
    Click for full picture.

    Government building. Note Red Star and silhouette of Lenin even though Mongolia is now a democracy.
    Click for full picture.

  • Bill Siemering says:
    Mongolia Photos pt. 2

    Apartment blocks, one of the walkways to shops.
    Click for full picture.

    Exterior of a shop.
    Click for full picture.

    Shopkeeper in the market.
    Click for full picture.

    Click for full picture.

  • Bill Siemering says:
    Mongolia Photos pt. 3

    Forty percent of Mongolians are herders such as this one who listens to Gobi Wave.
    Click for full picture.

    Click for full picture.

  • Bill Siemering says:
    Mongolia Photos pt. 4

    Home of Gobi Wave FM 103.6.
    Click for full picture.

    L to R: Naranchimeg, director; Bill Siemering; Enkhtsetseg, reporter/host; Tserendulam, reporter/host (Enkhtsetseg and Tserendulam split the 12 hour air shift)
    Click for full picture.

    Gonbolg, a reporter.
    Click for full picture.

  • Alexa Dvorson says:
    Throat Singing online…?

    I don’t know if it’s too late to send a message out to you, Bill, but I just want to add my good cheer to your terrific efforts in Mongolia and thank you again for winning me over to Knight’s way (Press Fellowship) back in ’97. I’ve just returned from Madagascar on a second training assignment and am eternally grateful for your encouragement in the early days. I’m posting here because I’ve had no idea how to get a hold of you all this time! Please let us know when you’ll be in the US again. And does Mongolian throat singing come through online? That’s my big broadcast question for the Gobi!
    Best from Berlin, Alexa

  • Bill Siemering says:
    Reply to Alexa

    Good to hear from you, Alexa.
    You can reach me at

    I hope throat singing can come through online once our friends have the software and lines to send an audio file. Many Mongolians have beautiful voices.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:

    thank you so much for these pictures!
    many strike me as desolate and depressing
    But I realize people used to the setting see much more
    and hear more.
    If you can answer, Bill or Corey, could you comment on your initial reaction to the settings you lived in, and then how you might have felt differently after awhile?

  • Sarah Kamal says:
    Request for information on building public radio


    An Afghan women’s organization (staffed entirely by Afghan refugees) is interested in setting up community radio in Kabul. Given Bill Siemering’s
    groundbreaking work in Mongolia and South Africa on community radio, how might I go about learning from his experiences and/or communicating with him?


    Sarah Kamal

  • nhlanhla ngwenya says:
    Greetings from South Africa


    I lost your mail address, so had to google you. Well, life has been tough for me, a huge tragedy happened in my family.

    My brother, his wife, both my sisters and a cousin died, abt a month ago.

    Please write me cause I could do with a chat from you.