Jay Kernis

Intro from Jay Allison: This is an ode to fear and ambition, by Jay Kernis, creator of Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, late of CBS "60 Minutes" and now back at NPR as Senior Vice President for Programming. Ten days after his return, in May 2001, he read this litany at the Public Radio Conference in Seattle. He was asked to write something about Creativity for a panel on what is now known unglamorously as "Content."

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Elements of Creativity

Jay Kernis
New NPR Senior VP for Programming Jay Kernis
photo: Joe Hagen for the NPR/Rewind PRC Revue

I fear.

I fear and sometimes it’s very useful.

I fear that the idea or the story or the program won’t be good enough.

I fear I’m not smart enough.

I fear that I’m not smart enough to understand what the story is supposed to be about.

I fear that I will miss the point, that I’ve chosen the wrong people to interview, that they will lie to me and I won’t catch it, that I haven’t done enough research, that someone will get the story before me, that the alarm will NOT go off and I’ll be late, that the guest won’t show up, that the host will show up early, grumpy, hating the story and the guest to be interviewed.

I fear that the script will contain an error that will cause me humiliation and bring shame to the organization. Thank God hosts know no shame.

A haiku to a producer’s FEAR, in 17 syllables:

The work is so hard.
Sounds float like silver petals.
No one can hear them.

I fear I will lose the tapes or the discs.

I fear that what I create won’t be understood by the audience.

I fear that what I do will cause the listener to leave the radio in the kitchen and take a shower.

I fear that other participants in a story will phone or email afterwards to explain that it would have been a great job–if we had just discovered that our main character was wrong and the opposition was right.

In George Orwell’s novel “1984,” Winston Smith is taken to Room 101, to confront his worst fear. A chambered, mask-like cage is attached to his head and if the little door is opened, two rats will attack his face.

Radio producers visit Room 101 with some regularity, except the rats sit waiting in our headphones.

I fear I will disappoint those who believe in me.

I fear losing my hearing, my sight.

I fear, therefore I am.

So I push harder, get up earlier, rewrite more often. Rethink. Rework. Not more than you do. More than I used to. I have a Plan B, and a Plan F.

When I was a kid, I feared what the other kids thought of me.

But not so much that it prevented me from raising my hand and speaking out loud.

I learned the value of signing up, getting out there, stepping up to the plate. That there was worth in wanting something more. Something different. Something that meant something, for God’s sake.

So I learned how to get past the receptionists and the gatekeepers.

How to avoid the people who thought they were being paid to say no.

  • Having nothing to fear didn’t quite work for me, Mr. Roosevelt.
  • Taking the other road has made all the diff-er-ence, Mr. Frost.
  • I tried to move with the cheese, Dr. Johnson.

The revered philosopher of 20th Century culture and applied Judaism, Mel Brooks, has given us a useful idea of the kind of ambition necessary to do what we do. He recently said: Don’t tiptoe into show business. Jump into it. Make a noise. So today, I make noise for all of those people sitting out there in the dark. And I do it for you. And I do it for me.

And today, I don’t fear the trying.

I don’t fear the blank page or the blank screen.

I don’t fear the tough question.

I don’t fear the air.

I just fear a little bit of everything else, OK?

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