Brooke Gladstone

Intro from Jay Allison: Public Radio depends on trust. In a time when most media is overtly manipulative and you'd be a fool to trust anyone, public radio manages to retain a decent rep among its listeners. Of course, that rep can be blown with a few choice wrong moves. Careful. The show "On The Media" takes a clear-eyed look at all media, public radio included. You tend to trust Brooke Gladstone (and her co-host Bob Garfield for that matter) because they're so straight ahead, funny, not puffed up. Are these attributes among the core values of public radio? Should they be? In her Transom Manifesto, Brooke meditates on the way we sound now, and the way she wants to sound, and the way she's getting there. Read her Three Waypoints for making the trip.

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Brooke Gladstone’s Manifesto

When I joined NPR in 1987, I was a print reporter and editor. My career was undistinguished, I knew nothing about radio production and would never have gotten in the door today, but Scott Simon "big footed" me in because he felt like it.

(We had met in 1982 when reporting on the big financial scandal that nearly sunk NPR. I was working for Current and he was covering it for NPR. Five years later he bumped into my husband at the Smithsonian when Dizzy Gillespie was donating his trumpet, and said he needed an editor to fill in for an absent staffer on his show.)

So, at the age of 32, I came into NPR as a radio baby, bred like an orchid in that hothouse atmosphere of mission and radio values and respect for the audience. I couldn’t believe my luck then and marvel at it now. What’s more, NPR was pretty nice to me. After three years I went from senior editor of Scott’s show to senior editor of All Things Considered, then reported from Moscow for three years and served as the network’s first media reporter for six years. NPR even let me fill in as a host from time to time. It rarely messed with my stories. When I went on the air, it gave me very little guff about my purple prose and nasal voice. I had no beef with National Public Radio.

So why did I quit?

Or more to the point (as one colleague asked and many thought) why on earth would I leave Valhalla to go to a local station to work on an overlooked and under-funded, five-year-old dead shark of a show called (insert yawn here) On the Media?

Well, I was bored. I had worked at the media job twice as long as I’d ever worked on anything, and when I get bored, I start to screw up. I hadn’t screwed up yet, but I knew if I hung around much longer I probably would. (It’s good to know these things about yourself.)

But if I was sick of the beat, why did I go to On the Media?

Well, for one thing, Dean Cappello, who is in charge of programming at WNYC, which produces the show, really wanted me. I was incredibly flattered. Cappello wanted a new life for On the Media, which had already used up two lives, having first launched as a local call-in in 1995, and then gone national as a magazine-style show a couple years later. It had a talented (tiny) staff and an excellent host in Brian Lehrer, but Brian was already producing 10 hours of live radio a week for WNYC, and had to parachute into OTM after his show and in the evenings, to do the interviews and read the copy. The overworked producers had great instincts but little experience, and there was no editor. As a result, OTM was wildly uneven and circling the drain.

But WNYC pays a lot of dues to NPR. So the station chiefs convinced NPR to pony up a little more support, found some other funding, applied some creative money management, and decided to relaunch the show, one more time.

Mission Impossible

Just before, or maybe just after my hire, I was in Cappello’s office and he delivered what I think of as the "mission impossible" speech. My assignment, should I choose to accept it, was to jumpstart the shark, to turn OTM into a real, viable, national program. One that people would actually want to listen to.

Oh god, really? About the media? Which I was beginning to hate?

So I got to thinking about what I liked about the beat and what I didn’t. What I liked about NPR newsmagazines and what I didn’t. And slowly, the manifesto evolved.

Now I was the one invited on to Transom, so this is from me. But the manifesto, if it could be called one, is a full collaboration of Cappello, Senior Producer Arun Rath, co-host Bob Garfield, producers Katya Rogers, Janeen Price, Megan Ryan, Tony Field, technical director Dylan Keefe and Mike Pesca (who was an inspiration while he was with us). But, as I took Cappello’s meaning (and maybe I’m wrong), if the program stayed dead, it would be my failure. So I may as well be the one to lay out the philosophy from which we built the jumper cables.

First — the beat. What I didn’t like about the media beat at NPR was that I would be asked to do a three-and-a-half minute piece every time Tina Brown passed wind (or so it seemed to me.) I wasn’t interested in that, and I lived in one of the half-dozen zip codes where people genuinely cared about Tina Brown [former New Yorker editor-in-chief].

The fact was, for six years I had a Howie Kurtz monkey on my back. He writes a widely read media column for the Washington Post. He has great sources, and he’s often first on the big media stories. He’s also first on stories that aren’t big, or even interesting outside of certain social circles. But Howie writes for a newspaper. If people get bored they turn the page, they don’t throw out the paper. There’s no page-turning in radio, only channel switching. So you have to make people care about every story. That was always my first priority on a beat as abstract and vicarious as media, and sometimes it was hard. But try as I might, I found that some "insider" stories weren’t worth selling.

I covered the big news, but I also wanted to do pieces on where media and culture collide, where media holds up the mirror to culture, pieces on advertising, TV and movie trends, stand-up comics, you name it. I wanted to show how the media sausage is made. NPR wanted those stories too, but I still had to do pieces that I couldn’t even sell to me.

I’m not going to focus much on the way we configured the beat at OTM. It’s changed over time. 9-11 and the war made it more serious, more centered on journalism. And it will keep changing. But we do all the pieces I wanted to do, plus lots more that would never have occurred to me.

Point #1 of the Manifesto

Don’t limit your scope. It’s good to have an organizing principle but it should be violated at will. (Like when Bob did a story on vanity license plates, which doesn’t exactly qualify as "media," but was a fabulous story.)

Having worked on a couple of general interest magazine shows, I have reveled in the pursuit of any compelling story or idea that comes along without respect to beat or bailiwick. How liberating is journalism without a brief! But there are drawbacks. The danger is that programs that can be about anything may wind up being about nothing. The wheel has to be reinvented each time: out of a universe of possible topics, what to talk about this week becomes an excruciating question. It’s worse when a program has a small staff and limited resources. One inspired way around the problem is to organize each show around a theme, which has worked so well for This American Life and Studio 360. With time and advance planning, they compensate for the lack of resources and produce great radio. That doesn’t work for us because we are tied to the news and can’t re-run shows (though we certainly "repurpose" individual pieces and interviews.)

So actually, it helps us to know what we’re about (journalism, freedom of information, cultural and/or linguistic trends reflected in the media, impact of media on attitudes, manipulations of and by the media, etc.) It gives us a starting point. But none of us would last if it had to end there. Automatic pilot is death to a program like ours. If we can’t make media relevant and compelling even to those who don’t think they care about it (including those of us on staff), then the show will suffocate.

So Bob does vanity license plates and I do Everquest and we do privacy and Broadway and eBay and cell phones and all sorts of things that fall slightly outside the confines of "media" but entirely within the confines of "whatever we are dying to do and can make a halfway decent case has something to do with the way human beings interact." There’s a higher bar for stories like that but they do get on the air.

Point #2 of the Manifesto

Get good people, and use them. You are an idiot if you disrespect the ideas of anyone on the staff. Only a few ideas make it on the show, but they all deserve an airing and even a knockdown drag-out fight if the passion runs high.

The reason why OTM is less predictable than most news shows is it draws ideas from everywhere. This is the most collaborative show I’ve ever worked on. A co-host who is also a managing editor creates a dangerous power nexus that can strangle a program, so we don’t let it happen. There are no "junior" members on the staff. Rigid hierarchies (and I have participated in them at NPR) squander a lot of brainpower, and we can’t afford to waste any.

Prelude to Point #3 of the Manifesto

Here’s what I like about most public radio news magazines. The reporting is solid, the subjects are important and relevant, and the level of discourse is high. The audience is respected. These are the keys to public radio’s success. While more and more news outlets slice up consistently smaller pieces of the audience pie, public radio consistently gains listeners, so it’s doing something right.

Here, in my humble opinion, is what’s wrong: As they become the primary news source for more and more Americans, public radio newsmagazines are restricting their own ability to move listeners. Like physicians in medieval times they seeks to balance the four humors (so as not to be too choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic or melancholy) by bloodletting. Public radio newsmagazines are looking a little pallid these days, because the passion has been drained off.

There are strong personalities and neutral ones. Hot ones, like Scott Simon or Susan Stamberg, Jacki Lyden or Robert Siegel, are risky. People will love them, but they will also loathe them. The neutral personalities that hold most of the on-air positions on public radio today are safer. They bring us the news, they keep the discourse high. They are polite to the guests and the listeners. We don’t hate them. We don’t love them. We don’t know who they are.

The Part About Radio

When you read a newspaper (increasingly, public radio’s model) the reporter generally is absent. When you watch TV, the reporter is showing and telling, with pictures and charts. When you watch TV, in the back of your mind is the certain knowledge that tens of thousands of other people are watching with you. With radio, you can almost feel the breath of the reporter on your cheek. Radio is personal.

Only on radio do hosts and reporters serve as the listener’s surrogates. Only radio can maintain the illusion of a one-to-one relationship. Listeners need that person to guide them through the story, paint the picture, explain the situation. Listeners respond, actively, to the audio equivalent of a raised eyebrow, the vocal transmission of amusement or fear. It’s like dynamite. It can blow up in your face. But skillfully applied, it provides context far more intensely than an avalanche of words.

Passion is a part of life. Public radio is all grown up now. It should be able to handle it. But we all know where unbridled passion can lead: To that rolling cacophonous quagmire that is the rest of talk radio. All contention, no content. All bias and prejudice, no exchange of ideas. All heat, with nary a glimmer of light. I wouldn’t do it if they paid me a million bucks. (Well, maybe a million.)

There has to be a third way. We’ve all had debates that were a trifle tense, that involved some little gesticulation and saliva spray, that were still nuanced and fair, and ultimately more satisfying than the standard polite exchange.

Point #3 of the Manifesto

Look for ways to use the passion that accompanies conviction to make better radio.

So here’s what we did with OTM. We figured any show that includes a fair measure of criticizing one’s professional colleagues had better come clean. So Bob and I regularly practice full disclosure, and rarely use locutions that distance us from what we really mean (as in: "What do you say to the critics who say…) unless we really don’t share the criticism we’re presenting.

We have opinions, and we state them, and we allow the guests whatever time they need to respond. We ask a lot of follow-up questions. Sometimes we do push politeness to hammer away at a question if it isn’t answered the first, or second time, but we really do see ourselves as the listeners’ surrogate, and they deserve an answer (when we can get one) and not an evasion. Otherwise, why bother?

Every once in a while, if it’s interesting or illustrative, we leave in our mistakes. If, for instance, in a particular interview, we find that we’ve been barking up the wrong tree, the same tree we think listeners may be barking up, we let the interviewee correct us ­ rather than retake the question.

But we don’t leave it in if it isn’t meaningful. We edit like crazy. We shorten and move things around. Editing may be OTM‘s dirty, little secret. Things you hear are rarely anything like they happened in real time. We are excruciatingly possessive of our weekly hour and the listener’s ear.

Mostly though, we use what we’ve got. After all, OTM has about as conventional format as there is — just interviews and pieces with maybe an essay or parody thrown in to round out the hour. So we keep it moving. When we’ve used up the good stuff, we leave it. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Sometimes our shows are great, sometimes they suck. We learn from our mistakes. And yes, we always try to keep the level of discourse high.

A Final Thought About Public Radio in the Third Millennium

Public Radio is in great shape, for all the reasons I mentioned earlier. It is an oasis in a broadcast landscape where high ideals and intellectual engagement are drying up. But we don’t have to use the soothing rhythm that is public radio’s trademark tempo for every discussion. We can alternate the pace, syncopate. We can be true to our individual voices. Today’s news consumers are different from those a generation ago. They are inundated with outlets. In fact, they are – all of them – conscious media critics, navigating a torrent of chatter. They’re either going to trust you, or they won’t. In the interests of full disclosure, and journalistic ethics, and better radio, we should reveal ourselves. Let them know who they’re dealing with – flesh and blood people who live in the same world they do.

Brooke Gladstone

Brooke Gladstone

Brooke Gladstone's freelance pieces (on topics ranging from orgasmic Russian faith healers to the aesthetics of Pampers) have appeared in the London Observer, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The American Journalism Review and In These Times, among others.Brooke started out in print journalism, writing on defense policy, strip-mining, cable television, and public broadcasting (the latter for Current.) She also wrote and edited theater, film and music reviews for The Washington Weekly. Brooke's world changed in 1987 when NPR's Scott Simon asked her to fill in as senior editor for his still-new program, Weekend Edition Saturday. They finally gave her the job, and a couple years later, she became senior editor of the daily news magazine, All Things Considered. In 1991, Brooke was awarded a Knight Fellowship at Stanford and a year later she was in Russia, reporting on the bloody insurgency of the Russian Parliament and other interesting stories for NPR. In 1995, Brooke was packing for home while NPR was creating its brand new media beat. That became her job, and so it has remained, sort of. After six years on the media beat in NPR's New York Bureau in midtown Manhattan, she was tapped by WNYC several subway stops downtown, to help relaunch On The Media. She took over as managing editor and co-host and On The Media was reborn in January of 2001. It has since doubled its audience and won quite a few awards by brazenly showing how the journalism sausage is made. Brooke has won several awards too. She's most proud of the one recently bestowed by the Milwaukee Press Club for lifetime achievement, called the Sacred Cat Award. However, much to her dismay, On The Media's staff stubbornly refuses to perform any of the associated rituals.

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  • Jackson


    Big toe checks water temp

    One of the things I love about OTM is the sheer fun the program seems to revel in. No "Har, har, har — Back to you, Bruce," but intelligence with a full gleam in the eye.

    A humble question (yeah, right): the editorial process. I could ask who edits you, Brooke, when OTM is "edited by … Brooke"? And what is your approach to editing? Do you dispense wisdom oracularly — worthy suggestions that might best be acted upon by the writer? Or do you put on the greasy mechanic’s suit?

    There are different philosophies that figure in what an editor exactly does. As a recovering member of the Rough Carpentry School of Editorial, I wonder where you see the line between the story the reporter sees and what the editor wants to read/hear?

  • Dmitchell


    Bravo Brooke!

    Hi Brooke:
    You just "summed" the reason why I no longer work on shows, but instead create programs and professionals and do so with 20-somethings. On each project (and there were 13 last year) we never know how it’s going to turn out and it’s that mystery that keeps me and my fellow mentors/colleagues and our students looking ahead and feeling very hopeful about the future of public radio.
    I was in Ecuador last week for a conference involving community radio in North and South America. There we 20 of us in total and we talked deeply about what we shared and how we could work together. I represented NPR and Vidal Guzman represented PRI. Neither of us felt out of place…a few thousand miles and a whole culture and language away. That may speak to who we are as people, but also to some of the not-so-noticed, under-the-table movements happening within the building where I sit. Or sit on occasion. I’m rarely here and that means good things because people want us to share what we know and we’re learning to do that.

    I always enjoyed working with you and listen to "OTM" as often as my local station allows 🙂

    Doug Mitchell
    Project Manager
    next generation radio
    NPR-Washington D.C.

  • cordleycoit


    Oh Dear the Sky is falling

    I live between Colorado Public Radio (Denver)and Colorado Springs Public Radio 50 miles East. Colorado Public Radio is all classical.
    Colorado Springs Public Radio is run like a slave ship by an entrenched management. The manager has decreed and the staff follows. Talent comes and then is forced to leave. People of Color seem to pass out the doors quickly. If there is an anti war point of view the show gets dropped. Colorado Springs is a military camp and Colorado College is very accomadating of our soldiers.
    According to students they don’t listen to their own station the music is considered dull (Warren Zevon, banned, Cockburn, Banned, Richard Thompson, banned.)

    The management thinks that gay is good which is fine but gay radio is ditchwater dull for people who find no issue with the gay agenda.
    The gay and Sierra Club community’s political representatives just oked a housing developement on a Super Fund Site (contaminated with cynaide and uranium tailings,) of course this was a non topic because there is no local news shows (too expencive and anything critical is considered political. And lots money changed hands.)The print media are rejects from the Orange County Register and never saw a multi million real estate deal they didn’t like.
    The local talk radio is run by Clear Channel with some further right Christians who sound like a vast majaroity when they are a tiny minority.
    There is an oppressed arts community which is defunded and denied anything more than a passing voice.
    This is in a service area the size of Eastern Connecticut and most of Rhode Island.
    There are about 10,000 state and federal prisoners locked up and down, their existance is denied. So are the men and women who watch them.
    Any talk of another outlet is quashed by talk of ruining a acceptible compromise or worse homaphobia.
    Question how does on make public radio public in a place where control phreaks run the media with an iron fist?

  • Brooke Gladstone


    Reply to post #10: Who edits me

    Excellent question – who edits the editor?

    It’s changed over time. For a while, when my colleagues were less experienced at it, I was edited by a committee of Senior Producer Arun Rath and then-Producer at Large Mike Pesca with the occasional two-cents thrown in by Katya or Janeen or Bob when he was in town. Changes were debated and it was a bit of a mess. These days, Arun is my editor and I may argue but I don’t overrule and my pieces are much better for it. Similarly, I write many of the intros and edit the rest, Arun looks them over before we read them, and others (often producer Tony Field) will do some fact-checking.

    What does "edited by…Brooke" mean? I write lots of the copy. I help shape and order the ideas in the hour. I listen to a rough cut of most interviews and change things around with the producer. I used to edit all the pieces but now we subcontract them mostly to Sharon Ball, the former editor of NPR’s cultural desk, and Arun usually does the rest. I only edit staff pieces, which means Garfield and Arun, plus assorted others that for whatever reason I simply decide to do.

    How do I edit? My main concerns are clarity, pace and impact. Every piece has a central idea, and that idea has a trajectory. I follow the trajectory. If the idea circles around and closes in on itself I try to break it down and untangle it. If the reporter comes to no conclusion I force him/her to write one. If the writing is clogged with, say, piles of adjectives when a simpler more powerful metaphor could do the job, I help search for one.

    I do NOT substitute my voice for the reporters’, though I will try to strengthen that voice, and I will check that what they wrote is, in fact, what they really mean to say. I do not substitute my ideas, either. But if they don’t have one, I’ll hammer away until they do.

    What it boils down to is – whose side are you on? I’m on the reporters’ side. I’m there to help them get where they want to go.

  • Brooke Gladstone


    A follow-up for Jackson

    I’m just wondering – what kind of rough carpentry was practiced on you? What the reporter sees is all that matters (although sometimes it turns out it isn’t a story.)

  • Jad Abumrad



    I’ll preface my question with an anecdote: The last piece I edited with Brooke, like the many before it, was wandering, over-ambitious and dangerously close to sucking. And the whole experience made me wonder (oh, I should mention, she saved it from sucking): When you as an editor encounter a very-broken first draft, how do you go about fixing it without sacrificing the reporter’s point of view? Especially with a show like OTM, which has a very-particular sound. Are there rules you follow on preserving voice?

  • Jackson


    Editorial as Rough Carpentry

    I used to edit liner notes for classical CDs. When people would turn in a thousand words when 500 had been asked for and release dates loomed — well, that’s where the rough carpentry came in — and I was the practitioner.

    But while I admire the idea that "what the reporter sees is all that matters," there are, of course, the other elements in the story: quotes, for example, informational sources (print and TV news reports).

    Is it possible for the reporter to see it all? What about the constraints of the medium, the constraints of the format, the constraints of resources?

  • Brooke Gladstone


    Reply to Jad

    Jad – first of all, the piece you refer to was not dangerously close to sucking, it was just two, two, two pieces in one. So we just had to pick the story that best fit the show and tell that one. In that case, there were too MANY ideas, an altogether easier proposition than a piece with too few.

    A piece isn’t fixable if you can’t find an interesting story to tell, no matter how good the tape or how stylish the writing. Writing can be tightened, refined, enlivened. The pace can change. So can the beginning, the middle and the end. But only if you are actually saying something.

    Sometimes you can write a sentence for a reporter, or contribute an idea, but you can’t force them to say it. If they embrace it, then it’s theirs and you haven’t screwed with their voice. If they resist it, you have to drop it, and try another way.

  • scott carrier




    I think the media has done a poor job of presenting other ways to fight terrorism besides going to war. We’ve killed thousands of people in Afghanistan and Iraq now, and the threat of terrorism has only gotten worse. Everybody I talk to readily admits this is true, and yet their reply is always the same, What else can we do?

    Well, what else can we do? Is driving hybrid cars our only option?

    I don’t think it’s the media’s job to come up with the answers, but I do think it’s the media’s job to present the public with alternatives. And I think it’s partly the media’s fault that we’re in this position to begin with. We shouldn’t have had to depend upon CIA and FBI warnings.

    Other than this, I very much enjoyed your stories from Moscow, and now OTM is the best show on public radio. I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that you’re a fan of Alice Furlow.

    Scott Carrier

  • Brooke Gladstone


    Reply to Scott Carrier

    Interesting question about reporting on alternatives. It does happen, quite a lot, but mostly it’s relegated to the Op Ed and commentary pages. Here are a couple of reasons why I think that is.

    It requires legwork. You need to cultivate experts that lay outside the standard rolodex of usual suspects. You need reporters that understand the issue assigned to the task of presenting alternative approaches. The current 24-hour way news cycle in broadcasting require reporters recycle stories all day long. It takes real commitment to detach them from the grind. In print, there’s the opposite problem of the shrinking news hole along with shrinking budgets. So it’s both hard and expensive. We all know investigative reporting has taken a hit, generally. And with the emphasis on ever-widening profit margins, it’s probably not an investment that news outlets are eager to make.

    The other reason has to do with the increasing nervousness of news managers. We’re living in an environment where reporting on anything outside the conventional wisdom smacks of advocacy. (And since the right-wing is in power, alternatives are likely to emerge from the left, so reporting on them leaves news outlets open to charges of left-wing bias.) Mainstream media outlets are pretty risk averse. Reporting outside the narrow terms of the debate as defined by Washington is risky. So it’s less likely to happen in the general course of things, unless the passion of a reporter or an editor makes it a priority.

    (As for Ally Furlow, I don’t know her work as well as I should. What I’ve heard is very personal stuff, witty, a little dotty. She’s a radio original. You are not the first person to bring up her name with me, but actually, I’ve never heard the resemblance. Or maybe that’s not what you meant.) Anyway, great to finally meet you. I’m a big fan.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg



    and I’m a fan of yours, and of Scott’s…

    1) If you were running the world… not necessarily as we know it…

    what would you suggest could be done about the limitations you and Scott were talking about? A huge Kroc-like gift for a fund for investigative reporting, say; or a new gov’t superagency responsible for vital information exchange, if not peace…

    2) What are some of the most satisfying stories you’ve worked on?

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg


    Alice FURLAUD

    I wonder what the person who used the word "dotty" meant by it?" For me, the word has negative connotations, as in when an older person has "too many" concerns about "insignificant" things. I hope I’m just being prejudiced about stereotypes (…) when I fear the word dotty came up only because of her age.

    I would say, instead, that Alice goes the extra days or miles to put in rich context. Similar to your stories, the context shapes a much richer view of human activity, showing how well-meaning, but borderline absurd our efforts are. The tone is somewhat amused, with underlying affection, or at least understanding and common humility. They might go down a little easy, but they teach much.

    As for being personal, she does put herself in the story. That serves to help the listener understand how, in a story about truffles and the economy, we’ve managed to become completely
    i en famille
    knowing the name of the pig, etc…. Robert Krulwich and Susan Stamberg come to mind…
    I (and perhaps Scott C?) hear a similar "we’re all in this together, flawed human beings" tone in your work . Though your tone is, appropriately, more critical, that same humor allows you to go further into some political areas without touching off something explosive. (something explosive being defensive reactions and accusations of prejudice.)

    (Alice’s book is Air Fair (Peregrine Smith) and people can search, especially Weekend Edition Saturday (WESAT) with Scott Simon. )
    If Alice had been sending dispatches from Paris a year ago… to Fox News………..

    Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

  • Jackson


    Yo, Ally! (Allie? Ali?)

    For whoever who’s telling her her name has come up here, please tell Mme. Furlaud that a friend of Ilona Karmel thanks her for remembering Ilona in a story several years ago about a reunion at Radcliffe.

    Damn, Brooke! This conversation is going everywhere!

    A thought: I wonder about Scott’s desire to report on "alternatives" and where an alternate universe can actually be approached as a matter of fact. For example, a number of bloggers have enjoyed great fun with Nedra Pickler for developing a singular verbal construction that creates a false conflict between foreknowledge and rational thought. To wit from Eschaton (or whatever it is he calls himself):

    When Nedra Pickler writes that Howard Dean said " that the standard of living for Iraqis is a "whole lot worse" since Saddam Hussein’s removal from power," she neglects to inform us that he’s referring to the dead ones.

    My sense is we’ve got enough of a challenge describing what’s going on in the here-and-now. "Alternatives" as described above bear no relation to the facts we have on hand now. At best, as journalists, we can only describe an absence of facts: to wit: when Bush vows to reduce the deficit by half at the end of his second term, do his figures include Social Security and Medicare?

    This is not to say there isn’t a domain known as investigative journalism, but I get a sense from Scott’s posting he’s talking about something else. Am I misreading here?

  • chelsea merz



    Hi Brooke,

    Has editing infiltrated your life? Can you listen to radio, read, watch television and film without thinking ‘Oh, I would have done that differently,’ or ‘Gosh, that’s interesting, I would have never thought to do that..’ If so, what are those rare moments when you become a member of the audience– when you are just reading, listening, viewing? Or is that not an option for you? I imagine that the untiring editor’s eye/ear must be comparable to having X-ray vision.

    Many thanks for your time.

  • Jackson


    I posted something earlier but wanted to revamp and refine

    … and it had to do with the unspoken question lurking here about the editorial process. We typically tend to see editorial in terms of the growth process of a given piece. How, for example, Brooke, you took Jad’s story and made it better.

    In my original posting in this spot, I was wondering about another strain in the editorial process: acquisition. The first stage is determining what stories will end up going through the rough edit, the line edit, the copy edit. Clearly, there was something in Jad’s story that made Brooke willing to devote the time to it.

    This is not to ask Brooke what she is looking for, but I wonder if you might try to articulate what qualities or characteristics in a story pique your editorial interest.

    Or, to put it another way, what if a story that clearly had no place on OTM crossed your path. And what if that story got the editorial process rolling in your mind? What would you do?

  • Jay Allison


    cross-posted to "Of A Piece" topic

    Sweatshirts to Jackson and Nannette for stalwart questioning.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg



    psst to Jackson–
    is that an upgrade from Tshirt??
    gotta look up "stalwart"

  • Jackson


    Nannette, I dunno… Stalwart

    Isn’t that part of a boat or something — you know, just like a transom?

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg


    On a stakeout, in a little boat

    Listening to Alternative Radio
    does Brooke care to comment on that series?


    How much do you get to listen to/watch/read each week? How do you escape? This goes along with Chelsea’s question.

    (such a male hero word, stalwart
    open a’s, dreamy l and w, but starting and ending with a fricative
    makes ya stand up straight
    the female or yoga equivalent will come to me…)

  • Sydney Lewis


    diary, my bum

    What I love about On The Media is the sense that you respect the listener and yourselves — enough to instructively leave in mistakes now and then, as you discuss in the manifesto. Lately NPR has been airing campaign "diaries," and other forms of "diaries" that are obviously not diaries but interviews with questions gently excised. It’s irritating and it’s wrong. A diary implies a private communication — the speaker mulling internally — perhaps shared, but created in a quiet, private space. It’s insulting to the radio diaries concept, so carefully nurtured by Joe Richman, to the diarists who put real time and effort into their audio diaries, and to listeners whether they know it or not — and anyone who has heard an actual radio diary immediately knows the difference. At least that’s how I feel. What say you?

  • Brooke Gladstone



    Sorry I’m so late with this response. I’ve had some nightmarish deadlines.
    (Who hasn’t?)
    First, to Chelsea, who asks: “Has editing infiltrated your life?”
    Absolutely not. It’s too hard. Editing for me is like a hundred yard dash of mental concentration. Others may be natural editors, but for me it involves a needle-fine laser-beam of effort applied in real time. “What am I missing? An inconsistency? An idea left hanging? A missing backannounce? Fuzzy language? A papered-over transition? The whole point? What didn’t I understand but didn’t notice I didn’t understand?”
    Who can live like that? When I am listening for fun, I am just a member of the audience. When I’m editing, I’m still a member of the audience, only on PCP.

    Now to Jackson’s question: “I wonder if you might try to articulate what qualities or characteristics in a story pique your editorial interest.”
    That’s when I REALLY am a member of the audience. It’s all subjective of course. The first prerequisite is that it interests me. And if it doesn’t, I may push and pull the idea a bit, like a lump of clay, until we can make something interesting out of it. But I prefer ideas that go somewhere. We get a lot of those pitches (both from the staff and outside) along the lines of – there’s this guy who’s doing this thing that’s kinda interesting. And it may be, but where do you go from there? How will that help people cope with a problem, or give us a special insight into something we find hard to understand? What does it teach us about ourselves? And especially, can you tell it like a story? (That last one is tough.)

    One piece I did that I liked the most was years ago – I got a notice about a gallery show featuring the work of a guy who drew blueprints of TV sit-com houses. Well, that’s kinda interesting. But not enough of a story, until I found out that that guy was obsessed with TV sitcoms because he was a kid in the early ‘60s and his parents worked and he’d cut school to watch TV, had no friends or extracurriculars. He just wanted to be Wally Cleaver. He lived an entirely vicarious life and he wasn’t functioning all that well as a grown-up. When I interviewed him, he’d been “clean and sober” from TV for two years. Now THAT was a story that could tell us something about modern life.

    So I guess I like reporters to do the head work. You find the kinda interesting hook, and then use it to go somewhere. It helps a lot if the reporter knows WHY he/she is responding to the subject. What got to them. That’s probably the thing we need to hear. (Another reason why having an identifiable person as reporter makes better radio.)
    Oh- and in answer to your earlier question about the ‘rough carpentry’ of editing.
    No, it’s not possible for a reporter to see it all, or tell it all on the radio, so its best that the reporter scale the story down to fit the medium, Deb Amos once observed that you can only get a couple of ideas into a piece. I try to stick to one or two, support them with interviews, sound, copy, information from other media (appropriately credited of course) and explore them the best I can. Biting off more than I can chew is the most common mistake I’ve made (and encountered as editor.)

    Thanks to all of you for keeping this conversation going, this is a lot of fun. (I don’t get out much.) Transom kicks ass.

  • Brooke Gladstone



    Nannette – RE: Ally Furlaud, I definitely didn’t mean ‘dotty’ as an agist remark. (I’m no spring chicken either.) Maybe “eccentric” would have been better. She has an unexpected take on things that sets her work apart.
    How much do I read and watch and how do I escape? I spend long hours at WNYC where I scan the papers and read the internet all day. When I go home I watch crappy movies and read science fiction and try to force my husband to play scrabble. I like to think of my ignorance and lack of personal interest in media as a plus. If I care about a particular subject, then it’s already passed over a considerable hurdle. I’m not really a media expert, I just play one on the radio.

  • Jackson


    Transcriber’s headache

    I realize, after transcribing 90 minutes of interview, that maybe I could have been a bit more directed — even, dare I say it? a bit more directing in the interview.

    Brooke, I like the idea that a story can convey one, maybe two points. But here I find myself outside of my domain of expertise and every moment is a learning moment. And even though I have not mastered the material, I have crawled so far into this that I can imagine three or four different ways to approach the subject — to wit, an 11-year-long experiment that came to a premature end on the Columbia shuttle.

    At first blush, rats don’t provide much of a counterbalance to human lives — though Henry Fielding reminds us, "Comparisons are odious." But in the truncation of short form, isn’t the lost experiment always going to play as an afterthought to THE BIG PICTURE?

    I foresee a Ken Burns 75-part series here, so I won’t dog you with details. But I am stumbling across a couple of issues here:

    How does one prepare for a subject one doesn’t know? There is a "personal angle," a "revealing aspect" to this story, but I wonder if you might offer insights on how to overcome being blinded by science and still get the story out.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg



    …maybe some Examples of when you bit off more than was chewable and you saved yourself from choking?…

  • Brooke Gladstone


    Blinded by science

    Wow. That’s really tough question. All I can tell you is what I’ve done. When I’m starting from absolute zero, I make a lot of phone calls until I find someone who is relatively plugged into the subject, and has no particular axe to grind. Then I take them to lunch and milk them. I ask every question, toss out every concern and random talking point that I have rattling around inside me and see what they say. They’ll usually dismiss a couple of my notions outright (generally my favorite ones) and then grab on to some others and start talking about the arguments that rage over them. That’s where I usually find my story. (Then I’ll ask my source for some names and numbers.)You can’t narrow down your subject by yourself – you just don’t know it well enough. But you have to narrow it down. If you just plunge in, equipped only with your passion, you’ll go native without a roadmap and find yourself utterly lost.
    (BTW – when I talk about following what you care about, I don’t necessarily mean a ‘personal angle.’ I don’t think reporters should intrude on their stories with a lot of personal observations and opinions. I just mean they should follow their interest, react to it and communicate it, because obviously, if they don’t care about it no one else will.)

  • Jackson


    Going native without a map…

    A turn of phrase an anthropologist would love.

    As I think about all this — continuing with the hypothetical science story model for the moment — I wonder if you would care to comment on the content vs. process phenomenon. Much political coverage these days seems to be geared more to process — polls, fundraising, opinions aired about thoughts and other opinions — than to content — issues, planks, platforms, even promises.

    But with the hypothetical science story, the content that the scientist might find interesting might only be atmospherics to the non-scientist. The content that I am feeling compelled by is the sheer amount of effort involved in the research, not so much the nature of the research itself.

    Hmmm. Maybe I am getting snagged on process…

  • Sydney Lewis


    justin who?

    Brooke, I only caught part of On the Media this week. I tuned in just as you were talking with some woman in Kabul and you asked her something about the janet jackson, timberlake clothing ripping to-do and she started raving about, "Who are these people?" It was a wonderful moment, cold water perspective moment. Made me acutely aware of how dulled I get to so much of what passes as news in this country. Yes, I thought, it’s outrageous. Why are we seeing reams of copy, hearing hours of chatter about this bosom brouhaha. Nonsense. Thank you for leaving in that exchange. Very refreshing.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg



    Yes, and thank you for leaving in the moment when you said to the woman in Kabul, something like "you’re making me envious…"

    Could you please say something about your overseas experience?
    What was your first culture shock (not necessarily overseas)
    and how did life and work overseas change how you see and do things now?

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg



    I’m amazed that more people don’t feel a sort of urgency about the media that would make them want to jump in here.
    Could a lurker or two comment about that? what makes it hard to jump in?
    [or are you on vacation or still in a stupor or trauma re: the extensive hoopla over Valentines Day this year. (I shouldn’t complain, I guess, it beats the news this time the past two years.)]

  • Brooke Gladstone


    Reply to Sydney lewis

    Thanks, Sydney! That rare moment of cold water is what we live for around here. You should have heard the uncut version: Pamela Constable screaming with laughter as I try to tell her who Jackson is, the torn bodice, the hysterics on the Hill. I sounded utterly absurd withing seconds (THAT I know you heard) but it was sooo worth it.
    Five years in Afghanistan can really re-order your priorities, I guess.

  • Brooke Gladstone


    To Nannette, re: my overseas experience

    Nannette- It was, and I’m not exaggerating, a transformative experience. For one thing, my brain hurt. Just using newly acquired Russian every day for three years was like running a mental marathon. And then there was the country itself – a place in the midst of daily reinvention, that both conformed to, and utterly confounded, the stereotype. Seeing the world as a stranger, with relatively little stake in the outcome, was an enormous advantage.
    Generally, my foreign experience taught me that I don’t know as much as I think I do, and I never assume knowledge on the part of the listener, either. I have to keep them with me.

  • Thomas Marzahl


    media brouhaha and reporting on issues from abroad

    I’m curious to find out from Brooke how the show considers national vs. international issues (and by the latter I mean stories from elsewhere, not ones from the U.S. with intl. implications)

    Are you fairly limited in terms of the topics you can cover from around the world – in particular outside of the *Western* world – because of a. language/cultural barriers b. resources – getting reporters to do stories from elsewhere c.making them interesting to the listener?

    BTW, though "Nipplegate" got a ton of shaking of heads here in Europe (France in particular, where I live), it also got a lot of coverage for two days after the "scandalous" event. After that, it simply disappeared. Where can I find that interview with Pamela Constable, btw, I can’t find it on the site?

    I’m a listener who tries to listen to the largely excellent and always thought-provoking, and most of all funny and full of unexpected moments and stories. I usually end up catching up online listening to three shows in a row – talk about a straight-into-the-vein approach of Brooke and Bob! Keep up the hard work, Ms. Gladstone and team!

  • Brooke Gladstone


    Reply to Thomas

    Hey Thomas, thanks for the good word.

    We cover a lot of media news from elsewhere – China, Russia, Zimbabwe, Venezuala, Serbia, Haiti, India and Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course the UK. Not as much as we’d like because, as you suggest, it’s hard to find the people to do the stories. (So send us your pitches.)

    Usually, we cover what we can in two-ways. And of course, you have to pick the moment. There are many places where the story is always grim and seemingly unchanging, and it may be hard to convey their importance. Usually, we try to zero in when there’s a turning point, a change for better or worse.

    Language and cultural barriers? Almost always – perhaps that’s where experience working abroad helps (as you certainly would know.) There are aspirations, conditions and ideas most of us comprehend or share, and those are the linchpins on which we try to hang the story or interview.

    So they picked up nipplegate in Europe? Mostly as a sign of American lunacy, I’ll wager. As for Pam’s interview – it was the last segment two weeks ago, here’s the url:

    Let me know if it doesn’t work.

  • Jay Allison


    end of the month…

    Brooke’s tenure here is almost up. If you have any final questions, this is the time.

    Brooke, if you have a minute, I’d be interested in hearing anything else you have to say about how public radio fits into the overall media landscape, what purpose it serves, or should serve…how are we doing and what could we be doing better?

    In March we’ll publish Brooke’s version of the Transom Review and then we’ll take a break in our Guest section for a bit, while we plan Version 2.0.

    Brooke, a million thanks for your thoughtful and helpful words here.

  • Jackson


    Three cheers for editors!

    It’s intriguing to note that while the demands for CONTENT PRODUCTIVITY are increasingly pressing, there are still people like you, Brooke, working on behalf of the notion that it is far better to say a thing right the first time.

    A searing word from the first teacher who demanded essays of me (in the sixth grade) was "slipshod." I could say Mr. Gardner (aka "Weeds") inspired me to be the kind of writer who snags it in the 17th draft, but it’s not been that easy. One of the problems with Weeds is that he rewarded high grades to essays in part because of their length. To make matters worse, in later life, they started paying me by the word.

    I wish there were time to explore the editorial issues involving in the different kinds of writing for the likes of OTM — the brief promotional copy and the tease as opposed to host intro copy as opposed to the narration of a story. Each "genre" has its particular qualities and demands. In the print and blog world, for instance, there are some whose sole task is to concoct the snappy headline.

    In that imaginary world where pubrad would be supported more by enthusiasm for the quality of programs than by the quantity of roses they flog at Valentine’s, I wonder if you would add more editors to the pubrad mix. After six years in the business, I am coming to realize that only the stations who really think about what is said over their air (for example, by running all copy through editorial) actually demonstrate any interest and caring for the audience.

    Am I off the wall on this?

  • Under Employed


    Funding Ethics Question

    I posted the following question to the AIR list and got some good responses, but realized it is very relevant to your program as well.

    It also ties in to what you said in post #19:
    >"We’re living in an environment where reporting on anything outside the conventional wisdom smacks of advocacy. (And since the right-wing is in power, alternatives are likely to emerge from the left, so reporting on them leaves news outlets open to charges of left-wing bias.) Mainstream media outlets are pretty risk averse. Reporting outside the narrow terms of the debate as defined by Washington is risky. So it’s less likely to happen in the general course of things, unless the passion of a reporter or an editor makes it a priority."

    My question: I am applying for a job with a news outfit, but I am wondering about the perceived ethics of their funding. They solicit funding from the organizations that are involved in issues that they want to cover, and then cover them using that money. The issues are ones they feel get inadequate coverage from commercial media outlets. The organizations have input on what issues they want covered, but that is it. There is a clear line that is not crossed, but of course people may think otherwise. A second protection is that the service puts the reports out for any station to take for free, but has no stations itself and no control over whether stations air them and if they edit them or not.

    There are a lot of commercial stations that use the material, but the station’s host does the reading and there is no disclosure as to the funding of the reports. On their website, funding information is a secondary link from the main menu, but it is not on the main page. Here’s what it says:

    >"More than 200 non-profit and non-governmental organizations contribute to fund the news services, which are independently operated by professional journalists. We solicit support for subject areas in which we have an interest.
    >We recognize the possibility that those who fund any medium may seek to influence its content. Therefore, we have instituted policies to ensure that our practices and content conform to common journalistic standards. As with any other objective news medium, there is a ‘wall’ between the news and fundraising functions. Our producers and editors practice attribution, fairness and balance. All supporters are given the explicit understanding that editorial content and control is entirely under the authority of [the news service] staff."

    I am at the beginning of my career, and severely underemployed. Will future potential employers see this as a black mark if they know how it is funded? Will I feel used in the morning?


  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg


    messy politics and journalism

    cordleycoit, "Brooke Gladstone’s Topic" #12, 20 Jan 2004 3:00 pm

    I’m still wondering about Cordleycolt, post number 12, Is there nothing to be said to him?

    His description reminded me of the transom discussion about current media in Russia. Only entertainment and white washes allowed by the powerful. Disturbing.

    It seems there should be an On the Media in every state. One could argue that local politics is harder to cover than national politics. Messy.

    Did Cordleycolt word his message too widely, with too many accusations, to make it safe to touch?
    Where should he and others like him go?

    I’m thinking of two former classmates who claim they lost good journalism positions to pressure from big business and organized crime. and I’m feeling fearful that public radio is a great thinking place but missing the boat.
    How would your job change if the Kroc gift were going to fund investigative journalism?

    (Have we fallen into a trap having to talk about the right and the left all the time? as though they are two ever-present baseball teams? Isn’t that distraction from the real work of sorting out solutions of intelligence versus unbridled power and fear?)

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg



    to find talk of Russian media
    Julia Barton & Alexander Kleimenov in TALK
    Julia Barton & Alexander Kleimenov’s Review in pdf

    they’re the seventh listing

  • Brooke Gladstone


    wherefore editors?

    I believe (predictably) that editing talent is extraordinarily thin within public radio – thinner than on-air or production talent, thinner even (and this is a tough one) than management talent (although I possibly could be argued out of that one.)

    Editors’ contributions are generally invisible, their pay is as low or lower than reporters’ and they get the blame for anything that goes wrong.

    Editors are regarded as luxuries within the system (I mean, stories can and do get on the air without them) and of course editors range widely in quality. Most reporters have been at the receiving end of bullshit editing, and it’s even worse when it comes from a kid, who’s in the job because public radio sees this as close to an entry-level position.

    I, for instance, came directly from print, 17 years ago. I had some reporting and editing experience, but it was still pretty early in my career. Why should any seasoned radio reporter have trusted me?

    You have to love editing, for itself alone, to stick with it. People who have the opportunity to move (to reporting, say) frequently do. But the loss of a good editor (even if he/she becomes a good reporter) is more serious than it may seem. Because editors pass what they’ve learned to reporters, and reporters pass what they know back. Thus, a good editor can become a conduit for spreading that combined wisdom through the system.

    Public radio is still, at it’s heart, improvisational medium. That’s both a weakness and a strength. People reinvent themselves, new ways of working are devised all the time, old tricks are discovered anew.

    But there are things that don’t have to be reinvented every time, for instance: ways to use language for different purposes that always work. Or narrative devices that both make an impact and save time. Or how to avoid mistakes that everybody makes sooner or later.

    Experience trumps training, but training can help, or at least exposure to what others have learned. (That’s one reason places like the Transom exist.)

    In a perfect world, that’s why editors exist. They know something, the reporter knows something, the process lets a little air into the vacuum – the solitary work of most radio reporters.

  • Jackson


    Many thanks

    There have been some Transom Guest discussions that have had hundreds of posts in them, but very few have matched your generosity, thoughtfulness, and candor in what they actually say.

    Proof yet again that supersizing does not fit all!

    TRANSOMITES!! (not people found in the ever-popular Book of Leviticus): What about some kind of editing training thingee? Being edited is a great experience (the old give a producer a fish routine), but encouraging a new generation of editor would be a blessing passed on to the many, producers and listeners alike.

    Brooke: many thanks again.

  • Dion Dennis


    On the importance of editors

    Quality editing for public radio is qualitatively different than either editing for television news or for a literate newspaper or journal. The task for a deft editor of audio products, as I see it, is to compress a message, or contested versions of a message, in a way that is concentrated and, at best, artful. It is a reconstruction of meaning that can illuminate and clarify, and disturb. A real craftsmanship, shaped by the temporal demands of radio, is required to pare ideas and events down to their essentials. When such editing is effective, it becomes nearly invisible, and inaudible, because we become so exclusively caught up in the clarity and intensity of the message, even when the message raises additional and disturbing questions.

    In a visual age dominated by mechanisms of distraction and simulacra, those of us who remain compelled by the beauty, power and truth-telling characteristics of language (whatever the medium) must work hard to sustain that mode of expression, and its intimacies, pleasures and truths.

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