The NPR Addict’s Handbook by Lisa A. Phillips:
Public Radio: Behind the Voices
National Public Radio Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg says of the early days of her show, Weekend Edition Sunday: “One of the reasons we brought a musician in there was so that we would take very deliberate breaks in which people could read their papers.” Now, Lisa A. Phillips has given NPR listeners alternative reading material for the breaks, the book Public Radio: Behind the Voices.
Phillips, who worked in public radio before becoming a freelance writer, mother, and teacher, set herself no easy task. The book profiles forty radio personalities in sections on “News and Information,” “Talk and Entertainment” and “Music.” She interviewed the majority of her subjects personally, often in the studio or their NPR offices, sometimes even in their homes. Naturally, the staunchest NPR junkies will find favorites missing from the lineup. But more casual listeners, while they may enjoy a jolt of recognition at familiar names, are unlikely to read more than a quarter of the book.
Granted, the personal stories embedded in each profile are touching, sometimes funny, and often compelling. The circumstances from which some of Phillips’ subjects came before they joined NPR will surprise you. One worked at a chain bookstore, one did promos for a rodeo, and another was an extra in a Michael Jackson video. Readers will naturally be drawn in by the author’s sensitive portrayal of the death of Nina Totenberg’s husband or Neal Conan’s capture in Iraq. It’s also to Phillips’ credit that, while these people are hers and many readers’ heroes, she doesn’t bubble over with praise on every page. She admits, for example, that Bob Edwards can sound “plodding, even unenthuastic,” and doesn’t shy away from quoting a journalist who wrote that Diane Rehm’s uneven voice (caused by a rare disorder) “had ‘the quality of a fingernail being dragged across a chalkboard.’” Through the individual profiles readers can glean tidbits on history, both radio and national, as they touched the lives of Phillips’ profile subjects.
But while the author does make an admirable attempt to weave common themes throughout the profiles, such as how these successful people balance (or more often fail to balance) work and family, the book never gathers any kind of forward momentum. In fact, each profile is really designed to stand alone so that readers can pick and choose among them.
Occasionally this results in annoying repetition, like being told three times that NPR in its early days was a haven for female broadcasters who were willing to accept the lower salaries there. It also doesn’t help when in some places Phillips devolves into a cursory listing of a radio personality’s children and their occupations with all the flair of a holiday letter from distant relatives. Even the structure of the profiles becomes predictable, typically beginning with the subject’s present-day life, going back to his or her childhood, and bringing us full circle, only to begin the same cycle again in the next profile.
The book is at its best when Phillips engages with her interview subjects rather than just reporting on them. In the profile of Terry Gross, for example, Phillips describes her experience as a graduate student meeting her idol at a fundraiser. She and her friends posed for photos with Gross like little girls with a princess at Disney World. What results is one of the best profiles in the book, despite the fact that it doesn’t even contain an interview with its subject.
The same is true of the Garrison Keillor profile. Phillips reflects on a quote she read from Keillor who, when asked about his busy schedule, said he works a lot to keep from drifting. Phillips writes, “That word, drift. I’ve always found it a lovely word, the state I fall into while hiking in the woods, enjoying a glass of wine, or reading. It’s happened, in fact, many times while listening to A Prairie Home Companion. So I found, if not a paradox, a certain sad irony in his use of that word, and an urge to tell him — if we ever do meet — that drifting may not be so bad.”
It’s doubtful whether any reader, no matter how devoted to public radio, would be inclined to read this book straight through, but more writing like this would at least make the $25 hardcover price more palatable. As it is, if you’re itching to read Public Radio, you might want to borrow it from your public library.
Dorothy Lehman Hoerr holds a Master’s degree in English and Publishing from Rosemont College. She has published articles, essays, and poetry in Writer’s Digest, Berks County Living, Schuylkill Living, The Explicator, and American Writing, among others. Dorothy teaches for Writer’s Digest Online Workshops and serves as a judge for the Writer’s Digest self-published book contest. She is member of the part-time English faculty at Montgomery County Community College and several other Pennsylvania colleges.