MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now it's time for a segment we call Wisdom Watch, that's where we hear wisdom from someone who's made a difference with his or her work and life. Today, we're going to speak with someone who surely fits that bill. Twelve years ago, Neal Conan took to the airwaves as the host of NPR's Talk of the Nation.
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NEAL CONAN, BYLINE: From NPR News in Washington, D.C., I'm Neal Conan and this is Talk of the Nation.
MARTIN: Today, he takes the mic for the last time as Talk of the Nation ends its 21-year run. The program has been a midday staple for millions of listeners across the country. So this is a very sad day for us and for public radio, but we are pleased that Neal has been agreed to spend a few minutes with us before his last show, and he's with us now. Kind of weird right?
CONAN: Kind of weird.
MARTIN: You're answering questions for me.
CONAN: I'm on the wrong side of the table here.
MARTIN: Exactly. We mentioned that you hosted the show for 12 years, but you've been at NPR a lot longer. Since 1977 you've been a reporter, you've been a foreign correspondent. Do you mind if I ask what brought you here and how you got bitten with the journalism bug to begin with?
CONAN: I thought it was a great place to meet girls.
MARTIN: I believe that.
CONAN: That's part of the answer. I was a kid growing up in New York City, but I was living in my father's office. He was a doctor, at night, you know, and that was where my bed was. It was in New York, rooms were expensive for kids. And so the only entertainment that he had in this office was an FM radio that - I was scanning across this FM radio, and I was like anybody else in the '60s. I grew up on, hey, time to pack the wax and hit the tracks, it's AM radio time.
And I started to hear this FM radio, and it was, good to talk to you here in the city of fine music, and I was just bored. And I ran across this radio station where there were people talking with accents, people talking - women were on the air, in those days, that was very unusual to hear women's voices on the radio - and people talking, most importantly, about how much they needed me to be a part of this radio station. And of course, what I'd found was the very first public radio fundraising marathon.
It was WBAI, the Pacifica station there, it was so long ago it wasn't public radio, it was listener sponsored radio. And their next fundraising marathon, I was a volunteer down at that station 'cause I was just so entranced by this, and effectively I just hung around, and as long as no task was too menial, I was allowed to hang around and pester people and get them to teach me stuff. And that's how I got into radio.
MARTIN: Was your particular passion the art of the radio? Is it the journalism, or can you even separate the two?
CONAN: I'm not sure I can even separate - I started as a tech and as a board op, in those days, you had to be both. But it was the '60s and the most interesting things going on in the station were in the news department, because it was the Vietnam War, there was so much change going on, and that's where I gravitated to.
MARTIN: Well, you've had quite a run. I mean, you've won three DuPont Awards, you've won a Peabody for your work, you got one of those DuPont Awards for your coverage of the terror attacks on the morning of September 11, 2001. You were on the air for six hours that day.
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CONAN: A series of terrorist attacks on the United States began in New York City shortly before 9am Eastern time this morning. In what many witnesses have described as disbelief, they watched an airliner crash into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. Another plane struck the other Trade Center tower a few minutes later, the next target was the Pentagon, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
MARTIN: You know, I remember that day and I will tell you, I was in New York, and a truck driver had, you know, pulled over and had turned up his radio, and we were all gathered around listening to you. It really - I don't even know what I want to ask, except to say that, you know, you got up in the morning, that was not the day you were planning to have.
CONAN: No, no.
MARTIN: And I'm just wondering how you kept it together. Is there anything you can pass on from that day?
CONAN: I'm not sure. I grew up in and around the city of New York. I did stories on the World Trade Center as it was being built. I did stories after it was built on their innovation kitchen system and on Windows on the World, the restaurant where, tragically, so many people died. I'd been on the roof of the other building where the transmitter towers were. I'd covered the Pentagon. I had friends in that building. And I'm not sure how I managed to step back enough to just keep the head clear.
But the fact is, our business, our training teaches us to do that. And I was on the air a very long time that day, and I guess for the next couple of weeks, but I remember finally getting a day off, and it was a Saturday and I was standing in my kitchen with a cup of coffee, and I was hearing Scott Simon doing a story from Ground Zero, as we, by then, were calling it. And that was the moment it hit me and I just stood there, and spilling this cup of coffee and sobbing in my kitchen, 'cause it was - well, everybody has that story about 9/11.
MARTIN: Do you have someone in your mind when you're on the air like that, talking about a story like that or any story really? Is there somebody that you're talking to?
CONAN: I don't mean to be officious about this, my standard has always been, would I listen to this? If I was home, would I listen to this? And that's the standard I've used for Talk of the Nation and everything I've done.
MARTIN: There's another moment that I want to mention that actually, your producers flagged for us. This was a - you covered the death of Osama bin Laden, and of course a lot of people will remember where they were when that occurred because the news broke late at night. But I just have a short clip of that.
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CONAN: Osama bin Laden died in a gun battle with U.S. forces in a compound not far from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, early this morning, Pakistan time. We're listening to the reverberation of Osama bin Laden in special coverage from NPR News. NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos...
MARTIN: You were on the air that day for four hours and that's just a short piece of the introduction that you made that day. And your staff has let us in on a little secret here, which is, there was no script. Were you scared? I mean, let's just be honest. Were you scared? You sat down with nothing - well, you had your - all your years of experience and your gray matter, but were you scared?
CONAN: No, I wasn't. If you're scared, you're nervous, 'cause if you're not nervous, you know, insurance is a good business. It's a great opportunity to talk to people. But, the fact is, in the old days when I produced All Things Considered, when everything else went down the toilet, you turned to the host and you open the host mic, and you pointed a finger and said, Susan, it's yours. And Susan Stamberg always joked that when that moment happened and there was nothing else, she would do her interpretative dance, "Spring."
When I was in the host chair, when it came to be my turn to be in that situation, I was ready, 'cause NPR had invested all that time in me, to send me to London for four years, and cover wars in the Middle East, to send me to the Pentagon to cover the United States military. I grew up in and around New York and served as New York bureau chief for NPR and did thousands of stories in and around New York, but that was what made it possible.
MARTIN: And if you're just joining us, my guest is Neal Conan, the host of NPR's Talk of the Nation. The show bids goodbye after 21 years on the air. We caught up with Neal after his next to last show. He was nice enough to take some time to talk with us. Talk had been on the air for a while and, I think, one of the signatures the Talk tried to bring to talk radio is that it's not, you know, shouting, it's not, kind of, a bullyboy. I just wondered if you had any hesitation about sitting in this chair that you would have to take on a persona...
CONAN: Oh, well, no.
MARTIN: ...In order to do it. You know, to kind of fit in to daytime programming.
CONAN: No, I didn't, because I'm not very good at that. I was afraid that people were expecting that. What you had were guests, every once in a while, who were accustomed to being on AM talk radio or, you know, Crossfire, so you had to calm them down. But the idea of having a civil conversation - we want light rather than heat. To people, it was interesting, I was talking to one of the member stations who were doing one of these interviews and saying - they were in Hampton Roads in Virginia, and their problem is too much water.
And they said it was so great to hear stories of people living through a drought in Kentucky and Oklahoma and Kansas and other parts of the country, because they don't have any experience with that at all. So they began to understand some aspects of these people's lives and what they were going through. And that's the kind of connective tissue that I think talk radio uniquely provides that ties the country together, that gives people a bit of an understanding of what other people in the country are going through and what they're thinking.
MARTIN: It's so funny that you mention that because I actually have a clip of a conversation that you had about that very issue. I'm just going to play it. Here it is.
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CONAN: Let's get Rich on the line. And Rich is with us from South Union in Kentucky.
RICH: (Caller) Hi, Neil. I appreciate your guest today and the help that he's given to us. I just wanted to represent the small farm perspective and what it's doing to the family. And it's really going to be hard for me to talk about this. But we're living on borrowed money. We're not making any money anymore, because all of our forest, forage and feed is burned up from the drought. And so we're buying everything to give to our animals. And this is our way of life. And we only have, perhaps, another year or two, at best, to hang on. And so we're living, not only on borrowed money, but borrowed time.
MARTIN: I hear a conversation like that, I wonder if Rich has talked to anybody else that day about how he really feels. And I wonder, why do you think people have called up to trust you with their stories all these years?
CONAN: I think it's - a couple of different things go into it, one of which is, I've been on the air a long time. They learned to trust the voice. It's a companion if you're there everyday. And you hear other people trust me with their stories, and they get a respectful hearing. That's part of it. I think there's also an anonymity to radio - that you can feel liberated to tell your story because, well, you're just talking on the phone and maybe, you know, somebody will recognize your voice or recognize your situation, but not really.
There's so many people who called up - I remember, we were doing a show on drug use years ago, and somebody called up whispering 'cause they were hiding underneath their desk and, I just came out from the bathroom here at work where I shot up.
CONAN: And it was amazing to hear that kind of - but people want to make you or help you understand what is going on. And that's what talk radio can do. It gives you that opportunity to talk a little bit and not, you know, talk and then get cut down to a 40 second soundbite. And 40 seconds, that's public radio, it's 15 seconds in commercial broadcasting. And so you get the chance to say something and you get the chance for a follow-up. And you get a chance to exchange your experiences with other people. So that's the magic, that's when it works well.
MARTIN: Do you think that doing this show has changed you in any way, in listening to all these stories over the years?
CONAN: Yeah. Yeah, it has. It has taught me to have enormous respect for people who I don't understand. To sit in the studio and have those stories come to you and learn to listen. That's what I've really come to understand. Susan, again, my great mentor, used to say, I used to be terrified about - I don't know what the next question is going to be, I would write down lists of questions. And she would say, stop it. Just listen. And they will tell you what the next question is.
There's three clocks in front of you and they're counting different time things down, and you're being handed emails that you're scanning for questions, and you're looking at the computer to see who's calling and your producer's waving at you to say take three, take three, take three. But at the same time, you can do all that 'cause it becomes second - you know, you don't really think about it, and listen.
MARTIN: You mention your mentor, Susan Stamberg, the great Susan Stamberg, but I hope you don't mind my mentioning that you've been a wonderful mentor to me and I think other people in this building. And I think that that might be news to some people because ours is a business that many people see as one that's, kind of, ruled by jealousy.
MARTIN: Well, in order to win - it's sort of seen as zero-sum: in order to win, others must fail. You know, time is the one thing they're not making more of, so if you get more time I'm going to get less. And I just have mentioned, to a number of people, your generosity of spirit, and I was wondering what led you to that?
CONAN: I was incredibly competitive, and what led me do that was actually having been producer of All Things Considered. When I was not on the air - except sometimes I got to be a voice in a Robert Krulwich piece, but I was not on the air and realized that Cokie Roberts' success was my success. Nina Totenberg's success was my success. That if I could make people sound better, well, the whole show sounded better and I was the producer of the show.
And if we can make the whole network sound better, everybody profits. If the announcer who introduces me is no good, people are going to tune away. If the show that precedes me is no good, then I'm going to have less of an audience. It's my job, in turn, to build audience for the show that follows me. And one of the things I will be most proud of is that when we leave, according to our latest book - that's the inside word for ratings - the latest book, we leave with the biggest audience in the show's history and with more stations than the show had ever had before. So on that measure of success, those measures of success, we were doing OK.
MARTIN: So what's next for you? It seems like you have more to say.
CONAN: I probably do. I'm going to catch up on 11-and-a-half years of sleep. You know, I'm going to really miss doing the show. I'm not going to miss getting ready to do the show. I think you understand that. I'm going to take six months and have a really good time, and I'm going to go to really beautiful places. And I've had the chance, the last couple of summers, to get to different parts of Alaska, which is an amazing place. And after about six months, I'm going to sit back and say, OK, now what do I want to do and see where we are at that point.
MARTIN: You are leaving us at a time when a lot of people are questioning, what's next for this business, the future of this business. And I just wondered if you have any wisdom for the people who are - who followed your career, who love what you do, who would love to follow in your footsteps?
CONAN: Don't panic. Radio is going to be fine. There's so many talented people doing radio. The medium works. It is so convenient for the audience. It is available anywhere. So those people calling up their radio stations to pledge, they keep that radio station going. All those radio stations together, gathering their collective efforts, can pay for National Public Radio, which can do things none of them could do individually.
Correspondents in Beirut and Beijing and all of the fantastic places, and we hear Deb Amos covering the war in Syria and Kelly McEvers doing incredible stuff. All of that is made possible because we work together. And since we work together and continue to work together because we have a reason to work together, we're going to be fine.
MARTIN: Well, I'll see you on the other side.
MARTIN: Neal Conan is the host of NPR's Talk of the Nation. It is heard on more than 400 stations around the country. It broadcasts its final show today. Neal, thank you. It's hard to imagine, but thank you for joining me and thank you for all that you've given us here and to all of your listeners, including me, through the years. Thank you so much for joining us.
CONAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.