Steve Edwards

Steve Edwards
Radio Host, Eight Forty-Eight, WBEZ Chicago (on leave)
Knight-Wallace Fellow 2007-08

Tottered on: 25 January 2008
Temperature: 20F
Ceiling: beadboard
Ground: porch planks
Wind: W at 18 mph

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TT with HD: Steve Edwards

wallace house porch teeter totter

[Ed. note: This Talk took place on the front porch of Wallace House on Oxford Street in Ann Arbor. Wallace House was a gift from Mary Wallace, a former CBS producer, and Mike Wallace, CBS newsman. It serves as the physical nexus of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship program, which provides an opportunity for mid-career American and international journalists alike, to take a sabbatical of sorts from their positions as journalists to pursue study projects that will broaden their perspective, rejuvenate their intellects, and allow them to return to their jobs better equipped to report on the world for their audience.

The WBEZ website includes an extensive audio archive of Eight Forty-Eight programs, a news magazine devoted to a wide range of issues as seen through the perspective of the Chicago region.]

HD: So, 20 degrees? Do you know that for a fact certain?

SE: I just checked the thermometer outside the back of our house and it looks like 20 to 22, or something like that.

HD: Alright. I'll go with that then. We'll go with 20. The lower, the better. Although, I don't think that actually sets a cold temperature tottering record.

SE: Really?

HD: I think it's 9 [degrees]. I didn't go to the trouble to look it up this morning, but I believe so.

SE: Well, we need to stop this now, because I want the cold weather record! [laugh] Coming from Chicago!

HD: [laugh] Yeah, well, on the front page of the WBEZ website today they have a story about a bunch of artists who are painting an ice wall.

SE: Really? I didn't see the front page of the site today.

HD: And they're are making a big deal out of the fact that these guys are painting in extremely cold weather--the phrase they used was 'nostril-freezing'. But part of the story involved--I couldn't tell exactly--but it seemed to involve people shuttling hot tea and hot chocolate out to the artists. So, I was thinkin', we're here on the porch, is there any possibility that someone might emerge from the Wallace House with a steaming kettle of hot tea to help keep us warm?

SE: [laugh] You know, I can arrange that!

HD: Could you really!?

SE: People here are really very, very, very accommodating.

HD: Really?

SE: Yeah. The kitchen is a stone's throw away.

HD: Literally a stone's throw! Okay. So, we are here on the porch of Wallace house, because you are a Knight-Wallace Fellow for this academic year, right? It is keyed to be academic year right?

SE: That's right. September through April.

HD: Okay, so you've got another what, another good three or four months?

SE: Yeah. Although my wife and two boys are sort of lamenting how quickly the time is going.

HD: So, are they with you here in Ann Arbor?

SE: They are, yeah. We all re-located from Chicago ...

HD: ... holy cow! ...

SE: ... at the end of August. Spent a couple of weeks here before the fellowship started, then we all go back sometime in late spring, early summer.

HD: So are your kids school-age?

SE: Pre-school. And younger. We have a one-and-a-half-year-old named Elliott, and four-and-a-half-year-old named William.

HD: So, if they had been a bit older, say, already in elementary school, would you have thought through things any differently, or?

SE: That's a good question. We may have. And one of the things that I think prompted us to really pursue the fellowship this year was the family situation and the professional situation kind of winding up. It's something I've been thinking about for a few years, and always thought it would be great to spend a year in Ann Arbor, and a year on this fellowship, but trying to find the proper year where this might line up with work and with just our family situation isn't always easy. So this one seemed to be ideal, precisely because William, our oldest, isn't in school yet, we just had our other boy, and things at work were really coming along nicely. So it felt like this was good time.

HD: So, as far as your fellowship project--which is the impact of Latino immigrants on the political and cultural landscape here in the States--is that something you could have conceivably pursued in the context your radio show? I mean, you're the host right?

SE: Right.

HD: So you could pretty much just haul in whatever guest you wanted, to serve the purpose of this personal research project, couldn't you, or? [laugh]

SE: [laugh] That's true! That's very true. The reality is we have been doing that. The show that I host is a daily news magazine program [Eight Forty-Eight] that covers really any subject under the sun--all through the prism of Chicago in some way. It's really focused on the Chicago region. So that includes arts, and culture, and immigration, and politics, and policy, and business, and sports, and science, and health, and everything in between.

But what I started to find was that this major demographic trend that is affecting many parts of this nation--and is also affecting the Chicago region especially powerfully--is something I've felt increasingly ill-equipped to actually report on in a deeply thorough way. The examples are both small and large. As just a small example, I would go out and do stories--one recent example right before I came to Ann Arbor ... [Ed. note: a brief interlude]

HD: ... you were feeling ill-equipped to report on this particular demographic ...

SE: ... because I didn't know enough of the political and cultural history of Latin American nations. I didn't know the language of Spanish, which is so important obviously in bilingual populations, or even mono-lingual ...

HD: ... so, is that part of what you're doing here? Are you taking courses in Spanish language?

SE: Yes. In fact, I'm taking an intensive Spanish course right now in the RC this semester ...

HD: ... and the RC is the Residential College?

SE: That's correct.

HD: But that's not where you live. They don't have family accommodations, do they?

SE: Exactly. I'm too old to live there.

HD: About Spanish language, I just wanted to mention that I use Google's mail application as a scratch pad for taking notes ...

SE: ... oh, nice! ...

HD: ... and they serve you ads based on the content. So for the notes that I was using to prepare for your Talk I had "Latino immigrant impact" or something like that, and it served me an ad that had text that went something like "Say anything in Spanish in only 138 words!"

SE: [laugh] Can you send that to me? Because I could save myself all lot of headaches! I'm in Spanish 194 right now.

HD: It would be interesting to see if it would serve the same ad later today, based on the same content. Okay, so you're taking Spanish language?

SE: Yeah, and in addition to that I took a course on Latino history through the prism of music and culture, with a history professor here who is phenomenal--one of the best courses I've taken all year. I took a graduate course on immigration--just theories on immigration, historically and contemporaneously, why people migrate, what we've learned about the patterns and trends. So, my issue here is not so much looking at the current debate over immigration, but trying to understand reasons, impact, how our own culture is changing and morphing the history of the entire country.

As a fellowship group, we also traveled to Argentina in the fall. That was a really nice small addendum to my course work that allowed me to experience a South American country that is not only a major part of South America, but it, too, was also built largely from immigrant flows, like the United States has been historically.

HD: Alright. So, you left the radio program in good hands, I take it?

SE: Yes.

HD: Do you still listen to the program? Like via the podcast?

SE: You know, it's funny you ask that, because I wondered how much I would listen to it, before I left. And wonder how much I should listen to it while I'm away. And the short answer is, I listen occasionally. I get a daily update as to what's going to be on the next day's program. They send that out to internal staff ...

HD: ... okay, so you are still on the e-mailing list!

SE: I'm still there! And there's just a lot of great content on the show that I can't help myself but listen to. But I've also tried to create some space both for the staff and the hosts that are working the show now, and for me, to untangle from all of that. So that I don't feel I'm looking over their shoulder for them, and also feeling like I can have a little bit of a bigger break to think about things beyond the daily show.

HD: So it's not like you're sending them email critiques and notes, you know, You missed an obvious follow-up question there! ...

SE: No, no, no. I deliberately avoided that. Now, occasionally I'll come across something that I think would be a great story, either that I've read, or found out about somebody here, a great expert on something, or read a book that I thought would be of interest, or heard someone interviewed elsewhere, so I will occasionally shoot them a quick email with a Hey, here's something to think about! But I try to keep that to a minimum. I try not to big-brother them.

HD: Doesn't part if you--maybe this speaks to how very petty I am--but if I were in your position, a small part of me at least would hope that something went just horribly wrong with the show, and that I was needed to fix it.

SE: [laugh]

HD: Is there any aspect of that going on with you, or?

SE: No, you know, I'm trying to think of how I feel about all of that. I mean, I do understand what you're saying.

HD: It's not like there has been a disaster, right?

SE: No!

HD: They haven't called up saying, Quick, Steve, we can't find the good microphone, where did you hide it?

SE: I mean, the last thing I want in a year like this--which is supposed to be a year of rejuvenation, exploration, broadening of horizons--is to feel like I have half a leg back in Chicago constantly. So to the extent that the program is running beautifully without me, it's great for me to be able to devote all of my time and energies here.

That said, yeah, there's a part of me--radio is so ephemeral, less so now with the internet, but in essence, once it's out and transmitted and through the ears of a listener, it's evaporating. And there is a sort of a sense of out-of-ear, out-of-mind. And you don't want people to forget you too much. [laugh] Because you're coming back, and you hope that they want you back, that they will be excited to have you back, and that you will come back with more to give.

HD: And you do have to go back right? That's one of that deals with the fellowship?

SE: Right.

HD: That you can't discover that, Wow, there's a whole 'nother world out there outside Chicago, I think I'll just stay here in Ann Arbor!

SE: Yeah. Some Fellows do, and come to some mutual agreement with their previous employer. This industry, certainly with newspapers in particular, is going through such upheaval, and there was one case, there were some playoffs, job cuts, early retirement offers, and the Fellow said, I'll take that buyout, and use this as an opportunity to take a new break. But nearly everybody returns to their place of employment, where they worked previously. Some of them relocate within the same organization--if they are with a large paper or a large media organization, it gives them some geographic flexibility. For example, one Fellow was in Hong Kong and is now going to stay stateside afterward, but with the same entity.

HD: Okay. So, how much do the Fellows hang out as a group? I mean, the website mentions this once-every-two-week discussion group or something? That happens here?

SE: We meet every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the academic year here at Wallace House for a 90-minute seminar with a guest of various stripes and background. And that may range from a prominent journalist, to an author, to a professor, to a scholar, or a musician.

HD: Is there anybody coming up really soon that you're particularly looking forward to?

SE: We have quite a few, actually. In fact, we just had Bill Cosby here at Wallace House. We had ...

HD: ... really?! Bill Cosby was in town?!

SE: Bill Cosby was here.

HD: How does Bill Cosby come to Ann Arbor and leave, and nobody knows except for the Knight-Wallace Fellows??

SE: Because he was an 'inside job', so to speak. One of our colleagues is Rochelle Riley, who is a columnist with in the Detroit free press, she's a Fellow this year, ...

HD: And she knows Bill Cosby?

SE: She knows Bill Cosby.

HD: No way!

SE: They worked together on Cosby's national campaign to really have a big conversation amongst cities around the nation about the state of African-Americans today. And he's done the work principally through African-American columnists at major papers around the nation. They have formed a friendship and she called and said, Would you be willing to come talk to us? And he said, Sure! So he had someone fly his private plane to Ann Arbor airport, Rochelle picked him up at the airport, and he came here for two hours of conversation and lunch and photos.

HD: So was he funny? Or was he even trying to be funny?

SE: He was not trying to be funny, but he is funny, he's a funny guy. And I think there are times when you want a funny person to be funny, so you're laughing even when you're not supposed to.

HD: You're looking for jokes that might not even be there.

SE: Exactly. He was pretty serious while he was here. And in fact, he spent a lot of time really taking us in the media to task--for our own problems in our profession with bias, and accuracy ...

HD: ... you know, that's one of the topics I wanted to ask you about, too--you're not actually related to John Edwards are you?

SE: No, not at all.

HD: Okay, one of the complaints I've read about the media recently, which is I think up pretty fair criticism of most of the media coverage of the Democratic primary race, is that far earlier than maybe was warranted, John Edwards was relegated to a distant third-place, long-shot contender who doesn't really have a chance. And once you start labeling someone like that, once you start describing someone in the race essentially as a 'long shot', it's a self-fulfilling kind of prophecy. You know, when you report that his second-place finish in Iowa "gives his campaign additional life, at least ..."

SE: ... "for now" ...

HD: ... yeah, why do we have to add "at least for now"? That's an editorial statement that doesn't really belong in news report. Put that in your editorial!

SE: Right. But you also see it even in general elections, or any time where there is polling used. And maybe somebody is down by 5 points--and the margin error on most of these polls is 3 or 4, so potentially the person could be down by one point, it could be neck and neck--but the stories are often written with a slant that suggests--"in an effort to climb back into the race" or "desperate to close a widening gap with three days to go, so-and-so did X"--it's all framed in the context of someone who's behind. Or conversely, if you're talking about the person who's ahead in the poll at that time.

I think it used to be, or at least it should be thought of as analysis, as an addendum to the coverage. That is, you have lots of coverage of what's going on, that reports an event as it is, and then there's a place for analysis to help bring some broader context to what's happening. And I think there is a role for that. I think what happened--and certainly increasingly over the last ten to twenty years, especially with the growth of cable networks in particular, but not just with cable news networks--is that the analysis has started to crowd out be the straight reporting ...

HD: ... just the description of what's going on.

SE: If you watch MSNBC, or CNN, or FOX, these days--we're leading up to the South Carolina Democratic primary--there's very little new news on the campaign trail. There's lots of news about issues and discussion of where the candidates stand, but in terms of the political news, the horse race stuff, there's a very little except for a new poll, and yet all the analysis is on Who's ahead? Who's behind? Is Bill Clinton helping or hurting Hillary Clinton? Is the issue of race going to be a major factor, the gender issue? Is Edwards even worth writing about? and on and on and on. I do think it does a disservice to voters, not just in that state, but in all the states that follow, because they don't have the feeling that they have a fair, clean shot at a level playing field for the candidates in their respective primaries.

HD: You mentioned the coverage of the horse race. And, you know, that is the word be used to describe this process, it's a race. So if it's a race, I do think the media would be negligent in not answering the question that any reader, or listener, or viewer would want to know--Who is ahead?

SE: Sure. It's part of our natural human curiosity.

HD: Yeah, if it's a race, you can't ignore that basic question of, Who's ahead? I guess my solution would be, let's throw out the word 'race' in terms of 'competition' to describe what this is. I don't really have a better word to suggest, but I think a good starting place might be to say alright, let's stop calling it a 'race', let's stop calling it a 'competition' and find some other word or metaphor for what this is. Because once you start using that new vocabulary, the automatic question of Who's ahead? might not arise.

SE: That's a good point. You've created just an inherent frame that necessitates a won-loss analysis basically from the beginning. It's interesting, too, you think about just the story on the Republican side now with Rudy Giuliani, "the last stand in Florida", "he's falling in the polls", "he has no chance." And all of that, I think, crowds out more nuanced discussions of policy positions, of where people are.

I think back to New Hampshire, the standard line on New Hampshire for the Democrats going into that primary was Obama was widely ahead in the polls. The assumption was he was going to win and, Will Hillary Clinton's campaign be over in essence after New Hampshire? None of the analysis actually asked the other question, which is, What if Hillary won New Hampshire? What if John Edwards won New Hampshire? It wasn't seen as a possibility realistically at that point, but we also know that polls were incorrect in New Hampshire ...

HD: ... and that became a story unto itself--Gosh, let's spend a couple of days fretting about, How did we possibly miss that, what was wrong with the polling? Hey, maybe that's just a poor blunt instrument to use to try to cover the story! That would be my response.

SE: You know, the sad thing about this, political coverage is incredibly important and incredibly difficult. And it's a thing that I think journalists and editors wrestle with and struggle with as much is anything. And you will see, as there is every four years, a massive mea culpa on the part of the media. There will be round tables in Washington in New York and other places with top media figures, talking about what went wrong with the 2008 coverage, and how can we get it right next time? It's happened for virtually every election cycle that I can think of.

And the unfortunate thing is, no matter how much lip-service is given, no matter how much real effort is placed on trying to create a better, more thorough reporting climate that is more accurate and more useful for voters, we fall back into those same patterns that you were talking about just a moment ago. I don't know what the alternative it is to viewing this as a 'race'. But I think there's no question that we have let this notion of a 'race' overwhelm everything. It's become a sport of score-keeping, and points ...

HD: ... yeah, I wonder if there's like Election Fantasy Leagues. [laugh]

SE: There are.

HD: Really!?

SE: In Iowa, I believe out of the University of Iowa, there was a business school class that developed essentially a stock market for political candidates. You can trade them--you should check this out online. I know it was in existence four years ago, my guess is it's still in existence.

HD: Okay, so this is not a novel idea.

SE: No, this is not a novel idea. You thought you were being boldly irreverent!

HD: Yeah, I thought I was being astonishingly absurd. But okay, alright. [ringtone] Oh, are you getting a phone call? Feel free to answer that if you need to, people have done that on the teeter totter before.

SE: I'm not going to do that. I'd just violated the First Commandment of being a guest in an interview, which is I forgot to turn off my cell phone before we started!

HD: Oh, well, I didn't turn mine off, either. But people rarely call me. Did you have an opportunity to attend any of the Republican candidate events in and around Ann Arbor a couple of weeks ago?

SE: I didn't, just because of my schedule. But I very much wanted to go see John McCain when he was in town, but it turns out I was just in class and doing some other things. I stood in line to see Dennis Kucinich when he was on campus, but ultimately didn't get in, and had to go on after the long wait.

HD: He has since withdrawn, right?

SE: Yeah. And I'm trying to think, Huckabee was in Flint, I believe, and Romney was in Detroit, or in that area?

HD: I couldn't say for certain.

SE: But one of the greatest experiences of my reporting career was covering the '92 and the '96 New Hampshire presidential primaries.

HD: You were actually in New Hampshire?

SE: I was in New Hampshire for both of those. Not for the entire duration, but for weeks at a time. And I continue to just marvel at the process, especially in a state like New Hampshire, but I also think you could get a glimpse of it in Michigan for that week, where the candidates, at least the Republicans, were focused on the state. It's amazing to see on the one hand this major media gaggle following the candidates around, all the attention that comes to a state like New Hampshire that is often largely ignored for the other four intervening years, but the other thing is also how accessible, how retail, how retro and homespun much of it is.

And speaking to your point about who's ahead and who's behind, we hear about the 5 to 8 candidates who are deemed worthy of being in the debates by the major networks, and yet as most New Hampshire-ites will tell you, anybody who's spent time in that state, that the actual candidate list in New Hampshire generally runs into the dozens if not a hundred, on both sides, and there are even other parties there. And you see average citizens who have decided to run for president.

HD: Well, there was this guy from Ann Arbor, right? The chauffeur who was on the list ...

SE: ... yeah! ...

HD: ... in New Hampshire, I think, and he, along with someone else, has filed for a recount, I'm not sure how that came out.

SE: Kucinich filed for a recount as well, I believe. So there's something that I think on one level is seen as quirky and unusual, but I also think is really inspiring about New Hampshire that way, that you actually see small-d democracy in action, you see people deciding that they want to be a part of the process--in some cases, as I mentioned, actually deciding that they can run. And this notion that anybody can run for president--beyond passing a couple of simple, minimal thresholds in the Constitution--and that people are engaged.

There are coffee shops, and there are homes, where people come out and are constantly engaging the candidates directly, and they have an opportunity to do that, and I just wish there were a way that we could try to capture some of that in other states, and certainly for the other four years. Because I do think there is just far too much apathy in this country over major issues of importance, be they political or otherwise.

HD: So in the three to four months you have left in Ann Arbor, it's not like you have to put together a final research report and submit it, right? You don't have to submit a final paper?

SE: No, which is, I must say, one of though greatest inventions in fellowship history!

HD: So are you doing anything in the course of this time off, though, to maintain your interviewing fitness--your ability to just talk in a coherent way? I mean you don't seem to have lost any of it, just based on talking to you here! But I would think that first day back in the studio, maybe a little nervous about, I haven't done this in close to a year?

SE: Yeah, I think that will be the case. I also think it's a little bit like riding a bike in the sense that there's a rhythm to it, there's sort of a hard-wiring to it that once you get back in the chair, or get back on the bike as it were, some of those things come back. I also would say that on any given day, you end up performing better or worse than the day before.

It's very tough to maintain a level of consistency. I struggle with it all the time. I feel like every Monday that I start out on the show, even when I was doing it on the regular basis, I would be rusty on Monday. By the time Friday rolled around, I would be warmed up and ready to go. [laugh] My standard line, actually, is--our show airs from 9:00 to 10:00 in Chicago in the morning--my standard line is, I usually feel at my best, like I'm fully awake, at about 10:15.

HD: [laugh]

SE: That's what I hit stride.

HD: So, it is that live, most of that stuff?

SE: The show broadcasts live. And many of the elements in the show--there are usually about 7 to 10 stories in any show--are live, many are also pre-taped. They might be reporter feature pieces, they might be interviews we have done previously, so it's a mix of live and taped. But we bring the show to our audience live. That is to say, when the mic opens at 9 o'clock, that's me saying, Hello, here's what's coming on the show! If I was doing a feature on you, and maybe we had pre-taped that conversation I would still introduce it 'live', as it were. Or certainly we might have you in studio and the whole thing would be live. So it's a mix.

The one thing, back to your earlier question, just about rhythm and feeling like I may or may not be 'on my game' so to speak when I get back, one of the things that I think is so fascinating and frustrating about interviewing sometimes is that it is more art than science. And there are lots of techniques that can help lead to better interviews, but that each time it's ...

HD: ... I firmly believe that putting people on a teeter totter is one of those techniques! [laugh]

SE: [laugh] I actually have half a mind to just take this back with me to Chicago, it's working! But, as I'm sure you know, each interview has this sort of a chemistry ... [Ed. note: a brief interlude] There are 18 of us [Fellows] in all. Two-thirds of that group comes from the U.S. and then a handful come from overseas--Turkey, Baghdad, London, Argentina, South Korea, etcetera. Back to interviewing, I was just going to close this thought ...

HD: ... right, techniques ...

SE: ... the thing that I find most fascinating and frustrating about interviewing is that no two interviews are alike. That there's no automatic cookie-cutter approach to making great interviews each time out, that it's often dependent--no matter the technique and the situation or how many times you've done it--on that human interpersonal connection, on that nebulous X-factor, of how two people connect, whether they feel like that they're talking honestly and openly, whether there's trust there, whether somebody is stressed out that day, or not had enough sleep, or thinking about the 16 other things ...

HD: ... so have you ever had anybody in the studio where you just thought, Man, I just don't like this person at all, I wish they would just leave, right now. I'm not asking you to name names.

SE: Well, I guess actually I would answer the question first by saying, No, in the sense that when you're in the interview, I'm trying to put my judgments about the person and the topic aside, and I'm just honestly trying to find out what he or she thinks, what's going on with them.

HD: And to keep dead air from happening?

SE: Yeah, that too, the basics. [laugh]

HD: That's one of the reasons I really like my format is that I really don't have to worry about dead air.

SE: That's nice.

HD: Pauses can just go on for minutes and minutes and it only shows up perhaps as dot-dot-dot in the transcript.

SE: That's nice. So, yeah, dead air is definitely a concern. Making sure the listener is a part of the conversation is an issue, too. But certainly there have been interviews that have been extremely uncomfortable because I, for whatever reason, haven't connected with that person, or maybe that person was being aggressive, or argumentative, or belittling, or egotistical, or arrogant, or whatever the case may be. You just encounter those things.

HD: That was quite a list of adjectives you just reeled off!

SE: And there are more!

HD: So, when is the last time you have been on a teeter totter before today?

SE: Well, it's funny that you ask. Probably about two and half months ago at Allmendinger Park with my son, William.

HD: Wait up. Allmendinger Park here in Ann Arbor has teeter totters??!!

SE: Yes.

HD: No.

SE: Yes.

HD: Do they really??

SE: Yes.

HD: Well, ...

SE: I mean, I hope I haven't burst a bubble here!

HD: Well, you have!

SE: [laugh]

HD: Now, when you say 'teeter totter', you're not just expanding the semantics of 'teeter totter' to include something maybe I wouldn't necessarily call a teeter totter?

SE: Well, I think that purists like yourself would take issue. It's a spring-based device, ...

HD: ... oh, well, if there's springs involved ...

SE: ... it's not the real McCoy like this. But the concept is very similar. I go up, he goes up.

HD: Or you go up, he goes down, you mean?

SE: Well, that, too! [laugh]

HD: So, how's your backside doing?

SE: It's fine, how's yours? What's the longest amount of time you have spent on a teeter totter?

HD: You know, I didn't start keeping an accurate record at the beginning. I can only just roughly estimate, but I think it was about and hour and a half.

SE: Is that close to the Guinness World Record?

HD: No, it's not. Actually, I have corresponded by email with the holder of the world record for teeter tottering duration. It's a woman--I'm trying to remember her name--it's Brandi Carbee, who is now a track and field coach out in Oregon. And the record was measured in days, I think. [Ed. note: HD was close, but it's Washington where Brandi coaches track. And you don't set a teeter tottering record by yourself. The person on the other end was Natalie Svenvold.]

SE: Really? Are you prepared to take on that challenge?

HD: No. But I figured ....

SE: ... because I've just got time, I mean I'm on a fellowship this year ...

HD: ... oh, I see where you're headed with this!

SE: ... and I need something to show for the year!

HD: Holy crap. No, but she said that if she is ever through Ann Arbor she will definitely drop by. And also she promised to not--how did she put it--to not set 'cheek to wood' again until such time as she could ride my teeter totter. So that was pretty good, I think. [Ed. note: HD is close but not exactly right. What Brandi Carbee wrote was, "I have not set a single cheek on a teeter totter since crawling off the one after 75 hours, and now I will avoid tottering again until it is in your backyard."]

SE: So she's saving herself for this teeter totter.

HD: Yeah, apparently she had not ridden since that world record ride and she's promised me that she will not ride again until she rides mine.

SE: Wow, that quite an honor.

HD: You know, I sort of put that into the good column for this enterprise.

SE: [laugh] I definitely would.

HD: It's sort of an indirect endorsement from the world teeter totter record holder.

SE: So, are you a public radio listener?

HD: You know, not on like a regular regimen. The call letters WBEZ were familiar to me, because you hear that at the beginning of This American Life every time.

SE: Sure.

HD: But, you know, what happens to be on like Saturday sometimes I'll be listening to it, but it's not like I can say I listen at this or that time every day.

SE: What's your opinion of public radio these days?

HD: You know, while I do enjoy the syndicated shows like This American Life, Click and Clack [Car Talk]--what's the other one--the Michael Feldman, Whad'Ya Know?--which they have lopped off the second hour, I think, of that one here locally ...

SE: ... they just canceled it in Chicago after 20 some years.

HD: Wow. I mean, I enjoy those particular shows, but it's lamentable, I think, there's not more content that it specific to Ann Arbor and this local region. For example, there is not a news magazine like Eight Forty-Eight for Ann Arbor. And you might make the case that there are not adequate resources, maybe there isn't even adequate content, maybe there's just not enough interesting stuff going on in Ann Arbor that you could actually do it.

SE: I actually think there is enough content. But I do think your resource question is right. It costs a heck of a lot of money to do that. And I think the question a lot of station managers are grappling with is, How can you serve a local audience given the expense it often takes as well? But, there's also, I think, a real concern that increasingly the programs that come from the national distributors one day will be available without a need to tune in to your local station--via satellite, or HD radio, or something, and so why is the local station relevant?

So I think there is an active conversation in public radio circles nationally about the proper role that local stations should play. And after really the better part of 15 years of moving away from local programming, we're starting to see some stations slowly but surely move back toward that. But it's not an easy economic question for everyone to answer.

HD: Well, Eight Forty-Eight, for example, there's archives going back to at least the beginning of last year, that you can sit and listen to over the web ...

SE: ... yeah, actually going back to, probably 2000--we've changed our Web server, so I'm not sure how accessible everything is ...

HD: ... yeah, I didn't go back and figure out just how far do they go back, but I just remember thinking that it does go back pretty freakin' far.

SE: Yeah, the show actually just celebrated its 10th anniversary this month, as a matter of fact.

HD: So did you go back to Chicago for any kind of celebration at all?

SE: It was an on-air celebration for the most part, it wasn't a party per se ...

HD: ... there was no cake?

SE: There was no cake. But, you know, when I came on in the second year of the show, and when the show started, WBEZ was one of--if not the only--public radio station in the entire country, that was trying to devote major resources to covering its own listening area with the highest level of journalistic and production standards possible. That hadn't been done previously. And we set out to do it in a news magazine format, which is very cost-prohibitive, and very difficult to pull off. And I think there were many times along the way where I and others on the show felt like, We may not have a show tomorrow! Or, This thing may not last the week!

HD: Wow!

SE: It was that tenuous at times--for all the reasons I alluded to a moment ago. But also I think because it's incredibly stressful, it's incredibly intense, and we are doing it with just a handful of people. By comparison, a similar show coming out of Washington, I think, would probably have ten people and the resources of 70 reporters around the world.

HD: So, you interned with Weekend Edition in Washington, was it?

SE: All Things Considered. When I was in college, which was a great experience.

HD: So you do have a sense of what that operation is really like in terms of resources, so it's not just like you are speculating, I betcha they've got dozens and dozens of staff ... !

SE: No, All Things Considered then had a staff of at least 10 to 12 dedicated producers, they had 3 hosts, and then, of course, every reporter around the world who is filing stories for NPR, those things can wind up on All Things Considered. And we essentially had just an infinitesimal fraction of that, if at all. So the fact that the show made ten years, I think, is a great thing.

HD: But you guys do have a nice stable of experts in the community, who are sort of your go-to resources? There's a list of folks ...

SE: ... yeah, you've really done your research!

HD: Yeah, well, I do a little bit of background poking around, at least.

SE: One of the initial concepts for the show was that it be very producer-driven and be very open from contributions from the wider community. And part of this was mission-driven and part of it was also, I think, just logistically driven. We wanted to bring in independent producers, and we wanted to bring in listeners, and we wanted to bring in people who are expert in other areas outside the community, so the concept of 'contributor', or almost a 'contributing editor', was applied to a live radio show. So we have about 8 to 10 subject contributors who appear on the show to varying degrees periodically, some more than others.

HD: So, the guy you interviewed from--I can't remember the name of the publication, it was something like Chicago Magazine--this would have been in June of last year, about the housing market ...

SE: ... okay, yes.

HD: What category would he fit in? [Ed. note: the writer in question was Dennis Rodkin from Chicago Magazine.]

SE: He's not a 'contributor' in that sense. He's a Chicago reporter ...

HD: ... who covers housing?

SE: ... who covers housing, and we went to that person for insight. So we do have a lot of local journalists on, people who write for the Chicago Tribune, the Sun Times, or some of the alt weeklies ...

HD: ... yeah, that struck me as a very clever, and efficient use of community resources and also somewhat of a coup, I would think, to have that kind of a partnership with other journalists? People who you could actually construe as competitors in the same news or media market, but you have this partnership with them, apparently. Is it a formal partnership? Or is it more just like his publication doesn't mind him showing up on public radio ...

SE: ... it's more the latter. There are a few cases, for instance, our business contributor is the chief business correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, and that's a formal relationship. But for most people who are writers and journalists who appear on our program, there isn't a formal relationship. It's just as you describe. We are covering a topic that we think is important, and we go to find the best possible guest to help us understand that. Oftentimes that's the principal player involved, or that's somebody in the community who has been directly affected, or all of the above. Sometimes it's a journalist who has covered it and can give us kind of a behind-the-scenes look.

It's a practical thing for us that allows us to cover many more stories than we have the individual staff to do ourselves. For the reporter or the entity that's involved in appearing as a guest on our program, it's beneficial to them because their work is amplified and they are able to talk about things that didn't necessarily make the final edit in the edition of the article that went out. It sort of enhances their profile, so in that sense there is something mutually beneficial. But I also think for us, we try to bring context to every story that we do. We cannot compete with the biggest media organizations in town on covering as many stories as they do, as quickly.

Our news staff does an incredible job with comparatively few resources, but we feel like one of the places where Eight Forty-Eight can add value apart from our own newscast is by bringing context to a story. So if everybody's debating a story about the Great Lakes Water Compact, we can actually bring on an author or a journalist who has covered it, and can tell us what's actually happening behind the scenes in the negotiations right now.

HD: Or you could actually just like throw a bucket with a rope attached out your window and get some Lake Michigan water, right? I mean, I looked at the satellite images of your facility and it's just right there, on the water.

SE: Yeah, it's on Navy Pier, which is a historic spot in Chicago that for a long time was shuttered, and the City did not know to do with it. Then in the late 80's they formed a partnership with the State to re-develop it. It's now the number one tourist attraction in the state of Illinois. So our station is but a tiny speck in the Navy Pier juggernaut that has burst on the scene in the last ten years!

HD: Two years ago--this would have been in the summer of 2006--my wife and I, we added 2 to the count of tourists at Navy Pier ...

SE: ... very nice ...

HD: ... didn't realize at the time that the WBEZ facility was right there. You guys need to get a bigger sign, or something so that people know.

SE: We should, and I don't know why we don't.

HD: Tours of the facility could be part of the tourist deal.

SE: We do some tours, but maybe not enough.

HD: You could go on a boat ride--there's plenty of boats you can hire to take you on a tour of the Chicago skyline, but then you could go out on the boat, they come back in, and take you by Steve Edwards at work behind the glass!

SE: [laugh] That would not be a popular attraction, I can assure you of that.

HD: Well, listen, you have people to pick up at 2 o'clock, you said?

SE: Yeah. How are we doing?

HD: Well, we're five minutes til, so I'd better let you dismount. Thanks so much for teeter tottering with me!

SE: Dave, thank you. It was an honor, and keep up the great work. I really enjoyed the interview. And I hope you'll come visit us in Chicago

HD: I'll do it.

SE: We'll bring the teeter totter into the studio and make it happen.

HD: You know, I'll have to schedule enough time to pedal the thing to Chicago.

SE: [laugh]

HD: What is it, 250 miles? That's probably like of five-day proposition each way. I'll have to train up a little bit. Well, listen, thanks lot.

SE: Thank you.