The Future of Public Radio
A Conversation with Arun Rath
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Happy Mother’s Day!
It’s spring, the season of rebirth and reinvention. Life, which seemed so bleak just a few weeks ago in the cold of winter, is suddenly once again busy and full of color. The trees flower, the grass needs it’s first mowing, and the local farm stands being to open their doors. (The photo above is from my beloved Clark Farm Market in Carlisle, MA yesterday.)
The pandemic has taken so much from so many. The health and lives of loved ones. A sense of community and camaraderie for our children, who have had to navigate new modes of schooling and ways of socializing. Time spent with out of state relatives or visiting favorite vacation spots.
After having spoken with more than 80 people over the past year about their pandemic experiences for this podcast, there have been common themes that I keep hearing about what has been learned. Strength. Resilience. Adaptability. The Importance of Family.
I have hoped all along that as we move past this pandemic and start to rediscover normal that some of these lessons would stick and we could emerge a changed people.
For the last few weeks, I have been in preproduction for a new project. I’m not sure how specific I can get yet, but it’s a project focused on education, especially for Black and Brown students. It has been a thrilling project to be involved with, and has allowed me to stretch some creative and technical muscles that have not been used since I was in college.
I have been working on hiring my crew for that project lately, and reconnected with an old friend a few days ago who might fit with this job. He told me that he has been trying to only accept work like this that he feels represent his values and make a positive mark on the world. That really resonated with me, and is where my head has been lately too.
We have seen over this past year the fragility of life. We have seen how easy it is to break our current infrastructure- whether that’s toilet paper shortages last spring or Texas’s power grid failure a few months ago. Knowing that we only have so long on this planet, I hope we all have a chance to meditate on what our impact is and what we want it to be.
Last week, I had a really candid conversation with public radio journalist Arun Rath. Arun’s career in public broadcasting has included stints as a producer, director, editor, plus host of the weekend edition of All Things Considered for NPR. These days, he anchors the local weekday portions of All Things Considered for Boston station GBH. He also began hosting a new show during the pandemic, In It Together, which looks at how the New England region has weathered COVID-19.
While In It Together has settled into a nice half-hour interview based show, Arun told me it’s early incarnation had to be scrapped because of technical challenges with remote broadcasting:
“The original concept for the show was an hour long call-in show. I think we did a week of shows out of the studio before I was doing everything out of home. The main reason we didn’t stick with a call-in format was because that was technically difficult by that point to be handling calls in the studio while I was also broadcasting from home. We couldn’t quite pull it off. Once we could, we sort of liked the form that the show had taken.”
As all of us were scrambling to figure out a working from home setup last spring, Arun had an even bigger challenge of finding a way to create a radio studio in his home where he could broadcast live radio every day. The photo above shows his setup now, and he described for me what it took to get there:
“We kind of had the studio in a box idea ready to go, so in the course of a weekend, I cleared out this closet in the basement, which was just filled from floor to ceiling with stuff. Got a bunch of acoustic tile, basically a car load full of acoustic tile, put that up on the walls. The foam tiling makes it look cool and professional. The computer there with this Comrex box and a microphone. Everyday, from 4:00 in the afternoon until 7:00 in the evening, I’m live here out of the basement. It’s been the same now for over a year.”
Arun also had a really interesting perspective on opening up and sharing his point of view with his audience, which is new for him. This became a thread throughout our conversation. He described how his role on In It Together allows him to present in a very different way:
“When I’m doing an interview for In It Together, it’s not like an interview for All Things Considered. My own personality, my own personhood and subjectivity is there in a way that would not be appropriate for a straight news show. I talk about stuff on the show personally that I would never, ever have done before.”
Part of the change is the format of his show, but Arun has also felt a change in how he and other journalists have presented the news this past year, which has also affected straight news:
“Everything that was going on in the past year, the two big things obviously being the political election and the social justice movement which really got on fire after the killing of George Floyd. That kind of affected everything, and frankly, that affected the news coverage as well of All Things Considered. In a public health emergency, and also when you’re a public media journalist, things are different. You have to step up in that role in a way that wouldn't be appropriate at other times.”
Arun made sure to differentiate between publicly advocating for a position and calling on your own background and life experience to tell a richer, more personal version of a story:
“I come from more of a school of journalism that frankly would make more of the older NPR editors uncomfortable. I think advocacy journalism has a place, but not as a public media journalist or a straight news journalist, that’s not what I want to do. But I think owning our own subjectivity is in general a healthy thing.”
This year has definitely caused news fatigue and burnout. Arun has felt that too, and he told me why he thinks it has been an especially challenging year in the media business:
“I’m not burned out on the pandemic, it’s all the extra stuff that got piled on. Think about the past year, going back to two impeachments, the protests that broke out, the election, the election count getting drawn out, and the insurrection. I’m probably leaving out some things in there. There was a combination of things that we knew were going to be long news days. Frankly, I’m here in the basement all day, so I’ll have the TV on with CNN, the radio on, and monitoring stuff. It’s more tiring when I’m sitting around not doing anything than if I’m sitting around live on the air for three hours. It’s just waiting for something to happen and not knowing when it’s going to happen.”
Arun’s current arrangement with a basement studio is only one way that he takes work home. I was also really curious to ask him about his marriage to the Executive Producer of Frontline, Raney Aronson. With both of them so focused on the news all day everyday, I wanted to know whether conversations at home were mostly free of news or if work talk crept into family life:
“It’s completely inescapable. There is a lot of talking about this stuff. We’re having some useful conversations, a lot of the time about the good people to talk to about it. There is a lot of shop talk and there are times where we get burned out on it, but it’s also kind of productive.”
Arun was incredibly unguarded and candid in our conversation, and because of his long career in public radio, he really has a holistic view of the whole public media space. I highly recommend taking the time to listen to the full interview. You can find In It Together as a podcast as well.
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