This past weekend, I attended NPR’s annual meeting of the minds, Weekend in Washington, as a member of Generation Listen.
Below you’ll find a roundup of the conversations ranging in topic from race in America featuring the legal advisor to MLK Jr., The Arab Spring, the impact of storytelling on relationships, the Millenial generation, the psychological toll on journalists covering wars, and a fair amount about what makes NPR what is is as an organization. Scan through to get some insight into the inner workings one of the most respected news organizations in America. If you care about the news and the most pressing issues of today’s society, you won’t regret reading this.
My day job is in news, working both on the journalism side and the technology side. The last few years have been tough for the industry. But NPR’s Weekend in Washington restored some of my faith again.
Read on, and if you’re keen to learn more, feel free to reach out.
The new NPR HQ
WiW is where the most supportive donors and trustees of National Public Radio, fondly known as NPR, come together in DC where the media organization is headquartered. The conversation centers around the news and America’s most pressing issues, allowing supporters to experience live programming from their favorite, revered and treasured radio network correspondents.
Me, 27-year-old Brooklyn-based Erica Berger, one of the most supportive donors and trustees of NPR? Not quite. I’m actually a part of NPR’s newest initiative aimed at solidifying the media organization’s future, Generation Listen. We’re a small but ambitious and energized group of Millenials volunteering our time and talents to make sure that our friends and the next generations to come will love NPR and care about the world as much as we do.
Combining frank discussion, with commentary from NPR’s executives and invited thought leaders and of course, some delicious dinners and cocktails too, Weekend in Washington was what I would call the perfect nerd fest.
Photo by Danielle Deabler, the founding force behind Generation Listen, Vanna White inspired pose by Erica Berger
So what really happened? Notes on the conversations.
The ultimate goal of the annual weekend is to showcase how NPR can continue forwarding an informed (and I would add engaged) population and civil society.
Kit Jensen, chair of the NPR board of directors, and Howard Wollner, chair of the NPR foundation board opened the weekend up at the National Portrait Gallery where America’s history is preserved in photos.
While eating dinner, the guests were treated to a performance by NPR staffers, reading aloud six word stories, thoughts, emotions, and explanations on race, documented by special correspondent Michele Norris and the incredible Race Card Project.
The highlight of the evening however was Michele Norris’s live conversation with Dr. Clarence B. Jones, the legal advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
His 6 words are: “Hate is why we can’t wait.”
Jones started off the reflection with his thesis regarding history and storytelling, that “If the surviving lions don’t tell their stories, the hunters will get a lot of credit.”
As a surviving lion, Jones’s story is of the utmost importance.
Back in the late 1950s, Jones thought that he was going to be an entertainment lawyer and was building his life in Los Angeles. Around the same time, in 1959, Martin Luther King Jr. was being charged with tax evasion. MLK Jr. was referred to Jones and went to meet him at his home in LA. By this time, MLK Jr. had been on the cover of Time Magazine, and was a celebrity. During the visit, it became apparent that King Jr. wanted a black lawyer, to defend his case. Jones became that lawyer.
Reminiscing on the March on Washington, Jones recalls, “The ‘I have a dream’ idea hadn’t been popular before.” “It was the largest assemblage of people in the US ever in the history of the country, and 20-25% of those people were white. It was extraordinary. He [MLK Jr.] spoke in a way that was so qualitatively different, it was like a cosmic experience. You had to see it to believe it.”
Jones reminded those of us who had been alive, and taught those of us who are younger, that is was in fact the American Jewish community who were the most important segment of whites allowing and helping civil rights legislation to prevail.
If that doesn’t make a statement about race, culture, and society in America, we’re not sure what does.
Jones closed the conversation by declaring that MLK Jr. “was the preeminent 20th century apostle of non-violence. He genuinely believed that unconditional love had to be at the center of how we were going to get along. Today, the greatest threat to his legacy is the 24/7 existence and threat of gun violence. If he were alive today, he would say, ‘It’s not a constitutional 2nd amendment question, but the 6th commands met. This is a moral [issue], not a constitutional one.’”
From left: Erica Berger, Dr. Clarence B. Jones, and Anneke Jong
The next morning, we awoke, refreshed and ready for a full day of rigorous and enriching conversation.
On NPR and why it is what it is.
Opening the day’s programming was Paul Haaga, the interim and acting CEO of NPR, speaking about what makes NPR, and thanking the most recent CEO, Gary Knell. Gary has recently departed NPR for National Geographic, but left quite an amazing impression, impact and legacy.
“NPR is thoughtful news for thoughtful people. Gary pioneered ways of using new technology to reach people around America. He’s broadened the audience with a powerful focus on diversity, in particular geographic diversity—race and culture. And for this, we’ll be forever grateful. Listening to and supporting NPR is voting for civility and civics, and for a deeper human experience.”
Then, Kinsey Wilson, the Chief Content Officer, took to the stage to remind us of what we’re building for the future of NPR and news.
“As a nation, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Never has society’s need to understand our world been greater, but never has journalism been in a greater crisis. As our world becomes more connected, we are in need of the rare quality news and reporting [that NPR delivers].
I’m optimistic; it’s liberating that individuals can now communicate in real time. But the challenge for journalism is finding ways to sustain journalism that truly matters. NPR is in the best position to make sure Americans are well informed about the world around them.
I love working at NPR because it’s a place where curiosity, creativity and some risk taking is rewarded. It’s like having a symphony and a jazz quartet all together in one. I stay here because of the generosity of spirit, and the commitment to excellence and spirit of innovation all under the same roof.”
After what I’m lovingly calling the senior NPR leaders’ cheerleading session and rally, we moved onto a more somber and even more important conversation—“What Happened to the Arab Spring?” This panel featured All Things Considered’s Robert Siegel, in conversation with experts Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at University of Maryland, Michele Dunne, the Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East (and veteran State Department official), and Jane Harman, 17 year congresswoman and now Director, President and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Below is an excerpt from the conversation:
RS: Why hasn’t this [The Arab Spring] happened before?
Telhami: We can’t explain the timing without reference to the information revolution. There was no more anger in 2005 than 2010 or 2000. It’s that now, you have an empowered public on a scale never witnessed before. While it doesn’t tell you what is likely to happen (each country is different), we do know that the governments won’t be able to repress people the way they did before.
Dunne: The spring is about dignity, freedom, social justice, and economic opportunity. There’s been some movement on the freedom issue—especially in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen. And dignity too. But there’s been much less progress regarding the economic issues, probably due to the leaderless nature of the revolutions.
Harman: As a Californian, I prefer to call it the Arab earthquake. This groundswell of discontent was fueled by social media. Egypt had an incomplete revolution. While there was a fair election, [ultimately] Morsi governed in a way that offended most of the country. Now the people are fashioning a new government and we [America] should support Egypt’s transition to democracy.
Dunne: Yes but the Egyptian people called for an early election, and rather got a military coup. This could have been more democratic. Now, we’ve seen a massive campaign of repression against the Muslim brotherhood.
RS: What should we do about aid to Egypt?
Telhami: Our aid has never been related to democracy, but to strategic interest. I think we should advocate for democracy, but also need to be realistic about what interests we want to protect. How do we balance strategic interest with our values is the real question!
RS: And what about Syria?
Telhami: People don’t trust the US. Nobody is going to believe we’re helping Syria for democracy’s sake. Whatever we do in Syria, we can’t determine the outcome of the fight. Look at Iraq! If intervention is so moral, we should persuade other countries to help!
Harman: I’m an optimist. Syria is voluntarily dismantling its chemical weapons. There is a meeting in Geneva regarding the transition government. The model is Yemen.
"If I were not an optimist, why would I serve the US congress for 17 years?"
Next up, we had the pleasure of hearing a conversation between Weekend Edition Saturday’s incredibly likeable Scott Simon and the founder of StoryCorps David Isay. They reflected on 10 years of StoryCorps and their collection of more than 50,000 stories from Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs, the largest collection of human voices ever collected.
NPR’s Scott Simon reacting to remembering his StoryCorps recording with his recently passed mother
SS: So what happens when the team walks in?
Isay: Most people prepare for the StoryCorps interview—they go on the website to a question generator. There are 100,000s of hours of footage, and most people are crying at the end of the interview. If you sign a release, great, and if not, you get the copies of your content either way. What you hear on the radio has been fact checked. 99.9% sign a release [for their content and story to be released to the Library of Congress and publicly]! We originally thought it would have been more around 60%.
StoryCorps ultimately reminds people that they matter.
SS: StoryCorps is an otherwise unuttered history of America and our times.
In closing, Scott asked Dave “What have you learned? “ Dave’s response pretty perfectly sums up the conversation.
“People are basically good.”
After wiping off my tears and fixing my messy mascara, I hopped up the stairs to attend the session highlighting one of NPR’s newest (and coolest imho) blogs and initiatives, Code Switch. With the moniker, “Frontiers of race, culture, and ethnicity,” the team is admittedly “fascinated by the overlapping themes of race, ethnicity and culture, how they play out in our lives and communities, and how all of this is shifting.”
Thanks to a $1.5 grant from CPB, the team has been trailblazing NPR’s coverage of race and ethnicity reporting, writing anything from posts on Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, to commentary on black women on SNL, to mapping the basic aspects of being a bro. To me, they are like a startup inside of NPR and I’ve been consistently impressed by the breadth, depth, quality, and maybe most importantly, the realness of their coverage.
Part of the Code Switch team, from left: Gene Demby, Hansi Lo Wang, Karen Grigsby Bates, and Kat Chow
Keith Woods, the VP of diversity of news and ops was up first to introduce the team. He reiterated the power “race, ethnicity and culture has to shine a light and tell us about ourselves.”
And what may you ask is a code switch? It’s a sociolinguistic term and reference to how we change the way we speak between different audiences.
After talking about topics like marijuana in America (with journalist Gene Demby commenting that “marijuana is indeed a gateway drug, but for men of color into the criminal justice system.”), and on brand advertisers and race, we got to hear from the audience about their experience with race, ethnicity and culture in America.
Amanda Slavin, (a fellow Generation Listen Advisory Board member) commented, “brands and celebrities are the gateway to how we understand race.”
Fabian Pfortmüller (another fellow Generation Listen Advisory Board member) and native Swiss commented on his five years of living in America. “Something positive about American identity is that it’s flexible and you can stretch it.”
It was at this session that I realized how important code switch’s conversation really is, especially if these stories arise only from an audience of 50 sitting in a hotel in Washington DC on a cold Saturday in November. Code switch, as the team proudly states, “is making it ok to talk about these issues deeply and more honestly.”
The next session I attended was on none other than people like myself, aka my generation, Millennials. Hosted by Generation Listen, it was a lunch hour meant to better tap into how Millenials are adjusting to the complex dynamics of today’s economy and society.
Denise Cheng, a researcher at MIT’s Center for Civic Media spoke alongside media entrepreneur Chris Altchek, founder of PolicyMic, and Elise Hu, reporter covering technology and culture for NPR. The three waxed poetic on the peer and sharing economy that is changing the way we relate to each other, powered by the Internet of course. They spoke about the technologization of jobs and the various life hacks Millenials have created in order to adapt to today’s complex job market. With the majority of attendees of the session being the older trustees, it was kind of magical to watch people my parents’ and grandparents’ age so engagingly listen to the thought leaders of my generation help explain today’s modern society.
Photo by Dominique Ward
Tweets from the Generation Listen panel
The afternoon included sessions on Latino clout in America with the impressive Viviana Hurtado, founding editor of The Wise Latina Club talking about the changing demographics of America and the implications for media, followed by a session on technology and the implications for national security.
That evening, we were bussed to the new (and stunning) NPR headquarters to catch a live taping of another new, amazing program, TED Radio Hour. This time, Guy Raz was in conversation with Dan Pallota, author and entrepreneur leading the movement to improve nonprofits and management.
Highlights from the conversation are below:
Palotta: Charitable donations have been stuck at 2% of GDP for decades, since the 1970s. The nonprofit sector is NOT wrestling away any market share from for-profits.
Palotta then interestingly traced our take on nonprofit and charity back to…none other than the roots of America, the Puritans. To Puritans, who were the ultimate capitalists, “charity was a penance for profit-making.”
Palotta argued , "if we liberated the nonprofit sector from those ancient constraints, we would see innovations and solutions."
Photo by Cara Bubes
Amen Dan, amen.
The Generation Listen crew then went to Malmaison for a dinner with some of our favorite, smart friends and NPR supporters. It was a lovely evening of conversation about how to solidify NPR’s future and future audience.
The next morning, we started off the final day of program again on a very somber, yet pressing issue—that of journalists covering war and the impact of bearing witness. Melissa Block of All Things Considered moderated the discussion with International Correspondents Kelly McEvers and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, alongside the Executive Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Bruce Shapiro.
Melissa started off by sharing with us stark statistics from the field. “This past year has seen the highest death toll for journalists in the last few decades (if not ever), with 70 killed last year and 40 already this year.” Gone is the safety that a “press” badge used to afford.
She then spoke about what NPR has done to mitigate the risk for their journalists. “NPR has instated hostile environment training and hired a security officer, with each assignment judged on editorial grounds and on safety grounds. Yet, all the caution in the world doesn’t guarantee safe passage. [But what is also important is] fostering a climate of support throughout the newsroom. The well being of NPR staff is our top priority.”
Sarhaddi Nelson: In 2004, I was in Iraq, and I was captured at gunpoint and held captive. It made me question the value of the story—why was I there, why would I put my staff in the situation?
McEvers: I recently completed my “Diary of a Bad Year.” Our colleagues and friends were dying around us but it was an important story, a story of a generation was and is unfolding. I remember thinking to myself, “Is it worth it for my mother to hear me on the radio getting shot at?” The situation has been so serious„ Kelly said that “The Arab spring was the first time I told people not to talk to my mic.”
Shapiro: The DART center was designed to help journalists know more about the science of trauma on our victims and subjects, and then we realized there was an issue that we needed to also tackle, the psychological impact of reporting in war and disasters. We aim to improve journalists’ skills in reporting on difficult subjects. We also provide training and support around injury and resilience too. He aptly added that ‘closure is a dangerous word. It shuts off conversation.’ Difficult stories live with the journalists who cover them always. It’s about recognition. And understanding ourselves. Part of our work is helping people continue to work.
In closing the conversation, although Sarhaddi Nelson and McEvers have decided to stay in safer places (Berlin and Los Angeles respectively) for some time, McEvers reminds us that there’s still news to be made. After a trip back to her hometown in central Illinois, the visibly apparent major economic problems of Middle America reminded McEvers that there will always be stuff to cover at home as well as abroad!
The breakout session that left the deepest impact on me maybe of the entire weekend was called Scarcity: Why having too little means so much, with Correspondent Shankar Vedantam talking about poverty and our brains with Harvard economist and author Sendhil Mullainathan.
As an example of how poverty impacts intelligence, Mullainathan referenced a study on sugar croppers in India, where it was determined that “a person is significantly dumber before a harvest than after a harvest.” Think about it this way—when a person doesn’t know how much they have and whether or not they’ll be able to make ends meet, they’re so focused on it they can’t think about anything else. It’s like they only have 2/3 of their brainpower. “Poverty literally changes our minds.”
For the wealthy, when overextended, they can simply take a vacation. But the poor can never take a break from being impoverished.
It’s not all bad though. Mullainathan’s then started talking about how to live a more effective and happy life. He advised us to stop time managing (those of us who are lucky enough to not be impoverished), and to start “bandwidthing.” Bandwidth is the ability to focus and actually tackle a problem or idea at hand. So bandwidthing would be the verb of bandwidth.
Is that even a word?
If not, it is now. Rather than looking at our calendars and randomly filling the wholes with meetings, Mullainathan recommends grouping similar type meetings and experiences together, so that we’re present and actually thinking about the task or conversation at hand, rather than a meeting two hours ago or two hours later in the day.
Buy the book here!
So what’s the solution to scarcity and poverty? Mullainathan reminded us how airplanes became safer—by making better cockpits that could expect the type of mistakes pilots would make. He challenged us to think about how we could make better policy that would enable people to make mistakes.
After all, we are human.
The closing session featured interim CEO Paul Haaga, reminding us “this weekend has been an extraordinary example about the soul of NPR.”
And to leave us with an extraordinary appreciation for NPR, Ari Shapiro, the White House Correspondent and soon to be London Correspondent shared with us the story of his career, on stage with the SVP for News, Margaret Low Smith.
“Growing up, the sound of ATC literally made me salivate for dinner.” Ari grew up in a home that listened to NPR. All Things Considered meant dinner was being cooked.
After graduating from college, and not quite sure what he wanted to do, Ari applied for an internship, was rejected, then reached out to Nina Totenberg after discovering she hired her own interns. He got the job, and worked for her from 2000-2001. He was in the office on 9/11.
Low Smith then reminded us of the Bob Edwards quote: “When there’s a national crisis, journalists are lucky, as they know what role they can play.”
The experience of reporting during 9/11 and the aftermath stuck with Ari.
How did Ari manage to get where he is now, as the youngest ever Official Correspondent for NPR? He says “I worked around the periphery…I went from the outside in when I couldn’t talk to the people I wanted to interview. You can always find a great story outside in, not just inside out!”
Low Smith asked Ari why he switched from covering Romney on the campaign trail to Obama for a few weeks.
Ari responded, noting “It says something about NPR. I came out of it with a stack of stories nobody else had done. Stepping back helps find better and more thoughtful stories.”
So what is Ari looking forward to?
“Social has opened so many new possibilities from a newsgathering respective. I ran a tumblr, Ari in Africa, trying to catch moments while I was on tour with President Obama.”
This tumblr went viral. Ari’s approach to innovation and to always thinking about media as an experiment is why I would argue he’s one of the best, smartest, and most fun journalists, no matter the beat, covering the world around us today.
Paul Haaga took to the stage one last time to share with us his 6 words (a la The Race Card project format) to describe NPR.
3) Courage—what we have both in the field and in the office
5) Listen—for Generation Listen, and for our wonderful listeners
And what better way to close off the weekend then this:
“We visit you at home, thanks for coming to visit us at our home in Washington.”
Closing note: As many of you know, I work in news, both as a writer but also as a web product manager and strategist. I’ve been in countless major newsrooms in the last four years. It’s not been the best time to be in news as digital and mobile have deeply changed the way we consume and pay (or not pay) for news to be made. But Weekend in Washington and seeing the inner workings of NPR has restored much of my faith. I will continue to work in news, not only because it matters deeply, but because I have faith that we can figure out how to make the news better and sustain it too.
Here’s to quality journalism and helping people better understand the world around them!