Or So it Seems … Media Mentors

  

Ari Shapiro is a name-dropper, and a man who knows his way around Washington.

But all things considered, he’d rather be covering a hurricane.

Tuesday night Shapiro, NPR’s Washington correspondent, shared his stories in Chico’s Laxson auditorium. The crowd numbered six hundred plus, mostly silver-haired fans of National Public Radio. Shapiro joked that we “looked nothing like he expected,” and promising that he’d “be discreet about the mornings we spent together in the shower.”

His talk expressed his thoughts about the current political climate in Washington. If you’ve listened to him report, you’ve heard much of this analysis. But he also talked about his journey to the top ranks of NPR. He began as an intern with an English degree, working long hours and couch-surfing when money was tight. Twelve years later, his path as an NPR’s youngest-ever correspondent has taken him through the Justice Department and the Bush and Obama White Houses. Soon he’ll be moving to London to run the NPR bureau there.

An impressive career for a man who just turned 35.

I was struck by how crucial his mentors had been in his success. Shapiro was quite clear on how generous they’d been with their time and attention. He mentioned several, particularly correspondent Nina Totenberg, who’s been with NPR since 1975. Shapiro interned for her after he graduated from Yale, and she in return, made sure that he was introduced to her wide circle of professional connections.

As I listened to Shapiro, I reflected on my internships in news media, years ago, in a far different place—Bakersfield. It was thrilling. Although my home town isn’t Washington DC, my internships allowed me to meet many of the community’s leading figures, politicians, movers-and-shakers, and prominent local artists. Lots of fun people like “Uncle Woody” who owned the biggest toy store in town. Everyone, it seems, except country—star Buck Owens.

Dang.

But the internships taught me a lot. At KERO TV-23, the NBC affiliate, I learned how to handle a camera and put together short news items. But it was at the CBS station, TV-29, that I met the man who would have the greatest influence on me. His name was Jonathan Mumm, and he was KBAK’s news anchor and a teacher at Bakersfield College.

Jonathan taught me how to write the news. He also introduced me to the work of Edward R. Murrow—a curious, courageous journalist with a razor-sharp intellect and an austere style. Jonathan stressed that it was possible to be factual, clear and entertaining. “TV and radio news is written for your ear,” he said. “It’s simple—but not simplistic. Facts must be grasped immediately. Listeners can’t turn back the page.” Mumm was both an able journalist and a gifted teacher. Thirty years later, I still strive to meet his standards.

After my TV internships, I got my first job at The Bakersfield Californian. But my education was far from over. Fortunately, I again benefitted from the mentoring of journalists with extensive experience. They weren’t paid extra to help me. They did so because they cared about their craft. Two in particular stand out—editor Mike Stepanovich and reporter Cynthia Cheski.

Mike in particular helped me grow. Once I asked him what I should do to improve my writing.

“Check out the sand box,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“Read the sports page,” Mike said.

I’ve never been an athlete, followed any teams, or read about jocks. So I rolled my eyes.

But Mike persisted. “Look, our readers watch TV, so they already know the score.”

“Then why bother reading it?” I asked.

“To hear a compelling story,” Mike poked me in the chest. He then grabbed a random story. It was about a baseball game where the drama came in the 7th inning. The experienced sports writer began there.

The opening sentence in the column was: “And then it was it Ripken’s turn…”

Drama. Color. A story well told. Techniques and truths drummed into me by my mentors….

This came back to me when Shapiro spoke. He acknowledged his mentors, and told of how they connected him with the Washington’s elite, Supreme Court justices, major political figures, faces you see on the evening news. In short, the usual suspects. And that’s when I realized that Ari and I shared something in common.

Neither of us got to meet Buck Owens.

Yes, it was impressive to hear him name the big shots, but I was even more impressed when Shapiro talked about covering hurricanes. He enjoyed them, in part, because he got to see how ordinary people face extraordinary problems. Such assignments are satisfying “because the stories feature people in extremis,” he said. “But they’re so relatable. They’re average people that we can all understand.”

Still, Shapiro’s career is unique, and in a way I envy him. He befriended and was in turn assisted by the legendary Totenberg, so his stories read like a Who’s Who in American politics. How much of this would have been possible had he interned somewhere else. I wonder…

But then had he been in Bakersfield, he might have met Uncle Woody. I guess it all evens out in the end.

All kidding aside, Shapiro didn’t have his accomplishments handed to him. He worked hard to make the most of a rare opportunity, and he’s clearly grateful. So he comes across as pretty likeable guy. I may be biased here because I’m a fan. I was caught up in the moment, sitting in the Laxson, listening to his “Stories Not Heard on NPR.” At the end of his talk, he took questions, and I posed one: How can a beginning reporter break in?

Shapiro’s suggestion to would-be journalist was simple: “Volunteer at your local NPR station.” This advice was to the point, mirrored his career, and made no mention of specific degrees or classes. He added that he had faith anyone who cared to would find “good people” to help them at their local NPR affiliate.

And I have to agree.

During a teaching sabbatical I interned at KCHO. I worked with Manager Brian Terhorst, Correspondent Lorraine Dechter, and many of the station’s staff. They’re passionate, dedicated and eager to get you involved.

So when I look at Ari Shapiro, I see the best of what NPR has to offer. He’s amazing, and best of all, his triumphs show it’s possible to enter radio from many points of the compass and flourish. It’s not easy. It requires hard work and determination.

And... some help from experienced mentors.

Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe - "Or So it Seems™" - Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. He has two humor books in print, The Doggone Christmas List and The Stupid Minivan. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County, Northern California.

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6 Responses »

  1. MENTORS . .. . the ultimate example of 'pay it forward!'

    • I think of the people who helped me, and I'm so grateful. Yet there's nothing, really, that I could do for them. As you say, that's why we pay it forward.

  2. Wonderful story Robb. Next best thing to being there. A few years ago both Nina Totenberg and Jim Lehrer came to Redding and I heard them both. Sure wish we could get an interesting lecture series here. Sue

    • Talented and interesting people. I enjoyed hearing Daniel Schorr speak at Shasta College. That was years ago.... As you say, I wish we had a speaker's series here that could bring people of this caliber in regularly. It's great that Chico does this, but many of my students here at Shasta can't make the trip.

      Maybe we should write a McConnell Foundation Grant app....

  3. How I wish I'd been able to attend that lecture! Ari Shapiro is wonderful. And he's a pretty good singer, as well!

    I agree with you about media mentors. I was fortunate to have some great media mentors in my public radio career journey, and have been just as fortunate to be a media mentor to a few incredible souls. By the way, JPR is poised to start accepting some volunteers here in Redding again for news production. So if you're interested in getting involved again (or know some bright souls you think might be interested in developing their public radio news chops), send 'em my way!

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