Friday, November 03, 2006

Welcome: Rosemary Pennington, WBHM host/producer

Rosemary Pennington, host/producer for shows such as Fresh Air on WBHM, talks about life as a journalist, woman, and mother.

Please feel free to post any questions or comments you have and I’ll get in touch with her.


1. Tell me a little background, a little about you, how you got to where you are, and so forth.

How I got here? Hmmm. I don't know. :)

Really, though. I've always loved to write; it's something I've always been good at but I was never really sure just how I was going to use my talent.

I really wanted to be a poet, but I'd heard too many starving artists stories to think that was a real option for me (plus I'm not sure my poetry is at all publishable). So I kind of languished for a while, unsure of what I wanted to do with myself.

Then, in high school, I had an English teacher pull me aside and ask me what I wanted to do after graduation. I said I had no idea and she actually threw at me the idea of journalism. It was something I'd been interested in, but one of those things where it seems almost impossible to become one. She suggested I apply to Ohio University because the journalism school there was fantastic (still is) and I did and I got in.

I decided to be a broadcast journalist because of Christiane Amanpour. Watching her reporting showed me you could be a woman and be a kickass foreign correspondent (that's what I wanted to be at the time). Her reporting from Bosnia is one shining example of what journalism's supposed to do: shine a light on the injustices and inhumanities of this world. She's a real role model.

I got into radio because I started volunteering at the school radio station (public radio) and I got sucked in. I love the nuance of radio. The way a really good radio story can take you places no other medium can. Not even television can make places as intimate and as real as radio can.

2. Tell me about your current job: what's your title, what do you do, and how do you do it? Walk me through the process of creating and producing a radio story.

I am the afternoon host at the public radio station in Birmingham, Alabama. I locally host "All Things Considered", "Fresh Air" and "Marketplace". I also produce feature stories and interviews that air during "Morning Edition", "All Things Considered" and our local arts and culture show.

How I got the job is really kind of funny. I was pregnant with my daughter and a good friend of mine saw the job opening and sent it to me saying he would send my resume in if I didn't. At the time I'd been working at the same radio station for five years and really needed to move on. I was getting burnt out and he knew it.

So, I sent my resume and a CD of my work and didn't hear back for a while. Then, about a month after I had my daughter I got a call from the station saying they wanted to interview me. I went through a phone interview (where I proceeded to apologize for my tongue-tiedness -- the whole new baby lack of sleep thing).

They liked me enough to fly me down here and not long afterward I was offered the job. They were looking for someone who had experience locally hosting a national program (I did) and who also could put together long, feature stories. I was just a couple of years out of college by then and had all ready garnered a few awards for my work, so I guess that played in my favor.

I get into the office about 10 each morning. First thing I do is wade through my emails. I get a lot of stuff from publicists -- a lot of books -- and what's not relevant to my area I get rid of and follow up on what I think might work here. Then I either have meetings or editing to attend to. I work on scripts and mix stories together.

When I put together a story I voice it myself (narrate it), then edit that. When that's done I then mix in the soundbites and what we call "nat sound" or "ambi" ... it's the sound of horses hooves in a cowboy story or traffic in a road story. At two I start putting together my newscast and weather copy. At three I'm on the air and then I'm done at seven. When I'm on the air I do local ID breaks, read newscasts, introduce local stories and start programs.

3. What story have you created that really affected you, really has stayed with you over time? Do you think it is one that has been great from the listeners' perspectives? What do you think constitutes a great story?

One story I really loved doing was a first-person narrative. (My voice wasn't it in at all). I spent the night at a homeless shelter for women downtown and spent hours talking with the women and trying to get to know them. I finally sat next to one lady in the t.v. area and we started talking.

I had my recorder so I asked her if I could record her story and she agreed. She'd basically grown up in an abusive household, got out and made a life for herself but got hooked on drugs and then started hooking to make money to buy the drugs, then just hooking for the drugs. She also eventually discovered she had bipolar disorder -- helps explain some of the wilder things she did.

There was something in her voice and her eyes that struck me. Stories like that are what radio, and journalism, is really all about. It's about stories, it's about giving people who are usually overlooked a way to talk about their lives. It's about "giving voice to the voiceless" (very cliched phrase, but sometimes clich├ęs can be good things).

It was a story that touched me deeply and now I've taken myself off the homeless beat and volunteer at the shelter once every couple of months. I don't know what happened to the woman I talked to. I went back two or three months later, to volunteer overnight, and she was gone. I like to think that she was able to find housing. I know it's unlikely, but you've got to hope, right?

I think a really good story, one that grabs the listener's ear and pulls them in has a real voice. It sings in its own way. It's real. I don't really know how to describe it. If you've listened to public radio I think you know what I'm getting at. It's this idea that the people you're hearing from are real. That their lives are real. I think good stories also have a sense of place. Whether it's a lot of nat sound, or music, or just the tone of the reporter's voice you have to be transported. That's the beautiful thing about radio ... it transports you. Not every story does. But the ones that do ... well, they're worth all the other listening.


4. I’m a big fan of public radio because I believe the programming reflects what listeners want to here, versus what advertisers want played. Do you feel this is an accurate representation of publicly funded versus corporately funded radio? Would you speak to how and in what way you feel public radio is an asset to the listeners?


I don't know if it's necessarily that we're giving listeners what they WANT to hear ... I think we give them what they SHOULD be hearing. We give them political stories that can be twelve minutes long because they SHOULD know this stuff. We take them to Afghanistan because they SHOULD know what's happening there. I think it just happens that, a lot of time, what public radio listeners WANT to hear and what they SHOULD hear overlap.

The beauty of public radio is that we are, in large part, publicly funded. We're accountable to listeners. And, trust me, if they don't like something we do, we know it. But I think that public trust forces us to do good, quality work. Commercial radio can be gimmicky and zany and use over-the-top personalities to pull listeners in, but if the ratings fall, those zany personalities are a goner.

If the ad revenue isn't there (and ad revenue is often tied to ratings) then that's it ... game over. We don't have that pressure. There are money worries, to be sure, but public radio listeners tend to be loyal and they tend to rally around their stations. And by rally, I mean send in the money. That, in turn, allows us to do things you can't do on commercial radio. Like air hour long documentaries or call-in programs or special coverage of things like elections. We're the context and texture.

I hate the comparison between the two, commercial and public, really. I like to think of us more as complimentary. Commercial radio is where you turn to get away. To listen to music or get a quick look at what's making news. Public radio's where you go when you want to be sucked in. When you want to know, not only that the President signed a bill today but why he signed it, what the ramifications are going to be, how it affects you.

The biggest strength of public radio (and I'm talking about the news since I'm a newsie) is that it really gives you this world class education without beating you over the head. We have to be careful of that, though; the in-depth stuff. We have to be careful of the way we sound. We don't want to bore listeners; the idea is to engage them. Make public radio listening a conversation ... not a "Delicious Dish" kind of experience.

5. Who is your favorite broadcaster? Do you model yourself on anyone? If so, who and why? Do you feel mentors are important in your career?

Oh, honey, I have a lot of favorites. I adore Ira Glass and the crew at This American Life. The things they do. You know that bit I mentioned earlier about good radio needing a clear voice and sense of place? This American Life delivers that like virtually no one else. And the beauty of that program is that the people you hear could be anyone.

I'm also a big fan of NPR hosts Alex Chadwick, Melissa Block and Robert Siegel. As far as reporters go I adore the entire Science Desk at NPR. Anne Garrels, Robert Krulwich, Ivan Watson and Noah Adams are also among my favorites.

Outside of public radio I'm a big fan of Bill Moyers, Brian Williams, Soledad O'Brien, Campbell Brown and the aforementioned Christiane Amanpour.

I don't think I've consciously modeled myself after anyone. I feel things out for myself. Because I was one of the few students interested in radio news at my university I got thrown into a lot of things before I was really ready and it was all about trial by fire. I have had people say, "That sounds like a Stamberg introduction" or tell me "You sound like Terry Gross" (this after doing an interview) but I haven't stylized myself after any one individual.

I'm hoping that things are coming to me via osmosis. I grew up listening to public radio and am an avid fan as an adult so I hope I've absorbed the good. I think it is good to have a mentor in this business. While I just did the whole "osmosis" diatribe, there are just some technical things you can't get until someone shows you. And a mentor can really help you develop you're strengths and lessen your weakness. I've been lucky to work with some pretty amazing people who've really helped me develop.

6. What is your favorite broadcast program?

On public radio? Hands down "This American Life". Followed by "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me" and "All Things Considered".

7. Where would you like to go with your career?


I don't know. :) It would be nice to be working in DC one day, or as a news director somewhere, but I try not to focus too much on the tomorrows. I really enjoy what I do now and I'm focused on that for the time being. If you have any ideas, let me know.

Let’s move on to personal.
8. Can you share a little about your personal life?


I'm married with child. The bambina is three and a half and is a fireball. I don't know where she gets the energy. Both my husband and I were runners at one time and she appears destined for that. The way she runs all over the place now...

My husband I met through a mutual friend. We went on a pretty rotten first date (he doesn't think it was bad, but I know the truth) but somehow managed to get past that and started seeing each other. We've been together pretty much ever since.

9. How do you juggle career and family? How do you create balance and regain balance when life gets out of balance?


I don't think you ever do balance things. I think one thing is always going to be a little heavier, a little more urgent than the other. They'll swing back and forth, but I don't think there's any way to "balance" things. I think the key is realizing that. Realizing that there are moments when work will take precedence and promising yourself that, once things cool off, family gets to be first.

I think too many women think that things have to be perfect. That they have to keep everything even.

Is anything in life like that? No. It's all in flux.

It flows back and forth. That's how work and family have to be. There will be low tides and there will be high tides and you've got to just understand that and be okay with that. And you need a significant other who's okay with that as well or you're in big trouble.

10. What example do you set that you hope your daughter grows up and benefits from?


I hope my daughter looks at me and realizes she can be and do anything. I grew up in a working class home, put myself through college (my parents did what they could) and am now doing something I love.

And I haven't compromised a bit of myself.

The only thing, significant, that's changed about me all these years is my accent. Had to get rid of the Southern Ohio twang. But, other than that, I've done all these things and stayed true to myself. I might have gone down a rabbit hole or two along the way, but I came out me. I can only hope she does the same.

11. Do you believe that the workplace holds a bias against women in certain careers, especially women with children? In what way do you see or not see it?

Of course it does. Feminism has done a lot to make it easier for women, but it's still hard. There's still this idea that a mother's not going to be able to do as much. And because that's still out there you see mothers burning themselves out. You know that whole thing about balance we were just talking about? This kind of gets back to it. Women push themselves at work to be better than anyone else, to show everyone they're not soft, then they rush home and run around again trying to prove, this time to themselves, that they can do this ... they can be Supermom and Superemployee and not dry up. And it's not right and not fair but I'm not sure how to fix it.

A little lighter, and fluffier
12. What are your hobbies and outside interests? Do they influence you in your work at all?


I don't really have hobbies, unless eating is one. I'm a big reader -- love Stephen King, Amy Tan and Chuck Palahnuik, and any author who can make me forget the outside world.

I also like dramas (TV and film) and foreign movies. My guilty pleasures are reality shows (Amazing Race, Project Runway) and anime.

I don't think my interests influence my work too much. I really try to keep them separate when I can. I actually don't watch or listen to much news on the weekends ... just the Sunday morning shows. I have to turn it off. So my interests have to be things that take me away from work.

13. If you had five extra hours in a day, what would you like to do? Not what you should do, but what would YOU WANT to do?

Five extra hours? Oh, I'd spend at least two of them reading in the bathtub. I love a good, long, hot bubblebath with a good book. I'd probably workout for an hour ... prior to bathtime, obviously. Then maybe watch a movie? We've got all kinds of DVDs that we haven't watched.

Your accomplishments
14. What do you feel is your greatest success to date, and what are you working towards next?


Does birth count? That's, really, my biggest success. Well, maybe not birth, but the raising of the child and not having to commit myself yet.

Professionally I think my biggest accomplishment is producing a documentary on AIDS. I don't know if it was my best technical work but it was by far the biggest thing I've ever done. I researched it for about a year and then actually worked on it for about six months.

The fact that I produced it at all is, well, astounding to me. I have moments when I'm flabbergasted by the fact this little old hillbilly girl is actually on the radio and has actually done these things. That said, I think I won't be doing another documentary again anytime soon. That thing exhausted me.

Right now I'm working on several different things. I've got a series in the works and some fluffier pieces. I need some fluffy in my life.

Oh, also, in November I'm doing NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month. I'm really hoping I get a draft of something publishable out of it. I'd love to write some books. Books that people actually read!

15. What advice would you share---honestly---with a young woman interested in a career like yours? Imagine it was your daughter...

To be prepared to work hard. Women still have to prove themselves. Especially in broadcasting where, if you're a pretty woman, everyone thinks you're getting into the business for vanity's sake. I'd tell her to read everything she could get her hands on ... books, newspapers, magazines. The better read you are the easier this will come to you. Good writers develop because they're good readers. You sort of soak things up. Obviously not the voice, that's unique to each individual, but learning how to put things together. And once you learn how to do that, you'll be less afraid to pull things apart and play with words when you're at a place where you can do that.

Also, if you want to be in broadcasting, #1 listen to radio -- commerical and public so you can get a feel for which you'd rather be in. #2 watch lots of news -- local, national and cable; you can get a good feel for what makes good, and what makes bad, broadcasting and then #3 -- read out loud.

Years ago I had someone tell me I had a terrible voice for broadcasting, so I started reading the New York Times out loud so I could get a feel for how my voice sounded. Also, I could learn the rhythm. Well all have our own rhythms ... the sooner you figure out what yours is, the better.

Get involved as early as you can. If you can get experience in junior high or high school, do it. And go to college. A good journalist, regardless of what medium he or she is in, has a good education. Certainly you can get an education from life, but if you want to be more than just a reporter or host you're going to need a college education. And, trust me, there are things you learn in college that you'll put to use later on.

Lastly, have fun and enjoy what you're doing. Love what you do because there are going to be times when it all comes crashing down on you and only the love of your work will keep you sane.

16. What’s your favorite story to tell? Funny, e.g., cocktail party favorite story, or serious, e.g., deeper conversation…whatever strikes you.


I have so many. I'll pick one from London, since it's October.

I spent two months in London in the fall of 2001; I lived in an international boarding house full of people from all over; Brazil, Japan, Italy. They decided, since there was an American among them, that we would all celebrate Halloween. The plan was to get dressed up, let some kids we know trick or treat and then head to a pub where one of the women in the house worked; they were having a Halloween party there.

So, we go through all the motions to prepare. I even bought a pumpkin to carve a jack 'o lantern. The thing is, I'd never done that before on my own. It had always been other people carving because, well, I'm bad with knives. So I'm staring at this large, orange gourd, hoping to hell I'm not going to destroy it. As I make my first cut the questions come flying. My housemates asked me why Americans love Halloween, what it's all about, why we didn't eat the pumpkin instead of carving it. (That one was my favorite.) And I had to reach far back into the depths of my mind to give them the answers.

After our impressionist pumpkin was carved and lit we started talking about dressing up. I asked my Japanese friend if she was going to dress up and she looked at me and asked, "I won't get pinched will I? I don't like getting pinched." I replied, "Pinched?" Then I realized she'd confused Halloween with St. Patrick's Day. We both laughed when I explained her mistake.

Probably the funniest part of the whole experience was when the kids came to trick or treat. I'd been working that day so my housemates had to get the candy together for the kids. When I walked into the kitchen they'd laid out this spread of cookies and sandwiches and candy. When the little kids walked in (our landlords children) they had no idea what to do. Then one of the Brazilians came down the stairs in this crazy, ghoulish St. Patrick costume he'd come up with. Those kids couldn't get out of there fast enough! It numbers among my favorite evenings, ever.

Thank you so much Rosemary!

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