- Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer
Melissa Block ’83, a host of National Public Radio’s (NPR) flagship program All Things Considered (ATC) since 2003, spoke at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on March 11 about her radio career, presenting a talk she titled “All Things Considered Considered.” Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the institute and Jones professor of American studies, welcomed the large turnout with a tongue-in-cheek observation: “Who would think so many would turn out for someone they’ve never laid eyes on before?”
All Things Considered, which first aired on May 3, 1971, is NPR’s longest-running program, and Block has been on its staff for 28 years as a producer, editor, director, and reporter. She began her career there by arranging interviews for former ATC host Noah Adams and worked her way up the ranks. Using a recording of actual voices of ATC staff members at work, she took the audience through a day of producing the program, from the 10 a.m. “pitch meeting” to its 4 p.m. airtime, when 12 million listeners tune in. She compared editing audio segments to dressmaking: “taking in some here, making a little tuck there.” She shared some radio jargon: musical clips run between stories are called “buttons,” promos for upcoming stories are “billboards.”
Block “stumbled into” radio, she said, after an overseas fellowship and a successful application to Yale Law School. (She deferred admission there twice, and on her third demurral, was told, “We think you are happy where you are.”) It’s true that it was love at first sight when Block first arrived at NPR in 1985. “Wow, there are a lot of beards and sandals here,” she recalled thinking. “This place looks fantastic!”
In the early years, audio editing meant physically cutting audiotape and splicing segments together; due to high-speed playback during the editing process, there were “chipmunk voices coming from all directions.” At that time a telex machine, now “a dinosaur,” connected NPR to its sole foreign correspondent, based in London. (Today there are 20.) The Nagra tape recorders of the 1980s produced excellent sound, but weighed 20 pounds, needed 12 D-cell batteries, and required a tape reel change every 30 minutes, “usually right at the best part of the interview.” Today, radio reporters use tiny flash-card devices that weigh a few ounces. Yet, “We still see what we do as an intimate exercise in storytelling,” Block said, adding “You [the listeners] do all the work—in your imagination.”
Block played some excerpts from ATC’s worldwide reportage, including her own harrowing, heartwrenching dispatch from Sichuan, China, during the earthquake of May 12, 2008, which took place while Block was on air live. NPR had the only Western reporters at the epicenter of the quake, and when the ground began undulating beneath Block’s feet, she repeated, “Oh, my goodness—oh, my goodness,” into the microphone. Eventually, 70,000 perished in the earthquake, and NPR decided to air an audio clip of the grief-filled moans of two Chinese parents just as they received the news that their two-year-old son was one of the casualties. Block’s own on-air voice carried raw emotion, too. Some listeners objected to the network’s willingness to “broadcast [the parents’] suffering to the world.” In Block’s telling, it seemed like a decision with no right answer, and no wrong one, either.
She also drew out some observations on the state of broadcast news in a digital era, in which “there’s a constant stream of updates. The news cycle is in overdrive.” Block pointed out the way in which cable news networks like CNN and Fox went on the air last year to announce that the Supreme Court had struck down a key proviso (individual mandates) of the Obama healthcare legislation, when in fact the opposite was true. It was a mistake a journalist might well make “if you had only bothered to read as far as page two” of the 190-page opinion, she said. “What’s wrong with going through the opinion?”
Despite its challenges, Block gave all appearances of continuing to relish her job, and to maintain a central focus on one of ATC’s goals: creating “driveway moments.” These are those moments when a listener stays in the car after arriving home, with the engine off but radio on, riveted by a compelling story, while, as Block put it, “the ice cream is probably melting in your trunk.”