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Renee Montagne

On being podcastable in a multitasking age

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Renee Montagne gets to work at midnight to co-host National Public Radio's Morning Edition news magazine from the network's West Coast bureau. She goes on the air at the crack of dawn on the East Coast and, along with Steve Inskeep in Washington, D.C., teases out the news of the day on NPR affiliates across the nation, providing the mix of hard news, culture and entertainment that millions of Americans wake up to every morning. Montagne is coming to Boise this week to support Boise State Radio and wants to know how to pronounce the "s" in Boise.

This morning, I read a great article about NPR's website redesign, and it said people in radio had never thought about what NPR looks like. And then I saw your picture ... what does NPR look like?

We have some amazing photography ... I've never had anyone ask me that, I'm actually thinking it through as I tell you. What on the website grabs me, in terms of what I think is NPR, amazingly, are the visuals. The way we do radio is the way public radio does radio ... It tells a story in a way that doesn't have too many adjectives or too many descriptions, but between the tape of the people's voices and between the story you're telling, you feel like you are there. You feel like it's three-dimensional, and you feel like you see the colors and the depth and the craggy face and the wild hair. The best of it is very visual, so when you transfer it to the website, sometimes the printed word ... the scripts are the opposite of what you heard. They actually are like the negative. It was all in the read and the tape and sounds that are applied that you can't see on the page and the music that you can't see on the page.

It was always sort of wonderful not to be seen ... people would come up and say I didn't think you looked like this ... that you were taller. I'm more spontaneous, I think, in real life, I talk faster as you might have noticed. I can talk slower, but when I get all interested in something, I talk fast. I can't even say what I look like, but it's not what people thought. People say that about everybody on NPR, but we're losing that because today we're a click away to see someone's picture.

How much reporting do you do as a host and how do the jobs differ?

I still get to report, but you have to pick and choose because the job really is different and it really is time consuming. There's one real difference for me between reporting and hosting, and it was huge, and it took me years of substitute hosting to get into the groove of doing what I really do as a host. When I was a reporter, one thing I did really well, if I might say so, is I got what they call "good tape." People were comfortable with me, even people on the street ... Oftentimes I would ask purposefully, kind of stumbly-type questions, which is how I am in real life, but I didn't rein myself in ... I would say, "um do you mean, um, um, um," that sort of thing. They're going to tell me the answer. There are many natural things that I looked back on later, that I was doing spontaneously.

So that's a big deal when you become a host and it's all about you. I wouldn't be a good host if I didn't hear myself in every interview, as present as any interviewee ... You're creating a conversation that is two people somehow with their arms wrapped around all of the listeners. It's like a good conversation where the listener doesn't happen to be talking at the time.

In print, we're constantly talking about the Internet and the future of print. What does that discussion sound like in radio?

Our discussion is a certain sadness at seeing our colleagues' world shrink. Nobody in my form, my part of the media, knows any better than you guys do where it's going to go ... but on our end of things, NPR itself, we're gaining listeners ... we're in a kind of upward trajectory, so it's a very bittersweet time for people around me. We've inherited some print people and broadcast television, too. We're just getting back a reporter who went to a network a couple of years ago. Also, we're getting print people and we're getting photographers. We swept some of the [White House News Photographers Association] awards. David Gilkey, who is a really brilliant photographer, who took a buyout from his last paper [The Chicago Tribune] and came to NPR. We couldn't have lured him away a couple of years ago, and we didn't even have anywhere to put somebody like that. Now we have some photographers who travel with us and who put work on the Web that's being recognized.

We are gaining listeners, and I think that's because we are part of a medium that is portable and podcastable in a big way ... you can't watch TV and drive a car, you can't watch TV and stir your food. You can listen to radio and do one other thing fairly well. You cannot read a paper and do something else.

Read more Montagne at boiseweekly.com.

I can't listen to NPR and pay attention to my kids at the same time.

Kids ought to have 100 percent of your attention.

There's no gloating in it, it's not like, "oh wow, we're doing so well." We're not doing that much better in terms of resources. We have always been such a shoestring operation in terms of resources. We're doing well, but instead of having limousines and even, like, giving a producer to a foreign reporter, which almost never happens, we open new bureaus. We hire reporters who can go to a new place. We were hit hard by the recession because of our foundation money, and our corporate sponsorships were banking and cars, not solely, but those were two of the big ones. So we took a big hit, but we never took a big hit in terms of the audience.

We hear your 2- to 3-minute interviews on the radio ... is that all the time you get with them or do you get to warm up the interviewee first?

It depends. We do live interviews on the air. Here in the West, you'll often hear it a second time ... and, yes, it's very tight on the clock and that's when you start hearing, "oh we just have a couple of seconds left" ... and we've sometimes gotten in trouble for cutting people off. When you hear us interviewing our own reporters, those are usually right to time. We'll just ask as many questions as we can get in, watching a clock. But virtually all of the features that one hears--music interviews, book interviews--those can go on for 30 to 40 minutes, where you're really looking for a moment, especially if it's music.

I guess in the middle of that is maybe an interview with a newsmaker, and they almost never give us very much time. The average is, you've got 15 minutes, which sounds like a lot, but it's nothing. And that's where you get a little warm-up, that you kind of know is a throwaway ... and then you get to it and you're watching the clock pretty hard. I'll tell you--you didn't even ask this, but I'll tell you one more thing. One value of doing a 15-minute interview is that, especially with newsmakers, they tend to have some sort of an agenda, they tend to be very practiced at talking, and they know where they want to go, and they'll try to take you there with all of their might. And you can't always be right there with the follow-up or you can follow up five times to try to get them to come around and say something ...

When Steve Inskeep is talking on the East Coast, what are you doing in the West Coast studio?

We are both in the studio. I'm looking at a camera that shows me the director or any of the producers who wander into the room, or the engineer. It shows me the control room. I have a studio here in L.A., or Culver City, to be precise, where I have an engineer who works with me to bring in stories if need be, on my end. I'm in the studio the whole time with Steve. We have a red phone that if I want to pick it up, the only person who's on the other end will be Steve. It's pretty funny looking; it just has a light, like Moscow to D.C. We have a top of the screen thing, it's like Twitter, I guess, so we can flash messages very quickly: "Steve, quick." We write all through the show. For us, when we're dealing with reporters' stories, we're constantly trying to keep it fresh, even though much of it is written. If we read what was given to us, a lot of time this is what all listeners would be hearing: "Six days after the airport closing in London, millions of travelers are still stranded." That would be the first line of every intro. Reporters report, but they don't know exactly where it's going to go in the show.

What were the most important news stories today [Wednesday, April 21]?

We did three stories on the volcano ash, as planes had finally started to take off from London, which was the biggest snarl. We had, amazingly, thought that we would be done with this Monday morning, that people would be tired of this story, and it actually got bigger. It involved more and more people and more and more industries and flowers and fruits and vegetables wilting in Kenya. I remember last Friday, [April 16,] we were trying to figure out what we'd be doing on Monday and everybody thought, not that it would be over, but that people would be tired of it. You can overdo it and we get letters from listeners saying, stop already with the ... whatever it happens to be. Something like the earthquake in Haiti--no we don't get that, that's kind of sacred. But just short of that ... stop already with the--how 'bout this--Kyrgyzstan. You really have to decide how much you're going to go with Kyrgyzstan. We stood on our heads to try to get people interested in Kyrgyzstan in the first place, and then you have to know when to cut it off.

Boise has tried for years now to start a community radio station and is close to going on the air ... what are some lessons from your days at KPOO in San Francisco?

I was not quite a founding member, but we're talking the '70s, and it was a real jumping little place, and then it turned into all music. But I've heard it myself, and they pick really good music.

Getting by with very little, doing your best, making a supreme effort even though there might only be 10 people listening, satisfying your own high standards because that's all the gratification you're going to get. It'll keep you humble. Community radio stations are so special because they allow people--mostly it's younger people but not always--to express themselves without a lot of pressure. Without a lot of monetary reward either. I worked there and I waitressed the whole time. I was making about $80 a month, and I was one of only about six people paid. I was able to live in a big old Victorian in a really bad part of town with five people so, sure, my rent was $77, but I still had to eat. A community radio station is something of an avocation ...

I didn't think of myself as being in journalism at that time or even in radio. It could have been a theater, actually. The sensation that I had was that I was doing art, or creative things. Not just me because KPOO was filled with really interesting people at that time. I was one of only two white people. My best friend was Filipino. She was a poet and she had been published, and she had her little show. And another friend, this woman Ntozake Shange, now, she ended up on Broadway with a little thing that she started for the first time on my show actually called "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide." She had a show called the Original Aboriginal Dancing Girl and it came after my show, called Women's Voices. I had the license. I used to engineer, in a real technical sense, her show ... she came onto my show to do this set of poems that she was working on ... she was 25 or 26 by the time she was on Broadway.

I personally was interested in the news, and I found myself becoming a journalist. I have a girlfriend, Jacki Lyden, who is at NPR, who wrote stories when she was 9 years old about being a foreign correspondent. I never was one of those people. There's two types of people, I swear, in journalism. At NPR, there are people who had little radio stations in their basement when they were 10 years old.