Zeitgeister On Air Radio Around the World #6 mit Mary Louise Kelly

ZEITGEISTER ON AIR #6: Mary Louise Kelly

Hattet ihr schon einmal einen „driveway moment“? Als ihr zuhause angekommen seid und nicht aus dem Auto aussteigen wolltet, weil euch das Radioprogramm so in seinen Bann gezogen hat? Das ist die magische Kraft guter Radio-Stories. In dieser Podcast-Folge erinnert sich Mary Louise Kelly an ihren eigenen ersten „driveway moment“. Und die Moderatorin der beliebten Sendung „All Things Considered“ im National Public Radio der USA erzählt, wie er ihre Karriere nachhaltig verändert hat.

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Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Welcome to Radio Around the World, brought to you by Goethe-Institut. I’m your host, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson of Common Ground Berlin. Today’s guest is an American radio star who tackles tough interviews with gusto. But this ampure host also loves to have fun on air. Like in this tale about a computer program translating human voices into bird’s song.

Mary Louise Kelly: I like it. Okay, I’ll try. If I say, “I’m Mary Louise Kelly and I also host All Things Considered,” it would sound like: [BIRD SOUNDS] Charming, but it might make it maybe a little too hard to parse the daily news.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: I spoke to Mary Louise Kelly for our series commemorating a century of German radio. And as it turns out, the 52-year-old’s first appearance was in Germany.

Mary Louise Kelly: Where I am from is slightly more complicated – I was actually born in a US Army field hospital in Augsburg. My dad was drafted during the Vietnam War into the U.S. Army. My parents are both American. And he was lucky enough to get assigned to Army Intelligence and stationed in Augsburg instead of getting shipped out to Vietnam. So my mom went over with him and I was born there and grew up always going back to Germany. My parents loved it and made great friends. And we grew up going back to visit them all during my childhood.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: What role did radio play in your childhood? Was it a medium that was important to your family?

Mary Louise Kelly: To be perfectly honest, my major childhood memories of radio are probably listening to music on the FM dial – that would have been the 70s and 80s growing up in Georgia. So there was a lot of music that my parents would then go home and listen to on 8-track tapes and then eventually records. So that’s my first memories. I can put my finger on the first time I had a driveway moment, meaning I was so engrossed in a story that even though I was all the way home and ready to get out of the car and go inside, I sat there in my driveway because I couldn’t bear not to hear the end of it. And I was in high school and it was an NPR story. And I can’t remember the full gist of it, but I remember it was about chess. And the reason I remember is I was not interested in chess. I didn’t care about chess. I was not a chess player. I knew the basics, but that was about it. But something about the storytelling and the voice and the warmth drew me in. And I found there was no force on earth that could drag me out of my car. And not here, whatever the rousing climax of this story was on chess. And I remember thinking about that and it was the first time I really thought about radio as a way to tell a story because I’m a writer. I’m drawn to print. I love to type. I write books. I write articles all the rest. And it was the first time just the power of a voice from somebody I would never see and never meet, I didn’t know what they looked like –  touched me and I thought, ah, that might be interesting. And it took me a while to circle back, but here I am.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Do your children listen to radio?

Mary Louise Kelly: They do. They are teenagers. So they are very much of the on demand generation where they’re more into podcasts or apps that are steering them to the stories that they’re interested in. And we have back and forths on this because I am an anchor of a two hour traditional daily news magazine show where you’re going to listen to what we put on air at that moment, whether it interests you or not – whether it’s about chess and you thought you needed a story on chess that day or not. I get that the future of how we consume news and stories is probably much closer to the model that my children have grown up with. You get to listen to what you want when you want to listen to it and they certainly do. I do think and – I have this discussion with them – something is lost in that, because I would never have had that chess moment, I would have never have clicked on the chess podcast. I didn’t think I needed to hear it, but I learned something from it that I can remember. Here we are, I don’t know, 35, 40 years later. And the power of good rating and a strong voice to reach you and make you care about something you didn’t know that you cared about is something that traditional broadcast radio is able to do.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Like me, you started your journalism career as a print reporter. Why did you make the switch to radio?

Mary Louise Kelly: It was a combination of practicality and interest. On the practicality side, I was finishing grad school in England coming out of Cambridge with a degree in European politics. I knew I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I knew my boyfriend was British and we were trying to figure out how to get work permits to stay on the same side of the Atlantic at the same time when we weren’t married. And so I was applying everywhere to newspapers, to print, TV, to radio – all over the place. And the job offer that came through was from the BBC World Service, which was opening an office in Boston to try to bring their international news reporting and stories to the US. And so they were willing to hire an American. I started with them in the US subsequently moved to the UK, but it was my way in. I don’t know in full honesty that I was looking for broadcasting. I was looking for a job in news that would let me travel and see the world and tell stories. But once I got into it – and it was hard learning to write for radio, it’s very different than writing for print, it’s so driven by the voice and by the tape, and you have to trust that people will hear the emotion and someone’s voice or hear the pause as someone stops to think about something. But once I got used to it and learned how effective it could be to try to recreate those same driveway moments for other people around America and around the world who were listening to my reports – I loved it. And I have continued to write for print because that’s valuable in different ways. But sometimes I’ll hear a story and just think, oh, this is a radio story. Clearly, let me get out my recorder.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Well, it’s three-dimensional storytelling is the way I refer to it. Is it like that for you? Do you sort of feel like you can add layers that you couldn’t possibly do when you write?

Mary Louise Kelly: I can let the emotion and someone else’s voice drive a story. I can let the sounds of when I pull up somewhere to start reporting, let them draw you in as they’re drawing me in. And that’s one of my favourite ways to tell a story on radio is just let me take you along for the day. Here’s what we saw. Here’s what we heard. Listen with me as we go. And you’re uncovering things as I’m uncovering them and we’re on that discovery together. If you are someone who loves words as I do, I find radio the most powerful medium, even more so than print in the sense that the words are all you’ve got. In print, you can have a picture, you can have a graph, you can have chart. If people get lost in the story, they can go back up three paragraphs and pick it back up and see what they missed. In radio, it’s gone – you can’t rewind a live broadcast 30 seconds and go back. So you have to keep tugging people along word by word by word. And people, when they meet me, who’ve heard my voice for years here on NPR, inevitably say, oh, you don’t look at all like I thought you would. You’re older or younger, taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, whatever it is. And I always say, well, I look the way you need me to be. It doesn’t matter what I look like in real life. All you know is that voice and you feel like you know me so well that it’s a total surprise to see what I actually look like and put a face with it. And I love that – every single voice you hear that you feel you know, we look however you need us to look in your own mind. And that’s a powerful thing.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: You’ve written a number of books, including your memoir It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year of No Do-Overs. In it you discuss losing much of your hearing and the impact that’s had on your life. How does hearing loss affect the way you do radio?

Mary Louise Kelly: Well, it makes it harder. It makes it everything harder. As you can imagine, I have severe to profound hearing loss in both ears. I’m talking to you now wearing hearing aids. I anchor the national news every evening wearing hearing aids. And that would present challenges in any line of work – certainly in a job where my role is to ask questions and then listen to your answers so that I can follow up and push you for more information. It makes it harder. I mean, number one, I’m profoundly grateful for the technology and the help I’ve gotten from audiologists and from my team who found various workarounds in the studio broadcasting the news. It is not a problem, which is counter-intuitive. But our studios are professionally broadcast. They’re pen-drop silent. There is no background distracting noise. I have professional headphones on that I can crank loud. So that all works. In the field interviewing people in the middle of a protest or a rally or a noisy restaurant presents challenges. And I’ve figured out various work-arounds and continue doing so. And luckily, the technology keeps advancing and advancing and keeping just one step ahead so that so far – knock on something wooden – I am able to continue doing my job.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Do you still listen to radio now that you have this hearing loss? And as you mentioned, you know, the technology keeps up, but it still requires a sense that you are having issues with.

Mary Louise Kelly: Yeah. The thing about hearing loss, that people who don’t have it don’t always totally understand, it’s not like eyesight where if you need glasses, you can get glasses, you can put them on and you can see the world snaps into sharp focus. With hearing loss I can wear my hearing aides, which are the best that money can buy. They can be perfectly adjusted. I still really struggle. Having a conversation like this right now is a lot of work. It’s hard and part of that is hearing aids can make things louder. My specific form of hearing loss does have to do with volume, but it also has to do with inability to distinguish between consonants. And so, if I can’t see someone’s lips moving or if I don’t know the context, if I don’t know the next question you’re going to ask, me which I don’t, then I’m struggling and I always feel three or four words behind trying to figure out based on the context, what did you likely just say and I’m catching up and you’re going on to the next question or your next point. I mention all of that because it means that listening is hard for me. I obviously do it. I love it. It’s my job – but it’s work. And at the end of the day when my colleagues are going for a walk and listening to a podcast or cooking dinner and listening to radio, I find it much easier to read a book or to read a story because I can see the words, they make perfect sense as I’m reading them as they do to anyone else. Whereas if I’m listening to that, I’m playing catch up and I’m working and it’s exhausting. And at the end of a long day of doing that all day for NPR it’s sometimes not exactly what I feel like doing.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Well, let’s move to another area of discomfort and that is difficult interviews. The Mike Pompeo one comes to my mind, but for you in your long and distinguished career, who was your most difficult interviewee and why?

Mary Louise Kelly: That is a wide sea in which we could swim for a while. There have been a lot of interviews that are difficult for all kinds of reasons. Some of them just because your heart is breaking. You’re talking to someone, you know, an ordinary person who, if a producer has summoned them to the phone to talk to me, it may well be because they’re having the worst day of their life. You know, because a shooter has just walked into their kids school or a hurricane has just flattened their house or Russian tanks have just rolled into their village and so trying to find the right balance of asking probing questions so that I can bring that story to my listeners and audience and make sure they understand what is happening and why we need to care – versus respecting somebody’s privacy in the middle of what, as I say, is often in a horrible situation; those can be really tough interviews. And often I will hold it together as we’re doing the interview and then I’ll stand up and just say I need a second and I’ll come back and sit at my desk and just cry. Because I feel those conversations so deeply. On the newsmaker front, the interview I did with Mike Pompeo is famous but I’ll actually point to a somewhat more recent one with his counterpart that I did this year. This was with the foreign minister of Iran whose name is Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and we were in Teheran. We were the first US journalists to be given visas to go into Iran for several months. Iran had been profoundly destabilized by anti-regime protests and the foreign minister was a senior member of his government and I had all kinds of questions about what was happening with these protests – why journalists were not being allowed to cover them, why people were being arrested, why ordinary Iranians were so terrified to speak to me. We’d be trying to interview people and people didn’t want to be interviewed by name, didn’t want to be identified with a photograph, would point up and point out cameras and say they’re watching, they’re listening. We wanted to put all of that to him, we were in Iran and the interview was being done through an interpreter because he was speaking Farsi and I was speaking English and they tried to set a bunch of ground rules, that we could not edit anything he said. So the whole thing was fraught from start to finish and was a very contentious interview and trying to navigate what to ask, how hard to push, how quickly to interrupt, not wanting to be arrested – all of those things, trying to figure out how do I explain what all of these subtexts are to an audience back in America listening who may or may not be completely up to speed on what the situation is in Iran. And we were doing it all on deadline and trying to turn it very fast for that night and it kept getting delayed so the clock was ticking so we had less and less time to pull all of this off. It was a challenge, but it was also absolutely fascinating and ended up going for about twice as long as they had told us was the absolute limit he would give us. And then we raced back to the hotel and started writing and flipping and translating and editing for air – and it was contentious for days afterward as they challenged the interpretation of it, which was their interpreter, and everything else. So that was a moment where you sit there and think this could go horribly wrong in all kinds of ways and I can’t think about any of that. I just need to think about what are the three maybe four key questions I really want an answer to – and that I’m going to have to push him on and I’m going to have to have all kinds of information and facts at my disposal to push him, so that if he tries to dodge this question, I’m ready to push back.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson That was Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, which premiered in 1971 as the Public Radio Network’s first news program. You can hear All Things Considered weekdays on NPR stations across the United States or stream it on the internet.

Host: Radio Around the World is brought to you by the Goethe-Institut. Thank you to all of our friends and partners for making this series possible.