November 11, 2012

Let Your Nerd Flag Fly: NPR's Weekend in Washington

I lived in LA for nearly a decade, so I’m rarely star struck by traditional celebrities. Bring me into a recording studio with a famous hip-hop artist or send me to a cocktail party with an international supermodel—I can play it cool. But if you put me in room with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel, I’m pretty much going to get Beiber fever.

I learned this the hard way at NPR’s Weekend in Washington (November 9-11, 2012), an annual gathering of the media company’s executives, member station heads, board members, top donors, and, of course, on-air talent.

NPR Weekend in Washington 2012 Program
The private, invitation-only event is traditionally conducted rather quietly. But this year (at the wise encouragement of their head of PR Danielle Deabler), NPR invited a handful of young thought leaders, mostly entrepreneurs and other NPR enthusiasts, to join the conversation. They affectionately ordained our group of young ambassadors Generation Listen.

Members of my generation love to identify themselves with brands, and in my nerdy opinion, there is no brand stronger than NPR. As I often tell people, I bleed NPR-red, blue, and black and evangelize for the smart, engaging content NPR stations produce around the clock. And I'm not the only one -- there are lots of secret NPR lovers. This American Life seems like a harmless gateway drug, but before you know it, you have a secret crush on Carl Kassel. This weekend was the perfect opportunity to let my nerd flag fly.

I laid out goals for the weekend in advance: meet Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne and kiss NPR heartthrob White House Correspondent Ari Shapiro. I knew the latter was a pipe dream as Ari is both married and gay, but I was pleasantly surprised when Renee was one of the first to introduce herself to me when I arrived at the opening night reception at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington DC.

The petite star of NPR’s iconic morning news show, Renee was gracious and kind. She answered all my stupid questions about what it’s like to be a radio journalist, and confirmed that she gets up at midnight west coast time to go to work. I met Ari and Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg briefly before we all sat for dinner and the opening program.

I sat at the “kids” table with an impressive under-40 crew: Summit’s digital mastermind Audrey Buchanan, Love Social founder Azita Ardakani, KQED’s VP of Digital and Education Tim Olson, Sandbox and Holstee co-founder Fabian Pformuller, Aspen Institute’s Jeff Harris, NPR Head of Talent Lars Schmidt, and Danielle Deabler. The indisputable highlight of the night was the keynote address from Weekend Edition Saturday’s host Scott Simon, who wowed the audience with this comprehensive, elegant, and wise recap of the country and the world in the wake of Tuesday’s election.

Scott Simon keynote at opening ceremony
On Saturday morning, I didn’t join a run through the monuments led by All Things Considered’s Guy Raz, but instead headed to breakfast at a table of NPR patrons who were many decades my senior. It was such a pleasure to have in-depth conversations with another generation about a shared love of public radio. NPR CEO Gary Knell delivered a welcome address chock full of interesting NPR facts. NPR has 35 million listeners, 10% of whom voluntarily give money to support the programming they love. “We are building a media outlet that is not owned by anyone other than the American people,” he proclaimed.

NPR CEO Gary Knell welcome address
Unlike most other news outlets, NPR has 17 foreign bureaus with plans to open more. “Our reporters don’t fly first class, do a stand-up routine in Tahrir Square, and then fly back. They actually live there.”

Knell went on to talk about how technology is changing the NPR landscape and his teams are focused on recreating the NPR experience for digital platforms. Citing the missteps of the music industry as an example of what not to do when faced with technology changes, he vowed to embrace technology and innovate with it. He gave a shout out to Generation Listen and said of his desire to grow listenership amongst young people that “NPR Music is a secret weapon.” (He even noted the waiting list of musicians who want to play a Tiny Desk Concert.) I was particularly delighted to hear his announcement of new NPR executives: CMO Emma Carrasco and SVP of Strategy Loren Mayor — both women.

Tell Me More host Michel Martin hosted a killer post-election debrief panel with Correspondents Michele Kelemen, Dina Temple-Raston, Mara Liasson, and John Ydstie. We got to see a behind-the-scenes video of election night in NPR’s studio 4A, complete with live-broadcast bloopers like Melissa Block catching Ron Elving completely off-guard.

Michelle Keleman, Dina Temple-Raston, Mara Liasson, John Ydstie
Mara argued passionately that this election was more important than 2008 given that Obama capitalized on demographic shifts that everyone knew likely favored Democrats, but the GOP was surprised by how quickly the future came. Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa asked from the audience about the Latino vote. Mara responded that the GOP can't be the anti-Latino party anymore, and she called this a watershed moment for the party. Saying we should expect comprehensive immigration reform soon, she joked, "The GOP is now in two groups: those who can do math and those who can't.”

During a break, I swung by the impressive NPR swag table. Definitely check out the NPR Shop for more awesome gifts.

NPR swag
The morning breakout session presented us all with tough choices, as we had to pick between a panel on equality issues with Nina Totenberg and two former Solicitors General, a conversation about race with NPR’s Manager of Digital Initiatives (and Mischief) Matt Thompson and Maria Hinojosa, a talk on social media from Science Desk Correspondent Joe Palca, and (my choice) a roundtable on the future of privacy and technology with Technology Reporter Steve Henn.

Henn’s guests, academics Ryan Calo and Alessandro Acquisti painted a grim picture for the future of privacy. Of particular interest to them was the use of facial recognition technology, which, Calo warned, could be quite dangerous if used for nefarious purposes (e.g., identifying protestors in a crowd and punishing them). Acquisti showed us how facial recognition software can be used to easily identify “anonymous” profiles on dating sites, which creeped everyone out, but not as much as his prototype technology that can guess your social security number using just a photo of your face.

We all ate lunch over a familial conversation between Religion Correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty and her brother David Bradley, owner of the Atlantic Media Company. It was a joy to see how much the two clearly love each other as they lavished praise upon the other, but their candid conversation about their own religious experiences was most interesting. Raised as Christian Scientists, they have both left the church. Joking about the Christian Science antagonism toward modern medicine, Hagerty joked, “I left Christian Science after a really happy encounter with Tylenol. I had the flu and felt immediately better. I’ve never looked back.”

Gary Knell introduces Barbara Bradley Hagerty and David Bradley
When his sister asked him about his own religious beliefs, David explained that he’s about 60/40 on the existence of god and has decided to believe in god. He told the story of evangelical mega-preacher T.D. Jakes, who shared a simple metaphor for the belief in god as the “whoosh” feeling you get before you turn a key that will unlock a door. He described it as the inexplicable “knowing” that we use to make all kinds of unknowable decisions: whom to marry, what job to take, where to live. Getting back to current events, they discussed the (minimal) role religion played in the election. Citing the religiously unaffiliated—currently 20% of the population—as a huge demographic growth area, Hagerty gave a prediction: “We may be seeing the eclipse of the power of evangelical conservatives.”

I attended an afternoon session on social contagions and the biology of sleep. Science Correspondents Shankar Vedantam and Allison Aubrey explained that when we’re sleep-deprived, lipids begin to leak out of our fat cells which can cause weight gain. Bad news for the one in five Americans who are so-called short sleepers getting less than six hours per night. Allison also led us in a group exercise to practice mindful eating (chocolate was provided).

As with the morning session, choosing an afternoon session meant you missed out on other good content, and I heard rave reviews from Independent Producer Joe Richman’s session on his project Teenage Diaries, airing this month on All Things Considered. Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson and Senior Vice President of News Margaret Low Smith gave a quick presentation about the future of radio, explaining that NPR is increasingly trying to be personalized, on demand, social, local, and seamless across multiple devices. Pushing themselves to innovate, they gave their team an exercise: Imagine being a startup with access to all of NPR’s content and resources and you want to eat NPR’s lunch. What would you do? They have used this type of thinking to bring intrepreneurial ideas to NPR. “In some ways, we're a scrappy startup again, “ explained Smith.

Highlighting an example of NPR’s newer content that attracts younger audiences, the next presentation came from Robert Smith and Zoe Chace, both reporters for Planet Money, who performed a live “show” of Murder on the Euro Express. The upbeat, and entertaining presentation broke down the complexities of the European Debt Crisis into a fun and digestible “murder mystery.” Their upbeat energy and fresh approach to smart storytelling was palpable. I’ve been a Planet Money fan from the beginning when they produced “Giant Pool of Money” with This American Life, and it was awesome to see how successful the Planet Money program has become.

Live Planet Money performance
Planet Money's Zoe Chace and Robert Smith
In our hour-long break, I slipped out of the hotel with fellow Generation Listen friends venture capitalist Thysson Wiliams and CatalystCreativ founder Amanda Slavin. We grabbed some delicious drinks and appetizers at Jaleo, Jose Andres’ tapas restaurant in Gallery Place. We returned to the hotel just in time for a sneak peek at NPR’s new game show, Ask Me Another.

First Look: NPR's new quiz show Ask Me Another
I’m a sucker for puzzles, word games, and trivia, so I was particularly stoked to see host Ophira Eisenberg and resident musician Jonathan Coulton perform live. All Things Considered host Robert Siegel was the first guest and then Nina Totenberg and Ari Shapiro faced off in a battle to the death. Not really, but Nina won. Obviously.

Ask Me Another contestants: Top: Robert Siegel, Bottom: Nina Totenberg and Ari Shapiro
With the formal program done for the night, the Generation Listen crew headed across the river to the beautiful home of entrepreneur Joel Holland, who hosted us for dinner and a group discussion about the future of NPR [photos here]. Steve Henn, Tim Olson, and Matt Thompson—hardly old men—played the role of question-asking grown ups, prompting the room of opinionated Gen Y-ers to pipe up with ideas, insights and opinions. I have to say, I was a pleasure to be in a place with other young people who share my passionate love for NPR.

Amanda Slavin, Danielle Deabler, Gina Rudan, Azita Ardakani, Anneke Jong, Amy Benzinger, Emily Greener

Danielle Deabler, Steve Henn, Tim Olson, Matt Thompson

We had an early start on Sunday morning, and I picked the panel called “NPR in Pictures.” The presentation from NPR’s little-known multimedia team featured some of their beautiful and moving work including this story about photographer Charles W. Cushman and a short movie about the military’s lackluster reaction to traumatic brain injuries. The team shared their genuine pride that the latter piece had helped to change lives, as it inspired actual changes in military policy. Supervising Senior Producer for Multimedia Keith Jenkins explained his team’s role this way: “Everyone knows what NPR sounds like. Our job is to figure out what NPR looks like.”

I was disappointed to have missed the morning session about NPR’s coverage of this summer’s Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, but I happened to sit for breakfast with Executive Editor of News Programming Ellen McDonnell and Producer Sam Sanders who both played important roles in the reporting and were able to give me a recap.

Everyone fell in love with Guy Raz and Weekend Edition Sunday's Audie Cornish, who took the stage at breakfast to informally chat about the NPR intern program. They are both former NPR interns, and they spoke humbly and graciously about the intern program’s importance and quality. “I never went to journalism school,” explained Raz, “Robert Siegel was my journalism school.”

Audie Cornish and Guy Raz
One of my NPR heroes, Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan took the stage next to moderate a presentation of stories from the field from Foreign Correspondents Kelly McEvers (Middle East), Frank Langfitt (China) and Jason Beaubien (Global Health). It was a delight to doscover that, yes, Neal Conan really does talk like that all the time. It’s very endearing.

Neal Conan
McEvers set the stage with some very serious admonitions about the impact of US foreign policy in the Middle East region. She shared a story from Syria in which women who have suffered at the hands of their government expressed their disappointment that the US had yet to intervene. “When we take over this country,” one Syrian woman warned, “we won't forget that you forgot about us.” In her reporting from Yemen, McEvers sees the fallout from when the US does intervene. She interviewed a family which had lost its father in an Al-Qaeda-targed drone strike. When asked about his loss, one son vows to avenge his father’s death with whomever is responsible. When asked whom he thinks is responsible, the boy looks to his little brother, who produces a crumpled picture of an American aircraft.

Langfitt showed shocking photos comparing Shanghai in 1990 to today, and enlightened the audience about the rapid pace of growth in the country. When asked about security, he shared a story about his car being followed by Chinese officials on one trip to Shenzhen, and the clear message they send to western journalists: “We know where you are.”

Beaubien shared a multimedia report from Nigeria where gold miners are inadvertently surfacing dangerous levels of lead that are killing off their children. He explained the expense and effort required to tell a story like that—one that other news outlets just don’t pay attention to.

Jason Beaubien, Frank Langfitt, Kelly McEvers
After the panel, I got an up-close look at the sweet polar bear pin Neal Conan was wearing (gift from his wife):

Neal Conan and Anneke Jong
For the final session of the weekend, NPR brought out the big guns. With his iconic baritone voice, Robert Siegel moderated a discussion between The Brookings Institution's Martin Indyk, and U.S. Institute for Peace Senior Fellow Robin Wright. The discussion topic was Iran, and the experience, expertise, and mental horsepower of the three people on stage was mind-blowing. The wisdom coming out of the discussion was too abundant to capture here, but the general consensus seemed to be that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was in large part and effort to secure power in the region and make themselves heard. “Both Israeli and American intelligence agree, Iran is not yet ready to weaponize,” explained Wright.

Martin Indyk, Robert Siegel, Robin Wright
Although the program ended on a serious note, Gary Knell pointed out in his closing remarks that the complicated nuances of the Middle East put some of our pettier topics of concern into perspective. He shared the founding intent of NPR: “To cover the world like we’re speaking to friends.” Now that their “friends” are 35 million strong, there is a lot of work to be done, and everyone in the room seemed motivated, excited, and empowered to get it done.


Mark said...

What a recap, Anneke! Thanks so much to you and the rest of the Generation Listen crew for coming. We're your fans, too.

Unknown said...

Fantastic overview of the weekend Anneke. Thanks for writing it up.

Unknown said...

great description Anneke - Tim

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