January 20, 2008

More than a pretty voice

an interview with…

Dan Grech
Americas Desk reporter
NPR’s Marketplace

After interning at the Boston Globe and Washington Post, then working on The Miami Herald’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of Elian Gonzalez, Dan Grech had a fine career as an ink-stained wretch ahead of him. But he bailed out for broadcast.

Instead of heading to TV like many print reporters before him, Grech went into radio.
At first, it didn't go well. His first story was on tango.

“It was an inauspicious start,” Grech says. His editor said his voice sounded like he was “covering a funeral.”

Needless to say, Grech got better. In 2004, he was hired by
Marketplace, American Public Media's award-winning business show. He became the first Americas Desk reporter, covering Latin American business and the U.S. Hispanic economy from the WLRN studios in downtown Miami.

Grech also teaches radio writing at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts (which he calls “a wonderful hidden gem out of Miami-Dade College
) and is launching his own radio show.

It’s called, not surprisingly, “Voices.” Grech is co-host and co-producer (along with
Alicia Zuckerman) of this new weekend news magazine on WLRN.

“The show's mission is to offer a platform for uniquely South Floridian voices not often heard on public radio,” Grech says. “It will tell the stories of everyday people, visit unsung places, and spark debate over under-reported issues.”

The monthly show will air in a regular Saturday time slot on WLRN (still to be determined), with individual segments rebroadcast on “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”

And Grech is looking for help.

“We’re right now actively looking for journalists, storytellers, writers, radio producers, sound engineers, webmasters, and so on – young and old, green and seasoned – to help us with this project,” he says. Those who want to know more can email Grech at dangrech@gmail.com.

Why did you leave print for radio?

I wrote for my high school paper, freelanced for newspapers and wire services in college, interned at major dailies in the summer, got a reporting gig at
The Miami Herald out of school…a traditional path. The entire time, I understood the term reporting to mean writing for a newspaper.

But as I matured in the field, I came to learn that reporting can happen in five mediums: print, audio, video, photography, and interactive graphics. And I have come to believe that the modern journalist, to survive in this new media world, must be expert in at least two mediums.

Why not all five?

My feeling is that you can’t be expert in everything. Pick at least two and learn them inside and out. Then team up with journalists fluent in the other media to create multimedia packages. I believe the ideal of the “backpack journalist” – the single mobile journalist carrying a backpack filled with equipment – is unrealistic for most reporters and is being replaced by the idea of the multimedia team.

So why did you pick radio as your number two?

I found myself drawn to radio – mostly as a listener to Ira Glass’ “This American Life” – and I went with that passion. Radio works a different part of the brain than print – the emotional part –and that appealed to my storytelling instinct.

I also respect the integrity of public radio journalism, something I can’t say of most other broadcast news. (I have simply stopped watching television news.)
I felt I could transition to radio and keep my journalistic integrity. Finally, I kept hearing people say that I have a nice voice, and that kind of flattery was hard to ignore forever – that, and I have a face for radio. It was a perfect fit.

So how did make the switch from print to radio?

I learned about This American Life my junior year in college. I nursed my Sunday morning hangovers listening to This American Life,” trying to deconstruct how the pieces were put together. A few years out of school, I took a solo road trip around the U.S. in a blue Dodge Neon with over 100,000 miles and made stops at WBEZ in Chicago, WHYY in Philadelphia, and NPR studios in Washington, D.C.

Then, most importantly, after much research, I invested several hundred dollars in my own equipment – a minidisk player and professional quality microphone – and began to experiment. Getting hired by “Marketplace” was a lucky break, and it took me almost two years of daily reporting before I really felt I had earned my radio chops.

All the industry talk is about the future of the Internet and TV and print. No one ever talks about radio. What is the future of radio?

People in radio talk a lot about the future of radio. And there’s nothing close to a consensus.

I work in the tiny media cul-de-sac of public radio journalism. A decade ago, you could only hear public radio journalism on your local public radio station. Now you can also listen to public radio via live web streams, through podcasts, on satellite radio, on digital radio, even through mp3 downloads. New technologies have vastly expanded the potential audience of a given public radio broadcast. It’s also undermined the once-exclusive distribution model of member-supported local public radio stations.

I believe public radio has entered a golden age. Until recently, it was the only form of mass media journalism that was actually growing in audience. NPR has transformed from a quirky commentator on news to one of the nation’s main news networks. The quality and variety of news and talk programming on public radio is extraordinary.
I believe public radio will remain a niche business in the larger media landscape, but its non-profit status, its listener supported financing model, and its high level of integrity will keep it viable into the future.

So it’s all peaches and cream?

The crisis facing public radio is its listeners are dying out. The average age of a public radio listener – average age – is 55 years old. I half-jokingly tell friends that, since joining “Marketplace,” I’ve never been more popular with their parents. NPR and other public radio content producers are hyperventilating about their aging listenership, and they’re trying to figure out how to attract younger listeners. Just this year, two national youth-oriented public radio morning shows were started – one by NPR, the other by WNYC. We’ll see if they’re able to reverse the trend.

Earlier this year, you told NPR
s On the Media that daily newspapers have been monopoly businesses, bilking advertisers, creating mediocre content and raking in huge profits. If you were publisher of, say, The Miami Herald, what would you do differently to save it from itself?

Newspapers are in real trouble. I think in the coming years, a few major cities in this country will experience a news blackout – their only major daily newspaper will fold. That would be a tragedy for that unlucky community and for democracy in this country. Without a major watchdog presence, local government corruption will go unchecked. I will not feel bad, however, for the newspaper owner. Not in the least.

Newspapers have long known this new media future was coming. They failed to prepare: They didn’t spend money on training, they didn’t invest in research and development, they weren’t proactive. They raked in 20-plus percent profits and waited for some guy named Craig Newmark to create craigslist.com and undercut a third of their revenue. So I fear it may be too late for some newspaper companies, which may go the way of Knight Ridder, a venerable chain and former owner of The Miami Herald that vanished in a matter of months.

So what about The Herald?

In my experience, The Miami Herald has been a well-run company. It was an innovator in community journalism, an early adopter of Spanish-language journalism, and a consistent advocate of hard-hitting investigative journalism. It’s formed good partnerships in TV and radio, has invested (a bit late) in new media, and has remained committed to local enterprise reporting. What would I do differently? Not that much. Will it survive? I hope so, for Miami’s sake.

Don’t TV and radio stations need newspapers?

Almost all real reporting these days is done by newspaper reporters. Radio and TV mostly crib stories from the great work being done by daily newspapers. My job is largely as an analyst and interpreter and distiller of news. I rarely break new ground with my stories – I leave that for my newspaper colleagues.

How important is writing for radio? Isn't a good voice enough?

People ask me if I miss writing since transitioning to radio. My response: I write more now than ever before. After all, I write my scripts before I read them. Good writing is the most central skill in radio, more important even than voicing. I would dare say that writing is more important in radio than in print. The ear is a far more demanding audience than the eye. If a single spoken sentence doesn’t maintain the attention of a listener, every sentence that comes after will be lost. There are no second chances in radio. If your mind wanders while reading the newspaper, you can just reread the paragraph.

One thing average people don't know about your job?

I spend an average of 10 hours of work on every minute of a "Marketplace" feature story. And I work fast. There’s a reason public radio stories sound so good. They’re the compression of days of work, hours of tape, and reams of background material into the 500-word script for a four-minute piece.

One thing other journalists may not realize?

That public radio journalism is far more taxing than print journalism, and may be the most taxing form of daily journalism. Public radio journalists generally work alone – they don’t have the site producers or camera people that assist most TV reporters. In radio, you produce and record your own interviews, log and cut the tape, research and write the script, voice the piece – everything right up to mixing the final piece, which is usually done by an engineer. In comparison, what I used to do – scribbling handwritten notes in a notepad then type them up – was a walk in the park.

Career highlight?

Winning the Pulitzer Prize for staff coverage of the Elián González raid by INS officials.

Amusing professional gaffe?

An Elián-related story:
The Miami Herald got early word that the INS would be conducting a dawn raid to recover Elián from his Miami relatives’ Little Havana home. So The Herald decided to post a reporter full-time in front of the home, to give the paper early notice when the raid occurred. I was an intern on the metro desk at the time, so when it came time to decide who should be forced to spend all night awake, I was the obvious choice.

The metro editor called me into her office a Friday morning and offered the assignment. I accepted but asked to start my night shift on Saturday night, to give myself a chance to adjust to the nocturnal schedule. No one thought the raid was imminent at that point. So the metro editor assigned an eager junior reporter named Carolyn Salazar to cover the house that first night.

I stayed up really late on Friday, studiously gearing up for my night shift, and finally collapsed at 4 a.m. Two hours later, I was awakened by a phone call. It was my mom. “Turn on the TV!” she yelled. I did. The INS raid had already happened, and Elián was on his way back to Cuba. I could not fall asleep. Self-recrimination is an extraordinary stimulant. Around noon, I finally slinked into The Herald newsroom. The metro editor saw me and began to laugh out loud.

“That’s the last time you’ll turn down an assignment, isn’t it?” she said with an unmissable shadenfreude.
A few minutes later, she came to me with a consolation prize: an assignment to cover the reaction of the local religious community to the raid. I ended up having a bylined piece deep into the special section dedicated to our coverage of the raid. Carolyn Salazar shared a byline with two senior reporters on the leading page one story about the raid.

A year later, we won a Pulitzer for our coverage, and Carolyn was part of the team that traveled to New York to accept the prize. Because I had a bylined piece in the package, I’m in the Pulitzer footnotes – another consolation prize.

Weird dues-paying story?

I interned at
The Washington Post in the summer of 1999, at its Prince William County bureau. On Saturdays, I worked general assignment at the metro desk, and one Saturday word came across the wires that a middle-aged man had drowned in his own pool after having a heart attack.

I forget the man’s name all these years later, but it was a relatively common one – and one of the people with that same name was a prominent professor at Georgetown. So I was given the following assignment: swing by the deceased person’s house and find out if the man that had died was the Georgetown professor. If it wasn’t, The Post didn’t want the obituary.

I sat a long time in my car outside the man’s house, watching people enter and exit the home. I fantasized about ditching the assignment and driving a few hours north to my folks’ home in Philly, the wind in my hair, free of this assignment. Instead, I screwed up my courage and walked to the front door. I knocked.
No one answered. It was unlocked, so I walked in.

I was greeted in the hallway by a sorrow-eyed man who expressed his condolences and gently asked how I knew the deceased. I edged him into the corner of the hallway, whispered who I was, and asked the fateful question: “Is this the Georgetown professor?”
“Oh, no, he sold insurance.” I thanked him for his time and backed quickly out of the house. I’ll tell you, I took my sweet time getting back to the office that day.

One piece of advice you wish you could surgically implant into the skulls of college students and young professionals?

Don’t simply study, do. Journalism is a skill honed through repetition. The best early piece of advice I got was to do as many pieces as possible early in my career. It was through that repetition that I came to learn the craft of reporting.

Young reporters must understand: It’s through that repetition that you pay your dues in this profession. And truth told, it doesn’t really matter that much what outlet you do this reporting for. Don’t get caught up in the brand names when you’re starting out.
One caveat: The media organization must have journalistic integrity, so it’s teaching you the right skills.

If you had to do it all over again, anything you'd do differently?

I would have majored in philosophy in college. I mean, why not? It’s not like my degree in “Public and International Affairs” has done anything for my professional life.