Twelve years ago, WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook had never worked in radio. Today, from his small Boston studio, he hosts one of the most popular and influential shows on public radio, heard each week on 240 stations nationwide. And he’s only just getting started.
But Ashbrook has proved himself a natural. Since 2005, On Point has more than doubled its listenership. It is now among the most popular shows on public radio, ranking just behind the BBC’s Newshour, and not far behind The Diane Rehm Show, which has been on the air far longer. The show is heard each week by 1.2 million people on 240 stations nationwide, and each month by another 680,000 who download the podcast. In Boston, the show is on air for a remarkable four hours a day, five days a week: from 10 a.m. until noon, when it’s broadcast live, and then in a repeat from 7 p.m. until 9. Ashbrook would eventually like his show to get airtime on every public-radio station in the United States, and he is excited about his international listenership. It’s only a small exaggeration to say that he intends to become ubiquitous and then to remake the world, one spirited, thoughtful, and no-nonsense hour of conversation at a time.
After thanking Arroyo for coming on air, and taking a short break between segments, Ashbrook got back in the booth for the day’s second hour: a look at the best books of 2012. Ashbrook is 57, and in photographs he often appears hunched over a table in the radio booth, wearing headphones, which makes him look small and a little bit sallow. He is actually quite large: 6-foot-4 and solidly built, with a shock of blond hair and a wide face.
The transition from the first hour, which is usually hard news and analysis, to the second one, usually arts and culture, often requires Ashbrook to take a wholly different approach to questioning his guests. (A particularly difficult sequence came on December 17, when he moved from the Newtown school shootings to Mayan cosmology, fielding calls from two very different groups of people who were worried about the end of the world.) The six minutes between segments are filled with a national news roundup from NPR, a prerecorded teaser from Ashbrook about the upcoming segment, and two minutes of headlines from WBUR. Behind the scenes, these minutes can be quite hectic. While I was visiting, there was a moment of frenzy when the staff couldn’t get Elizabeth Taylor, the literary editor for the Chicago Tribune, patched in from New York. (Unbeknownst to them, she had been assigned to an alternate studio at WBEZ at the last minute.) But by the time Ashbrook was back live, at 11:06:30, they were ready to go.
On Point is one of the few national radio programs that devotes entire hours to new books, and several of the authors being discussed that day, including Hilary Mantel and Junot Díaz, had previously been guests on the show. Unlike the host of the very popular NPR talk show Fresh Air, Terry Gross, Ashbrook is not obsessive about reading every page of the books he discusses, although often he does, especially if the book has literary, rather than simply informational, merit.
Twenty minutes into the segment, Ashbrook invited his listeners to call in and share their favorite books from the year. Before the callers came on air, a producer quickly researched the books they wanted to talk about and gave Ashbrook one-sentence summaries, which lent the impression that he was familiar not only with the books being discussed by his guests but also with the personal favorites of David from San Francisco and Jane from Braintree. In all my visits to WBUR, this was the only sleight of hand I ever saw Ashbrook perform.
The On Point staff is about 10 strong, and relies at times on freelancers for help. Each day after work, Ashbrook leaves for home with a 20-to-40-page packet, put together by his producers, which he reads and annotates between 6 and 10 p.m. He wakes at 5 a.m. and is at the station, on Commonwealth Avenue, by 7. At 8, the day’s lead producers, who are responsible for the packets and securing guests, and the show’s executive producer, Karen Shiffman, meet with Ashbrook in the On Point bullpen, a rectangular cubicle-style workspace in the middle of WBUR’s main floor. I was surprised to learn that Ashbrook does not prepare questions in advance, or even think very much about the structure of his interviews, because doing so distracts him from being present with his guests. “I’m a big fan of mindfulness,” he says. “I want to be so engaged with the issue that the questions are just brimming, and so aware of what people want to learn that the arc of the show creates itself in real time.”
Seven of the On Point staff are producers, meaning they help usher shows from the idea stage through broadcast. Most are responsible for two shows each week, and find themselves involved in everything from the advance reading of books to helping Ashbrook come up with a show’s angle. The majority of the work, though, involves research and scheduling guests, providing Ashbrook with a high-density reading diet, and making sure he’s talking to people who are among the most qualified in the world on a given hour’s subject. (Paul Krugman, Camille Paglia, Ken Jennings, Jared Diamond, and Willie Nelson are among those who appeared on the show in the past four months.) Because most shows are intensely topical, Ashbrook and his producers rarely plan more than a week in advance.
When Ashbrook is on air, four staffers are stationed in the production studio: the technical director, James Ross, who manages sound; the director, Eileen Imada, who communicates directly with Ashbrook when he is in the studio; the day’s lead producer, who stands in front of a computer screen, keeping watch over the show’s trajectory and doing spot research; and a second producer, who answers the phones.