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.
Ashbrook at work in WBUR’s Studio 3.
Taking calls is an art, and it begins with the screeners, although it is Ashbrook who makes final decisions about who to bring on air. After speaking with the caller, the screener will punch into the computer a one- or two-sentence summary of the point or question. This information is displayed on screens in front of both Imada and Ashbrook. Once the call-in segment gets going, Ashbrook will have six callers to choose from at any time, with about two-thirds of those who make it through the screeners getting a chance to talk. New Englanders are well represented in the queue, but because Ashbrook aspires to a national audience and a diversity of views, they’re slightly less well represented on the air. About 50 times per hour the screener tells callers, “Say, ‘Hi, Tom,’ not ‘Good morning,’” to avoid confusion when the show is rebroadcast in the evening.
At any given moment in the production studio, there are at least three conversations happening at once: Ashbrook’s with his guests; the callers with the screener; and Imada with the hour’s producer. For the production staff, focusing on the show itself is very hard. According to Shiffman, Ashbrook will sometimes ask them how a segment went, and they won’t be able to answer.
Ashbrook was born and raised in Illinois, and lived a mildly itinerant early childhood, moving around the state with his family as his father, Dave, sold farm equipment. In the mid-1960s, when Ashbrook was in the fourth grade, Dave Ashbrook went broke after a business venture making plastic cups failed. The family moved back to where his mother had been raised, a farm in Bloomington that was settled by her ancestors in 1822.
Despite the circumstances, Ashbrook’s upbringing was remarkably outward-looking. His parents were both the first in their families to graduate from college. His father had served abroad in the Army, and his mother maintained ties in Scandinavia. The family also served as hosts for an international-youth farm exchange, so Ashbrook grew up alongside a rotating crew of Kenyans, Nicaraguans, and Egyptians. “It was very rural, it was very church oriented, it was very agricultural,” Ashbrook says. “But it was by no means blinkered or unworldly. My mother was a great internationalist. When she sang ‘Kumbaya,’ she meant it.”
Ashbrook blossomed in high school, where he became student-body president, and enrolled at Yale in the fall of 1973. He was ambitious and hard-working, but Yale, secular and urban, was a shock for a churchgoing farm boy, and by his sophomore year he was considering dropping out. Instead, a friend persuaded him to try going abroad, after noticing his fascination with a class at the Divinity School on India’s vedantic mysticism. Ashbrook applied to one of the only study-abroad programs then operating in the country, at the University of Wisconsin, and convinced his high school girlfriend, Danielle Guichard, to do the same. The pair spent the next year together in India. Ashbrook returned to Yale for a final semester, completed a degree in history early, and then paid off his loans by working as a blaster for an oil-prospecting outfit in Alaska.
Tom and Danielle married, and in 1977 he was awarded a fellowship from the Yale-China Association. It was a big deal—China was still closed to the West. Ashbrook learned to speak Cantonese at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, taught English for a year, and worked part time as a host for a local English-language TV station, introducing movies in the evening. A crew of British actors saw him on TV and asked him to help dub old kung fu films into English. Ashbrook and the actors then wrote scripts conjured out of whole cloth and recorded the parts themselves. Hong Kong was also where Ashbrook began working as a reporter, for the South China Morning Post, and he found that it was a good time to be a journalist in Asia: With China liberalizing and Vietnam going to pieces, there were stories, sometimes two or three, to write each day.
After four years in Hong Kong, the Ashbrooks moved to Boston in 1981, in part so Tom could take a shot at writing for the Globe, which then had one of the two or three best foreign desks in the world. He got in by sneaking past a security guard at the headquarters on Morrissey Boulevard, and then by talking his way into a few freelance assignments. His first real beat was City Hall, where he learned Boston Irish politics and quickly worked his way up at the paper. In 1983, the Globe named him its Asian bureau chief and sent him to Tokyo. His territory stretched, as he puts it, “from Hokkaido to the Khyber Pass,” a vastness that suited him. One of his early assignments was covering Indira Gandhi’s assassination and its aftermath, when hundreds of Sikhs were massacred. After filing his copy, he had to clean blood off his shoes.
In 1988, he returned to Boston as the Globe’s foreign editor, and stayed until 1996, eventually rising to deputy managing editor. His decision to leave was complicated but involved many of the elements of a midlife crisis: He had been passed over for a promotion, he had burned out after a decade of constant travel and 60-hour workweeks, and he wanted to try his hand at something new. These were the early years of the dot-com bubble, and like so many others, Ashbrook had dreams of getting ahead on something big, and maybe striking it rich. For four years, he and a college friend named Rolly Rouse developed plans for a company called HomePortfolio.com, devoted to the idea of digitizing home design. By 1999, they had raised more than $70 million in venture funding, but as the dot-com bubble began to pop, Ashbrook and the investors fell out over the company’s direction, and he and Rouse left. In 2000 he published a book about the experience, titled The Leap: A Memoir of Love and Madness in the Internet Gold Rush.
In the spring of 2001, Ashbrook and Rouse were working on a second business idea when Christopher Lydon, the longtime host of WBUR’s flagship talk show, The Connection, parted ways with the station after a salary dispute. Suddenly, one of the highest-profile broadcast jobs in the city was open, and Ashbrook—who had begun working as a public speaker—was asked by Jane Christo, then the general manager of WBUR, to audition. Christo’s call came out of the blue, but Ashbrook decided to try out, as did Jack Beatty, a longtime Atlantic editor and writer; Dick Gordon, the Canadian radio veteran; and Neal Conan, who now hosts NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Gordon got the job, but Ashbrook did surprisingly well during his audition.
On the morning of September 11, Ashbrook and Rouse were in Westport, Connecticut, for a venture capital meeting, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Everyone gathered in a conference room and watched on television as the second plane hit and the buildings came down. Ashbrook, who had a meeting scheduled for later that day in Manhattan, instead headed straight back to Boston.
The 9/11 attacks set journalists across the country off on a frantic all-hours search for information. But those in New York and Washington also had to contend with the chaos created by the attacks themselves, including, for instance, the destruction of WNYC’s broadcast antenna. The nonstop work took its toll at NPR, which, worried that its staff was nearing exhaustion, considered cutting live coverage in the evenings. Learning this, Christo suggested that WBUR could fill in. She had recently overseen an expansion of the station’s staff and believed she had the resources to put together three hours of news and analysis each night out of Boston.