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’s desk is an ever-shifting puzzle of paper.
Christo and her team asked Graham Griffith, a producer then working on a newsmagazine project in Providence, to organize a show. Griffith had been collaborating with a producer at WBUR named Ian Docherty, and they had both advocated for Ashbrook when he tried out for The Connection, in part because of Ashbrook’s background in foreign reporting. “He came without any radio experience,” Griffith says, “but he had all of the things that I want all public-radio hosts to have, that you can’t teach: the combination of genuine curiosity, a deep understanding of what’s going on in the world, and mental agility.” Plus, Griffith and Docherty knew Ashbrook was working on a book that fall—meaning he was available. (The book was a thriller about technology and terrorism, and Ashbrook immediately lost his appetite for completing it.)
Ashbrook had seen his faith in journalism’s ability to change the world wane in the 1990s, but when he got the call from WBUR five days after the attacks asking him to host a program called, simply, Special Coverage, he didn’t hesitate. “Nine-eleven just smacked me upside the head,” he says. “It felt like this is no time for crumpets and tea. We’ve got urgent issues. We need to cut through to the heart of things.” The show went live in the evenings on Monday, September 17, with Ashbrook as host and Beatty, a longtime on-air contributor to WBUR, helping with analysis. Ashbrook and the producers didn’t have a workspace, so the team set up on folding chairs in WBUR’s cafeteria. In a collision of personalities that could have happened only in public radio, the cafeteria was also the favorite area for Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the Car Talk guys. “It was nearly impossible for anyone to prepare serious radio with them yucking it up in the background,” Griffith says.
The early shows, most of which are still available online, were produced in an atmosphere of crisis and uncertainty. They are unexpectedly good. According to Griffith, Ashbrook picked up the basics of radio—introducing guests, taking callers, minding the clock—very fast, and needed little coaching when it came to asking the right question at the right time. He managed to be skeptical without being cynical, and the show attracted ratings that were higher than anyone at WBUR had expected.
NPR distributed Special Coverage for less than a month and then returned the show to WBUR as the crisis receded. Instead of shutting it down, Christo asked Griffith to move up to Boston permanently, and for the next four years, WBUR lobbied to have the show, renamed On Point, re-included among the 14 or 15 regionally produced talk shows vying for national airspace. But again and again Ashbrook ran up against concerns that he was too aggressive for the NPR mold. “I’ll get tougher and a little more rugged—sometimes—than NPR hosts generally do,” Ashbrook says, acknowledging that NPR was worried about this trait. But listeners responded well to his style, and in 2005, after Dick Gordon’s struggling Connection was taken off air, NPR began distributing On Point nationally.
In the years since, Ashbrook has gained more control over the tenor of his voice, drawing out and emphasizing certain words and weighting his questions with feeling. This has the strange effect of making shows in 2013, even about subjects such as tax deductions and lobsters, somehow feel more urgent than shows that ran in the weeks after 9/11. Otherwise, though, the formula that was put in place in the fall of 2001—a two-hour call-in show, devoted to understanding the world in all its facets—is the formula that is still in place today.
On Point involves a great deal of work, almost a brute-force approach to high-quality news analysis, and Ashbrook expects quite a bit. “He does have a lot of energy, and a lot of force, and I think a radio show is a good place to put it,” Karen Shiffman says. Creating the show requires a large staff by public-radio standards, and WBUR spends more to produce the show than it generates in underwriting or licensing royalties. (The WBUR station manager, Corey Lewis, who oversees the station’s distribution and marketing, estimates that On Point will become profitable if it reaches markets in 80 percent of the country—which he projects could happen in seven years.) But that’s the thing about public radio: Because of its revenue sources—overwhelmingly, listener contributions and corporate underwriting, with a small federal subsidy—it is less dependent on high ratings, and less pressured to make the news sensational. Ashbrook and his staff believe that a vigorous, ideologically neutral conversation serves a public good, and they are allowed to devote themselves to making it happen.
Still, the media landscape is changing, and although public radio has remained healthy, it has had its own problems attracting a broad, young listenership. In the past five or so years, much of the excitement and energy in public radio has been around shows and special series with a strong narrative component—This American Life, Radiolab, Planet Money, The Moth. Story shows, not talk shows.
This doesn’t worry Ashbrook. “I love that people are being innovative,” he says. “But I think that deeply engaged, straight-ahead conversation about what’s going on in the world is always going to have a big audience. There’s essentially a limitless audience for where we’re going, what we’re doing here.”
In The Leap, Ashbrook writes at length about his feeling of restlessness, his suspicion that the world was changing, and his determination not to be left behind. That didn’t strike me as the profile of a guy who sticks with a job for 11 years, so I asked him why he has stayed so long on the same show, especially one that won’t let him go out and experience the world firsthand. Off air, Ashbrook is a warm conversationalist, every bit as engaged as he is on the show, but without the insistent, impatient quality that characterizes his on-air persona. There are two reasons, he explained. The first is that he simply doesn’t have time to be restless. Hosting On Point is too demanding. The second is that in some sense the show does transport him out into the world. “I can be sitting in the studio here,” he says, “and something is going on in some very distant, different environment, and I have a tangible, palpable sense memory of it. If we’re talking about Goma, in the Congo? I remember how it smelled. China? Asia? I’ve been all over it.”
On Point has always strived to provide its listeners with a national perspective, and Ashbrook is pleased that his show, produced far up in the liberal Northeast, now reaches a large and more-conservative audience in the South and the mountain West. As a longtime foreign correspondent, he’s also eager to expand that reach internationally—and it’s happening. In a single month last year, the On Point website, which streams the show live worldwide, attracted visitors from 153 countries.
Ashbrook takes great pride in his increasingly global audience, something I witnessed this past November, when a caller from India appeared in his queue. Delighted, Ashbrook broke away from his guests. “We’ve got a call coming in from Mumbai,” he said. “Jaidev, thanks for calling from Mumbai. You’re on the air. What’s your question?”