Point Man

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.

By Peter Vigneron | Boston Magazine |

tom ashbrook on point wbur npr

Photos by Adam Detour

It isn’t easy to speak cogently and think at the same time, but Tom Ashbrook is very good at it, and he is sometimes impatient when guests on his radio show, On Point, are not.

On a Thursday morning in December, during a segment titled “What to Do About Climate Change?” he challenged Vicki Arroyo, the executive director of Georgetown University’s Climate Center, to say which policy measures might slow global warming, and how those measures might change contemporary society. Arroyo suggested tightening both emissions standards and the rules on coal-burning power plants, and then seemed to argue that doing so would be mostly painless. Ashbrook grew incredulous.

During shows, Ashbrook spends much of his time scribbling notes or circling ones that he has already taken. The desk he uses while on air, in Studio 3 at WBUR, is covered by an expansive, ever-shifting puzzle of paper—photocopies of articles, excerpts from books, studies—that he refers to throughout the show. But when Ashbrook wants to interject, he raises one or both hands in the air. If he is in the studio alone, which is the case most of the time, it looks like he’s gesturing for the attention of one of the On Point producers, who are stationed 10 feet away on the other side of a double-thick wall of glass. The first time I saw him do this, during a segment in late November, I thought something had gone wrong. But Ashbrook was in fact simply preparing for what was to come next, a bit like an orchestra conductor between movements of a symphony, only with himself as both conductor and orchestra. Once he begins speaking, his hands drift back to the table, and he resumes fidgeting.

“But what about in our daily lives?” he asked Arroyo. “If we’re gonna get on top of this, are we gonna have to live different lives than we live now, in some fundamental ways? Or what?”

“Technology is part of it,” Arroyo said, “and so the car you drive now might be different than the car you—”

“We got that. Yup.”

“—otherwise would drive. But you know, if we change where the power comes from, do you know where the electrons in your own home come from? I don’t think necessarily—”

“Okay, that’s two, we got that. There’s your power plants. Take us on.”

After some hemming and explaining, Arroyo arrived at a tax on carbon emissions, though it was Ashbrook who finally used the phrase “carbon tax.” Ashbrook does not relish discussing his political views, but he told me later that global warming is an issue of importance to him. He was anxious to move the hour beyond the usual talking points. Intellectually, he is a man of action, and he was bored.

Anybody who listens to On Point will eventually confront the fact that Ashbrook soaks up an unusually large volume of information. He seems able to talk intelligently about almost anything. “There are other talk-show hosts, they do a great job,” says Jack Beatty, On Point’s news analyst. “But man, his capacity!” Graham Allison, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a past guest on the show, told me that Ashbrook’s command of international affairs occasionally outdoes his own. Driving one day in November, I caught a snippet of a segment on the film adaptation of Anna Karenina, during which Ashbrook delivered a relatable summary of Tolstoy’s ideas about fidelity and happiness, apparently off the cuff and without sounding pretentious. That was in hour two. In hour one, he’d looked at the implications of several recent leadership changes in China’s ruling politburo. This is what he does five days a week, 50 weeks a year. An hour on the Congo that segues into an hour on Dolly Parton. Assisted suicide followed by the super wealthy. In just one week this past December, Ashbrook did shows on drones, the fiscal cliff, the American Revolution, the recently deceased jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, and domestic violence and the NFL. Since 2001, he has hosted more than 5,000 hours of radio.

Ashbrook is blunter than most NPR hosts. He frequently interrupts his guests to summarize what they are saying and then to pose another question. At times this lends the impression that he is answering his own questions, but more often than not it makes for potent, urgent conversation. (He is noticeably gentler with callers.) One former On Point producer told me that Ashbrook’s ability to host at the same speed that listeners hear—to anticipate questions and challenges, and then ask them as they arise in listeners’ minds—is as good as that of anyone he has worked with in radio. Ashbrook believes this quality is deeply satisfying for his audience.

Oddly, when On Point launched in 2001, six days after the 9/11 attacks, originally as special coverage for NPR, Ashbrook had never worked in radio. In fact, he had fled news altogether a half decade earlier, after a distinguished career at the Globe. When WBUR called, looking for a host, he was off trying to raise venture capital for a tech startup and was writing a novel. It was not obvious that he would be a good host, or that he even wanted to be a journalist again.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2013/01/tom-ashbrook-on-point-wbur-npr/