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Communication & Media

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Spotlight on the airwaves


From the Kingston Daily Freeman
Spotlight on the airwaves
By BONNIE LANGSTON, Freeman staff

Woodstock author Lisa A. Phillips is grateful for an interview that began in a bathroom with jazz great Marian McPartland.

The interchange helped jump-start the publication of her book, "Public Radio: Behind the Voices." It is published by CDS Books.

A former Hudson Valley bureau chief at WAMC/Northeast Public Radio in Albany, Phillips visited McPartland in 2001 while she was taping her radio program, "Piano Jazz." in New York City. In the search for a private, quiet space in which to talk, McPartland suggested the "ladies room." The studio manager nixed the idea before Phillips turned on her recorder, but not before McPartland lowered the toilet seat and settled herself there.

"She's very brave and very game. She's up for everything," Phillips said, including a discussion in the aforementioned site. "To me, that just completely demonstrates her spirit."

The purpose of the interview was to develop a piece for "51%," a radio program that features issues of concern to women, but Phillips had hoped it also might serve as a foundation sample for a book proposal. She hasn't regretted her choice.

"She (McPartland) was a great person to start with," Phillips said. "She's a very practiced performer and interviewer, and she has wonderful life stories."

Her story is among more than 40 profiles in Phillips' book, including those of Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg and Linda Wertheimer, Daniel Schorr, Bob Edwards, Terry Gross and Scott Simon. Others included Robert Siegel, Ira Glass, Nic Harcourt (formerly of WDST Radio in Woodstock), Tom and Ray Magliozzi, known as "The Tappet Brothers" of "Car Talk," Garrison Keillor and Michael Feldman.

Phillips, who worked at six public radio stations in five states before becoming a journalism instructor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, has received recognition for her work, including four regional Edward R. Murrow awards, a New York Festival Award and honors from The Communicator and The Associated Press.

In addition, as a published writer of fiction, she was presented with the 2002 New York Foundation for the Arts Fiction Award, the National Society for Arts and Letters/Pittsburgh chapter Award and the Scott Turow Award.

Phillips also has freelanced for The New York Times, National Public Radio and Marketplace, as well as other publications and radio programs.

While working as an on-air personality, she quickly discovered that listeners - at least the considerable number of public-radio aficionados -yearned to learn whatever they could about their favorite reporters and personalities.

"Through the years I worked in public radio, I never had to worry about starting a conversation," Phillips said.

She grew up in Newtown, Conn., where her parents still live. She, her husband, Bill Mead, an artist; and their 2-year-old daughter, Clara Douglass Mead, live with cats Kiba and Mona in the vicinity of the Maverick Concert Hall.

Their home, with prominent, sturdy wooden beams, was built in the 1940s when Hervey White, founder of the Maverick Colony, was still alive. The space is quiet, surrounded by woods and mounds of tiger lilies at the front, a place that could serve well for a writer, especially when Clara is being cared for elsewhere, as she was during a recent interview.

Although Phillips' book idea came easily, she said its execution was sometimes a challenge. After she left WAMC in 2003, Phillips found herself dealing with two major life goals at once - a book contract and a pregnancy.

"You don't turn away either thing if you want both," she said. "I was freaking out."

But she regained composure, and she found ways to incorporate motherhood and working on her book. For one thing, Phillips and her husband planned family trips around some of the profile interviews, including visits to Siegel, Edwards and Feldman.

In fact, Feldman, host of the radio quiz show "Wad'Ya Know?," asked both Phillips' husband and the family's then 2-month-old daughter to join him at the interview, which turned out to be in a noisy brewery in Madison, Wis. Clara was sleeping in a stroller behind her mother, who was perched upon a stool across from Feldman, while Mead chatted with band members. Meanwhile, two people from a public-radio affiliate in Illinois also awaited Feldman's ear.

It was not a situation conducive to interviews. Nevertheless, Phillips gathered quotes "quip by quip," as she said in her book, broadening the profile with research and material she culled at one of Feldman's live broadcasts.

Although most personalities in Phillips' book agreed to interviews, a few did not, including Keillor, of "A Prairie Home Companion;" and Terry Gross, host of "Fresh Air." Phillips included them anyway, using her considerable writing talent and in-depth research.

As a past radio personality herself, she said she understands the invisibility that the airwaves provide. There is a certain privacy, too, because what is said cannot be held in the hand like a book.

"It's a very vulnerable thing to tell your life story to someone else," Phillips said. "Even if it is correct, you don't know how it will be shaped."

The most disappointing turndown?

"Terry Gross, no question about it," Phillips said. "I've made my peace with it. I still think she's amazing. ... She does something that's unparalleled, the level of engagement. It's like you're reading a good novel."

As for Keillor, Phillips said she even offered to e-mail him questions, which she would not ordinarily do except occasionally for follow up. But Keillor is both "incredibly busy" and media shy. Most recently, the closest Phillips got to him was through watching the fictionalized movie version of "A Prairie Home Companion." She saw the film the first weekend it was screened.

"I didn't love it," Phillips said.

But she acknowledged that Keillor, who writes a book each year and does a radio segment called "The Writer's Almanac," has crossed a line with his film, a line few - if any - radio personalities have traversed.

"I think the fact the movie exists at all shows that public radio is greater than radio," she said.

Writing her book has been "incredibly rewarding," according to Phillips.

"It was a dream come true to interview my heroes. ...," she said, although, at times, it was intimidating as well. "It was like conducting Mass in front of the Pope."

Did it make her homesick for work in radio?

"Definitely," she said.

"Still, when I am interviewed in radio stations, I'm like, 'Can we turn the mike around and I'll interview you?'"

Although Phillips has not returned to broadcasting, she hasn't lost her affection for the medium. At SUNY New Paltz, where she is an adjunct in the journalism department, she started an introductory course in radio reporting last semester.

"It was a lot of fun," she said.

Teaching twice-weekly classes and embracing a writing life at home work well for Phillips, who decided to forgo full-time employment while her daughter is young. Several of the interviewees in her book, especially Cokie Roberts, Linda Wertheimer and Nina Totenberg, she said, were instructive in that regard.

The threesome, who shared a cubicle at National Public Radio for many years, not only were colleagues, but they helped out each other with various personal challenges.

"Linda Wertheimer said to me, 'Work isn't the hardest thing we do. It's the life we have outside,'" Phillips said.

They've been there for one another.

"I thought that was so cool and so potentially empowering for everyone to hear. ... I really loved that, and it was a good lesson for me as I started my family."