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Photo by Mark Ostow
FOR Sam Sanders MPP 2009, the path to becoming a reporter with NPR in Washington and cohost of its Politics Podcast was not a straight one. He grew up in Texas and came to Harvard Kennedy School knowing above all else that he didn’t yet know what he wanted to do.
In the summer of ’08 I was working on the Broadmoor Project in New Orleans. I was in charge of planning youth and senior events. On any given day I was in my truck a lot—picking things up, seeing caterers, driving kids to the zoo—and I had my radio on a lot. I also had a radio in my room, which I hadn’t had for years. So it was a summer full of radio. It was Top-40 radio, public radio, black talk radio, morning-drive radio, all kinds of radio. This was the summer before Obama’s election, so a lot of the morning-drive black comedy shows were mixing their usual humor with talk about Obama and politics. And I want to say it was the Tom Joyner show. I was playing him while driving through New Orleans one morning running some errands. I got to a traffic light and I was listening to them laugh hysterically while having this great, smart conversation and I said to myself, “Oh my God, they’re getting paid to have this much fun! I want to do radio.” I decided right there. Before that summer in New Orleans, I wasn’t really thinking about radio; and I think I thought about radio first and radio journalism came after that. But I just like the medium. The idea of people having conversations with each other and with their community. That idea of conversation is what I want to get at and have been chasing the past several years.
You start with a smile, you make eye contact, you make sure they see your microphone—you don’t want to interview someone who is afraid of the microphone. You ask open-ended questions that make people want to tell a story. And when people get quiet, just let the quiet be there. Early on in my career I wanted to fill the quiet spaces, but now I’ve learned to be comfortable with pregnant pauses. But the less mechanical part of what I want to do, what I’ve come to rely on for my storytelling, is the universality of emotions that are present in all stories about politics. I fundamentally believe that we are all guided by and experience life through the same set of pure emotions: anger, love, frustration, hopefulness, jealousy. And when you accept that, it means you can connect to any one story because somewhere in there the emotion that they’re experiencing you’ve experienced in some way. It also makes you want to listen to people who you think you don’t like, who are voting for the other guy.
I don’t like my radio equipment. I really wish it were smaller and not so heavy. So I don’t feel attached to that stuff. I bought a couch when I moved to DC. Since I left Texas, I’ve been living somewhere different every year or two. In South Africa for an internship and then Boston and then New Orleans; then I was in DC and I had short stints in North Carolina and Portland, Oregon, and then Los Angeles. So I’ve lived in lots of different places with lots of different roommates, and I never really had furniture because I was always moving around. When I moved back to DC this time I said, “I need to get a couch.” I agonized over the purchase for a few months and I made all my friends go with me to random places and sit on couches here and there. I think in hindsight, part of my fear and reluctance was less about getting the perfect couch than about accepting a different phase of my life. It’s a more adult, fully realized version of myself.
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