TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're going to remember Neal Conan, who played an important part in the history of NPR on and off the air. He died Tuesday of glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer. He was 71. He worked at NPR for 36 years in several capacities - as a reporter, executive producer of All Things Considered, news director, London bureau chief and anchoring live coverage of hearings and events. In 1991, while reporting on the Gulf War, he was captured by the Iraqi Republican Guard and held hostage for one week. For 13 years, he was a daily presence in the lives of many listeners as the host of NPR's talk show Talk of the Nation. We were lucky to have Neal as a guest host on FRESH AIR for a week in April 2001. Of course, he sounded great.
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NEAL CONAN: From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is FRESH AIR.
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CONAN: I'm Neal Conan, sitting in for Terry Gross. On today's FRESH AIR, an anatomy of the National Security Agency. The CIA gets most of the publicity, but the NSA is the bigger, more powerful and more secretive. Where else would you find the job title chief of anonymity? We'll talk with James Bamford about his new book...
GROSS: It was a little frustrating for me knowing Neal was in Philly working on our show, but I wasn't going to get a chance to work with him because I was on vacation. We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with him in 2002 after he'd written a book about a surprising break he took from NPR one summer to do this.
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CONAN: There's a fly ball down the left field line. Lofton (ph) is running. I think he'll have room for this one. No, he will not. That's a solo home run, and the Arsenal have gone back-to-back.
GROSS: During the summer of 2000, Neal did play-by-play radio announcing for the Aberdeen Arsenal, a minor-league baseball team in the Atlantic League. It was the team's first and only season. Neal made an even more dramatic and long-term change in his life. After Talk Of The Nation ended its run in 2013, he moved to Hawaii, became a macadamia nut farmer and hosted a show on Hawaii Public Radio. I spoke with Neal Conan in 2002 after the publication of his memoir "Play By Play: Baseball, Radio And Life In The Last Chance League." We started with a short reading from his memoir.
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CONAN: (Reading) I was no longer 50. I was going on 51. My daughter and her boyfriend drove a Ryder truck up from college to move her stuff to Florida. I have a wonderful job as a radio news correspondent and host that's allowed me to go to all kinds of places and do interesting things, but I was bored, probably with myself. Call it burnout or midlife crisis. But after Whitewater, Newt, Monica and impeachment, I was weary. With bleak months of what promised to be a joyless presidential election campaign stretching ahead, I thought it miraculous when Keith Lupton called with a chance to broadcast baseball instead. This was fate.
(Reading) I cashed in 23 years of tenure at National Public Radio and abandoned wife, children, yard, cat and a career inside the Washington Beltway to punch my ticket to the small time. This summer, my audience would be measured in dozens, not millions. Accustomed to broadcasting with the help of two technicians, a producer and a director in a state-of-the-art studio, I would be a one-man traveling band. I called up the teams' schedule on my computer. In late July, I could anchor three nights of the Republican National Convention live from the first union center in Philadelphia or call play-by-play of a three-game set against the Bluefish at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn. Baseball sounded like a lot more fun.
GROSS: Neal, you write, (reading) it was good to escape to a place where we all know the rules of the game.
What was comforting about that?
CONAN: It was comforting - well, one of the things about baseball is that you're the same age and you're all ages when you walk into the ballpark. You're 8 years old, and you're 14 years old, and you're 23, and you're 52. The - another thing about baseball that's really gratifying - as you mentioned, the rules are the same. You know what's going on, and baseball is one of those things that truly rewards study. The more you know about it, the more interesting it gets, and that was really one of the great revelations of the summer.
There was a fear that, you know, after a while, you'd get bored with this, too, and that didn't happen at all. And one of the things that was really critical about that whole summer - and this was the idea of - and I kept talking to ballplayers about why they did it, why they took the chance to play in this first schlug (ph) in their league and at the end of the road. And a lot of - and they had many different reasons, but one of the most compelling was the idea that they had to go out there and compete, that it was hard to do this. This was difficult to do.
And I realized that one of the things that was happening to me at work and early in the season doing the play-by-play stuff was I was intimidated by something that was so difficult to do. It was very, very hard. And if I looked at that instead as a challenge, as an opportunity the way the ballplayers did, you know, I really want to go up against that - he's the best pitcher in the league. If it were me, I'd be looking for a way to, you know, come down with a sore throat that day.
CONAN: But instead, you know, they were really looking forward to this challenge. And you know as a ballplayer, as a hitter, if you succeed one time in three, you're doing great, so two times out of three, you're going to fail. And at those ratios, if they could take the rejection that that involved, I sure could, too, and my rejection rate wasn't anywhere near as difficult or as impossible as that. It was hard to do it, and I really began to appreciate how difficult it was and how much enjoyment I got from the fact that once you started the game, you finished the pregame show and they threw the first pitch, you just stepped off the cliff. Nobody knew what was going to happen.
GROSS: Well, actually, your first night of broadcasting, you almost didn't make it on the air because you couldn't get the system to work.
CONAN: Yeah. That was loads of fun. I was the one - the general manager, Keith Lupton, said, well, what kind of equipment should we buy? And, you know, I came up with all of these, you know, suggestions, and some of my colleagues here at National Public Radio, in fact, gave me some advice. And so we bought all of this equipment. It's thousands of dollars of stuff with microphones and mixers and a box that connects my telephone line to the line back at the - to another box back at the station. And it's supposed to transform a regular old telephone line magically into a decent quality broadcast circuit for very little money. That's kind of the whole idea of minor league baseball.
But we couldn't get it to work. We couldn't get the marriage of the two machines to last more than 20 seconds, and I'm sitting there sweating bullets as we're trying to get this to work for the hundredth time. So the chief engineer figured out that the only way to get on the air was to have me just make a regular phone call from the press box to the studio, put that phone call up on the speakerphone, put a microphone on the speaker from the speakerphone and that was what was on the radio. And I had this feeling that Guglielmo Marconi was rolling in his grave. This was probably the worst audio that had ever been broadcast on FM.
GROSS: It was probably pretty unlistenable. You were probably on the air in name only.
CONAN: And just as well because I was screwing up the broadcast. As - in all of the confusion, I finally got on the air. It was the top of the first inning, and I, you know, announced the first batter, and he struck out. Hey, there's the first out of the season - and all this sort of stuff. And the next batter hits a single into center field. And that's when I notice that there's a runner rounding third. Where did he come from?
GROSS: (Laughter) You were actually afraid you'd be fired. At least, that's what you say you were afraid of.
CONAN: I was terribly afraid I was being fired.
GROSS: What were some of the things that were going wrong in the early broadcast?
CONAN: Well, I didn't know any stories about - you know, this was a brand-new team, and these guys all had baseball histories, but I didn't know them. And, you know, they don't have baseball cards. There's no media guide that gives you, you know, 15 pages on Danny Perez and what he does and what pitches he likes to hit and all this. I didn't have anything to talk about. Early in the game - and there was long, awkward gaps. And it became progressively more difficult as you're saying, well, then I've got to say something important. I've got to say something clever, something good. And then, of course, you freeze.
And the other problem I would have was actually describing the action, and I would try to be doing too much at the time. You know, the ball is rolling out to the gap and left center field, and you're trying to describe the runner rounding third and about to come home and then the left fielder chasing the ball. And I would start to get confused.
And it got - it was difficult to string together a narrative of what was actually happening until I remembered - this is one of those lessons that I learned working at National Public Radio and substituting for Bob Edwards on Morning Edition and talking with Red Barber all those years ago. And Red said there was only one thing that a play-by-play announcer really had to do and that was follow the ball and explain what was happening with the ball. And you can back and fill later to explain what was happening with the people on the bases. And once I remembered that, it became a little bit easier.
GROSS: Well, why don't we give a listen to you in the announcer's booth doing play-by-play at a very manic moment?
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CONAN: There's one belted into right center field. Nobody's going to catch this one. That's gone - back to back to back. The Arsenal, for the first time in club history, have three consecutive home runs - Sepeda (ph), Martinez and now David Steed. And they lead the game 8-3.
GROSS: Neal, how do you decide, like, how excited to get - 'cause there is a certain amount of theater in all of this?
CONAN: Oh, sure. A lot of it's performance.
CONAN: You tend to get more excited about your team's home runs than the other team's home runs for sure. And that's - that was a terrific moment for the ballclub and - against a particularly hated rival, the Nashua Pride, who drubbed us in their ballpark, it seemed, every single time and came back eventually and made that one a nail-biter before it was over.
One of the things that a lot of people asked me about, you know, is did I have a home run call? And, well, you just heard one. And I tried not to develop the - you know, that sort of cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all home run call, you know, the see ya (ph) or there it goes, papa, or one of those, you know, the trademark home run call because, you know, each one, it seemed, deserved its own description.
But you find out baseball is a game where a lot of things repeat themselves, situations repeat themselves and kinds of hits repeat themselves. And there are certain kinds of home runs. And yeah, you do develop certain patterns and degrees of excitement. But you're trying to bring the audience along with you. And that was a tremendous moment. So Frank Zappa, the famous rock musician and composer, once said loud and soft - that's showmanship. And it's true in play-by-play, I suspect, just as much as it is in music.
GROSS: Now, in listening to a little bit of your play-by-play, I noticed there's - there wasn't a lot of fan noise behind you (laughter) some of the play-by-play. Is that because of the way you were mic'd or because of the lack of fans?
CONAN: That was because it was an Arsenal home run in the visiting ballpark. There were, in fact, a fair number of fans that day in Nashua, but they wouldn't be cheering the opposition's home run. And it was sort of odd that I had to pick out when I was pulling tape clips to find any crowd sound at all. I had to get all the stuff on the road.
There wasn't any sound at all from the crowd at Arsenal games because there wasn't much of a crowd at Arsenal games. There was one doubleheader that we had started the second game. There had been rain problems, and we started the second game at 10 o'clock at night, rather late during a weeknight, just about anywhere to start a sporting event. And we counted 12 people in the stands, and all of them were in some way related to somebody either working at the ballpark or on one of the teams.
GROSS: Wow (laughter).
We're listening to my 2002 interview with Neal Conan, who worked at NPR for 36 years. He died Tuesday at the age of 71. When we spoke, he'd just written a book about his year doing play-by-play for the minor league team the Aberdeen Arsenal. We'll hear more of the interview after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2002 interview with Neal Conan, who worked at NPR for 36 years. He died Tuesday at the age of 71. When we left off, we were talking about the season he spent as a play-by-play announcer for the minor league baseball team the Aberdeen Arsenal.
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GROSS: When you're in your capacity as reporter or host for NPR, you have to be, you know, a fair and objective and distanced and all of that. When you're announcing baseball, you're supposed to be really engaged and enthusiastic when your team wins and really manic when there's a home run. Can you talk a little bit about the different voices that you've used on NPR as a reporter or host compared to the voice of Neal Conan, baseball play-by-play announcer?
CONAN: In my job as host of Talk Of The Nation, it's clearly my job to be objective, to not take sides. When you're announcing for a baseball team, for the local team, you work for the team, and you are expected to take sides. And that's not to say that you're going to, you know, dump on the opposition and say that everything they do is terrible. That's not - you have to appreciate the opposition.
In fact, one of the things you need to do if your team's going to be any good at all, if your champions are great ballplayers, well, they have to be playing against great champions. It's not Ali without Frazier, if you understand what I'm meaning. So the other team have to be respectable. But yes, we're on our side. And after a lifetime of being on the sidelines as an observer of all of this, it was so refreshing and so nice to actually be able to take sides and feel good about it. It was the right thing to do. It was our team.
GROSS: And how did play-by-play change your voice?
CONAN: Oh, it - that was interesting, too. Noah Adams, our colleague, had always talked about finding your note as a broadcaster, the spot in your chest and your throat where your voice sounds nice and comfortable and you get that resonance that we're all looking for, you know, whenever we can.
Now, I've been in radio - I've been in radio a long time, Terry. And I thought that I found my note long ago. But I found up on the roof at the trailer where we broadcast our games at Thomas Run Park, that I found that I hadn't found my voice. It was another spot, a little bit lower in my throat and a little bit lower in my chest that was much more comfortable for me to work in and I think much more comfortable for listeners to hear. And I wondered after a while whether it wasn't just a different - whether I'd found the note that had been eluding me all of those years or whether it was just, you know, working every day on the radio so much, whether I just broke it in properly for the first time.
GROSS: What's the difference in the sound, do you think?
CONAN: It's a little bit lower. It's a little bit slower. I think it's a little bit more self-assured and that you could only succeed at - again, it was like baseball itself, you know, something that's incredibly challenging. But you only succeed when you relax. If you're tense, if you're worried about it, you're not going to be able to do it well. And finally, on the roof of that trailer, I was able to relax into it. And I didn't worry about it. It was an extraordinary feeling of command. I'm not sure that I've ever been in a situation quite like that as a broadcaster before, where toward the end of the year, when I knew all of the stories about all of these players and all of the visiting players as well - and I knew the league as well as anybody knew the league - that I was in command of my material. And it was just the most fun I've ever had.
GROSS: What was it like after your summer of play-by-play to return to your duties at NPR?
CONAN: Initially, it was difficult. I had somewhere in the back of my mind thought that this was going to be a break, that Anne Garrels, in fact, had said, you know, something will happen and you won't come back. And it was to some degree, you know, was it a failure to come back? Had I not done this well enough to, you know, to make a career out of it, to sidestep and move on? And in that respect, you know, I was a little discouraged.
And the other part of it is that I'd hoped to avoid what I'd feared was that joyless presidential election campaign and got back in time to, in fact, anchor the last two presidential debates. And then, as you'll recall, that one went into extra innings...
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
CONAN: ...And got a chance to do quite a bit of that as well and doing play-by-play of the of the Florida Supreme Court not that long after doing play-by-play of the Aberdeen Arsenal. And that part of it was fun. And what I realized was that I had learned while I was away that the thing that I really was interested in, at least now, was in live radio, that I'd really come to love thinking with the last tenth of an inch of your tongue. And it was such a challenge every day. And that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to find a place where I could be on the radio every day, and I honestly wasn't sure that National Public Radio was going to be that place. And so I started looking for other opportunities to do that. And as it happened, the opportunity to do that happened at National Public Radio.
GROSS: Through Talk Of The Nation.
CONAN: Yeah, exactly.
GROSS: One thing we didn't mention is - and you talk about this in your book - is that you were kidnapped during the Gulf War. You were held for a week. And you describe the experience in the book. And you say about it that afterwards you recognize the symptoms of adrenaline addiction, you know, when you were looking back on it, and every moment seemed so vivid to you.
GROSS: And you describe adrenaline addiction as the affliction that drives some reporters from one hotspot to another. Just describe your sense of this adrenaline addiction.
CONAN: It didn't strike so much in the trip in which I got captured by the Republican Guard and held for a week. As dramatic as that stuff was - and it certainly was vivid - it was almost the next trip back. I went back to Iraq, this time to northern Iraq with a producer from here, Marie Dilge (ph). And we got a pretty good story. We got a story from various sources that the coalition had missed a lot of Iraq's nuclear weapons program. And this turned out to be, in fact, the entire part of the Iraqi weapons program that nobody had been aware of before the war happened.
And that story and the context in which we developed it and all of the excitement and the danger of of northern Iraq after the war, it was such a rush. It was so gratifying. It was so exciting. And again, you know, in terms of danger, we, you know, there are always chances that these stories could be wrong. It didn't turn out that that one was. We were right. But, you know, it's it's tremendously thrilling. And I got this feeling that I used to describe to people, my friends, as feeling big. And I'm not sure exactly what I meant by that, but I guess emotionally big, this feeling that I could fill the room.
And this was at the same time tremendously - you're aware. You're focused. You're concentrated. But you're also not who you are. You're somebody else. You've transformed into this other character that's driven by things that you're normally not driven by. And those things are difficult to get those two things to work together and to bring yourself back to who you were. And that's one thing that I think having a family was more important in that respect than anything else. There's nothing that will bring you back to earth quicker than children who don't really care about what your pretensions are or how, you know, your emotional inflation is doing that day. What they care about is dad. And that was that was tremendously important.
And I felt like I had to back off after that, that I - that at that moment, I had an opportunity, if I'd wanted to take it to be, you know, that hotshot foreign correspondent who goes from one hotspot to another, who never gets enough danger, who lives for all of those moments. Or I could go back to being who I really was. And to some degree, I decided to go back to who I was, if in no small part, for the kids, if nothing else,
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded in 2002 with Neal Conan, who spent 36 years at NPR. He died Tuesday of brain cancer. He was 71. After a break, we'll hear more of the interview. Justin Chang will review the new movie "Respect," starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin. And Ken Tucker will review some of the songs from the summer that really stand out. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Neal Conan, who worked at NPR for 36 years in many capacities - as a reporter, executive producer of All Things Considered, news director and longtime host of Talk Of The Nation. He died Tuesday at the age of 71 of brain cancer. I spoke with him in 2002 after he'd published a memoir about his season doing radio play-by-play for a minor league baseball team, the Aberdeen Arsenal. The book also reflected on his experiences as a journalist. When we left off, we were talking about covering the Gulf War in 1991, when he was captured by the Iraqi Republican Guard and held hostage for a week.
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GROSS: You write about these two emotional extremes that you went through, you know, that kind of addiction to adrenaline thing, the feeling big, but on the other hand, a feeling of paralysis...
CONAN: Yeah, that's the downside of it. Yeah.
GROSS: ...After you came home after the kidnapping. Could you describe that feeling?
CONAN: Yeah. It's a little bit what I was talking about earlier. It's a little bit - yeah, it's the downside. It's the other side of the rush. It's the crash. And it's the feeling of of inability to focus on what you need to do because you're afraid to do it. You become weighed down by expectations to some degree, your own as well as everybody else's, or your projection of what everybody else's expectations of you are. Things become more - simple things, like making the first phone call on a story, become very difficult to do.
And again, once I got into something, once it happened, once I didn't have time to think about it, I was fine. I was the same person. But thinking about it, getting off the dime, you know, getting myself started became harder and harder to do. And I think that there was this sort of unspecific anxiety. I was afraid. And I'm not sure exactly what I was afraid of. And you think about, you know, being in situations where, you know, they're dangerous and people are shooting and, yes, things can happen, but those don't often happen on the third floor of National Public Radio.
And the fact is there was nothing threatening me there. There was nothing stopping me. I could have been - I could have done a lot more. I'd always had a tendency to passivity. That's always something I'd struggled with and fought to overcome. This just made it worse. And it made my resistance less. And I found, you know, constant excuse making. Things were other people's faults and never mine. And that's what I really felt I had to break out of. There was this spiral that I was getting into. And I come from a family that's had a lot of problems with alcohol. And I was beginning to have problems with alcohol. And that worried me very, very seriously.
And I, you know, was this it? Was I, you know, spiraling as to some degree I'd seen other people in my family spiral? And I - baseball was my opportunity to say no to that. It just happened to be baseball. I could have been other things. But for me, it was baseball, to step out of that and to take a look at myself and shake myself around a little bit and say, what are you doing? Why are you doing it? And if you don't love it, why do you keep doing it?
GROSS: You know, the thing about alcohol, being on the road is sometimes the worst thing for somebody who is drinking a little too much.
CONAN: You bet. There's - a lot of the time there's not much left to do when the ball game ends at, you know, 10:30, and you get back to the hotel at, you know, 11:15, 11:30. You're living the baseball life. You don't want to wake up the next day until noon because that's your schedule you're on. And the only thing that's open is the bar. You know, there's that, or you can go watch cable television up in your room. So yeah, that can get a little scary. And you can see how those sorts of - those patterns can develop.
GROSS: But you got through that one.
CONAN: Did get through that one, yeah. And partly, I'd stop drinking before I did this. And I did go to the bars. And I would have a few drinks and sometimes more than a few drinks with, you know, some of the guys and some of the situations. But I felt like I was back in control of it because I felt like I was back in control of my life, that I was doing what I wanted. And it was not a crutch anymore. It was what it had been my whole life, you know, an occasional amusement, something you did sometimes.
GROSS: We were talking about adrenaline and the kind of rush you can get from it. Do you think that doing a daily show like Talk Of The Nation is very suitable to your temperament now? Because you've got the daily deadline, but it's not like a huge thing. It's not like you're getting kidnapped every day...
CONAN: No, it's not.
GROSS: ...Or you're covering a war every day. But there is a sense of this structure that you constantly have to fit yourself into and a daily set of deadlines to meet. So there's no time for paralysis.
CONAN: There isn't. The daily rhythm makes it much easier. You're right about that. It's also that it, like play-by-play, is live. And you never know. I mean, we script - baseball doesn't have a script. And we try to arrange these programs so that we have an idea of where they're going to be going in this part of the program or that part of the program. But a lot of the time, the program does not work out the way that we had planned it. And that's a great challenge. It's enormous fun. It's a lot - it's doing many of the same kinds of things that I did in play-by-play, at least in terms of technique.
And the ability to go back and recap the scoring, a skill that I developed doing play-by-play, has turned out to be very useful in doing live radio. You have to go back and recap the news just about as frequently as you had to recap the scoring, as it turns out. Yeah, live radio, it's the same kind of structure and the same kind of difficulty, the same kind of challenge.
GROSS: Neal, I've always admired your writing on the air. Now that you've written a book, I'm interested in hearing what it was like for you to sit down and face the fact that you had to write, like, a couple of hundred pages, not, you know, copy for a six-minute report or copy to introduce a program. It's really daunting.
CONAN: It is daunting. And the fact is that I had always seen myself as a writer, you know, that - when I was in high school, that's what I wanted to grow up to be and grew up to be a broadcaster. And the whole idea of - I was intimidated by the idea of writing a whole book. I mean, you know, you and I write in seconds. We don't write in hundreds of pages. And this was a challenge, too. You know, if I was ever going to do it, if I was ever going to achieve that goal that I'd set for myself all those years before, this was going to be the opportunity. If I didn't do it this time, it was going to be almost impossible.
So sitting down and writing this book, one of the big differences between working in a newsroom and writing a book is that one of them is a very social experience where you're yelling at people and they're yelling at you and there's all kinds of activity going on. Working at home, quiet, staring at a blank computer screen was a very different kind of experience indeed. And one of the most humbling experiences I've ever had was, in fact, you know, you do all the macro editing with your editor at the publishing house, but then eventually you get - the book gets sent to a copy editor. And, you know, they're looking at your spelling and your grammar. I know my spelling's bad. If I could spell, I wouldn't be in radio.
But, you know, I thought that this was going to be, like, a Socratic dialogue with a - you know, with an editor. Oh, I meant to be in the future pluperfect tense there, absolutely. Instead, you know, what it came back was just one horrifying...
CONAN: ...Literary crime after another. I - you know, you just wanted to - I surrendered...
CONAN: ...You know, with the third one. I thought I'd been a literate person until I read this.
GROSS: Now, you know, on radio and in print, length is really important. You can't come in hundreds of pages over for the book that's going to be published. If your report has, like, five minutes on the air, you can't go over that...
GROSS: ...Et cetera. Whereas when you're - so everything has to be concise, right? But when you're doing play-by-play, you have to fill these really long gaps of nothing happening, so, you know, concision isn't what you need. You need, like, amplification - constant (laughter) amplification.
CONAN: What you need, actually, Terry, is an accordion. You need to expand it or contract it...
GROSS: Oh, right.
CONAN: ...Because things happen very suddenly. You can start on this, you know, what you're thinking is going to be, you know, an inning-killing anecdote while the...
CONAN: ...Pitcher continually throws over to first base. And the next thing that happens is a ground ball smacked to shortstop - over to second, back to first - double play. We'll see you for the next half inning. So you got to be able to, you know, adapt all of this stuff, you know, either expand it - and you're right, that's the usual problem - or contract it. And - or, you know, some of them, you have to say, well, we - finish that story in the next inning.
But it's incredibly challenging to fill all of that airtime, particularly when you're by yourself. And again, in the minor leagues, for the most part, you're on by yourself. There's no color man. There's no producer. There's no statistician. There's no tech - you're doing all of this stuff yourself. And I would invite (laughter) - anybody who wanted to be on the radio was perfectly welcomed to come on and join me for a couple of innings any time they wanted just to help me fill all the airtime. But eventually, it got to be, you know, this ongoing dialogue between yourself and your audience.
And, you know, you don't think of your audience in terms of masses of people - and you're broadcasting for the Aberdeen Arsenal. This is a good thing. You think of your audience as individuals. People tend to listen to the radio alone, whether they're, you know, doing the dishes or at work or in their car or, you know, listening to the radio as they're walking or exercising or something like that. So you think of your audience as - you know, it's one to one. And if you're having this ongoing conversation with this one individual, that was the way I came to think about it.
GROSS: You've been in the position very often through your career of having to fill time while waiting for the president to come in...
CONAN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...And deliver his address or during the break in the hearings when you had to just keep filling an indefinite amount of time until they'd decide to end the break. What are some of the differences between the kind of things you need to have at your fingertips and the kind of preparation you need to fill time in the hearings or during the presidential address compared to play-by-play?
CONAN: Well, one of the differences is normally in National Public Radio, if we're waiting for the president, I have somebody to talk to. So I can generally say something clever like, Dan?
CONAN: If I'm doing play-by-play, there's nobody there for me to talk to, so I have to come up with something myself. And those sorts of challenges were quite interesting.
GROSS: Well, Neal Conan, thank you so much for talking with us.
CONAN: Terry, it's been a pleasure.
GROSS: My interview with Neal Conan was recorded in 2002. He died Tuesday at the age of 71. We send our condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.
Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Respect," starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin, and Ken Tucker reviews some of the songs that musically defined the summer. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's been quite a year for screen stories about Aretha Franklin, starting with the recent miniseries "Genius: Aretha," starring Cynthia Erivo, and continuing with the new movie "Respect," which opens in theaters this week. Franklin was heavily involved in the movie's development up until her death in 2018, and she personally handpicked Jennifer Hudson to star in it. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The average musical biopic - and most of them are pretty average - follows a predictable arc - the troubled childhood marked by flashes of genius; the record deals and hit album montages; the marriages torn apart by affairs, addiction and the ravages of fame. Even when these cliches are drawn from real life, it's disappointing to see great artists reduced to formulas. Aretha Franklin was one of our greatest artists, and "Respect," the new movie about her early years, doesn't entirely avoid those biopic conventions, but there's real intelligence and feeling in it all the same.
This is the first feature from director Liesl Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson, both of whom have worked for many years in theatre and television. And they seem to know that even well-worn notes can sound newly resonant in the right hands. That's one of the lessons of Franklin's own career. "Respect," of course, draws its title from an Otis Redding song that Franklin brilliantly made her own. In this scene, set in 1968, Aretha, played by Jennifer Hudson, performs "Respect" at Madison Square Garden.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RESPECT")
JENNIFER HUDSON: (As Aretha Franklin, singing) What you want, baby, I got. What you need? You know I got it. All I'm askin' is for a little respect - come on - hey, baby - when you get home. I ain't going to do you wrong while you're gone. I ain't going to do you wrong 'cause I don't want to. But all I'm askin' is for a little respect - come on - hey, baby - when you get home. Yes, sir. I'm about to give...
CHANG: Like Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in "Lady Sings The Blues" or, more recently, Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in "Judy," Hudson doesn't try to mimic her real-life subject so much as channel her spirit. The illusion doesn't always take hold. Notably, the actor seems less evocative of Franklin than Cynthia Erivo was in the recent miniseries "Genius: Aretha." But Hudson is a vocal powerhouse, and her musical performances are frequently electrifying in what's easily her most significant role since her Oscar-winning debut 15 years ago in "Dreamgirls."
Hudson and the filmmakers mean to show us a still unformed Aretha who doesn't yet possess the strong artistic identity and business savvy that will define her reign as the Queen of Soul. We first meet her in 1952 Detroit as a 10-year-old, nicely played by Skye Dakota Turner, already wowing churches and house parties with her singing talent. Forest Whitaker is her father, the influential Baptist minister and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin, who exercises a heavy hand over his daughter's future music career. But Aretha is even more profoundly shaped by her mother, the gospel singer Barbara Franklin, warmly played by Audra McDonald. Barbara dies soon after we meet her, but not before warning the young Aretha never to let her father or any other man exploit her talent, which is a gift from God.
"Respect" has a good grasp of the tightly interwoven forces - family, religion, activism and music - that shaped Aretha and sometimes threatened to tear her apart. Aretha tries to flee her father's control by marrying Ted White, played by Marlon Wayans, who becomes her manager. But it soon becomes clear that she's merely exchanged one domineering man for another. Meanwhile, her musical versatility - there's nothing she can't sing - ironically proved something of an obstacle at first. She's not certain what kind of artist she wants to be.
That changes when she signs with Atlantic Records and joins forces with the legendary producer Jerry Wexler - a terrific Marc Maron - who in 1966 sends her to record with a scrappy but first-rate band in Muscle Shoals, Ala. "Respect" surges to life in these sequences. It's a thrill to watch the often soft-spoken, deferential Aretha seize control of her recording sessions, tweaking the arrangement on her first big hit, "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)", and building a strong rapport with her collaborators. We recognize her brilliance as not just a singer but also an impromptu songwriter.
By the time Aretha is singing immortal tunes like "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," she's also mustered the courage to leave her abusive husband. From there, the movie becomes more uneven and overwrought as Aretha's alcoholism threatens to torpedo her career and family life.
Some of these scenes feel rushed, and they expose other cracks in the storytelling. We spend a lot of time with Aretha's sisters, both also singers. But her four sons are only partly glimpsed. The movie is also vague in its sense of Aretha as a political figure, apart from brief scenes in which we see her singing at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and defending Angela Davis after her arrest.
The road is bumpy, but the film's final destination is moving. "Respect" climaxes with perhaps Franklin's finest achievement, her landmark 1972 album "Amazing Grace," presented here as not just her return to her gospel roots, but also her recommitment to God. It's a lovely sequence that made me want to revisit the electrifying documentary "Amazing Grace," which was filmed during those recording sessions and which is easily the greatest Aretha Franklin movie ever. As even decent musical biopics remind us, there ain't nothing like the real thing.
GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new biopic "Respect," starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NOTHING LIKE THE REAL THING")
ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) There ain't nothing like the real thing, baby. There ain't nothing like the real thing. There ain't nothing like the real thing, baby. There ain't nothing like the real thing. I see your picture hanging on the wall. But it can't sing or come to me when I call your name. I realize it's just a picture in a frame. And I read your letters when you're not here. They don't move me. They don't groove me like when I hear your sweet voice whispering in my ear. There ain't nothing like the real thing...
GROSS: After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review some of the defining songs of the summer. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JIM BEARD'S "HOLIDAY FOR PETE AND GLADYS")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening to a lot of music, especially on the radio while traveling on vacation. He's noticed some trends that he says distinguish the summer of 2021 from recent earlier ones. In his songs of summer review, he's got songs from Japanese Breakfast, Willow and this one by Olivia Rodrigo called "Brutal."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRUTAL")
OLIVIA RODRIGO: I want it to be, like, messy. (Singing) I'm so insecure. I think that I'll die before I drink. And I'm so caught up in the news of who likes me and who hates you. And I'm so tired that I might quit my job, start a new life. And they'd all be so disappointed because who am I if not exploited? And I'm so sick of 17. I'm over this teenage dream. If someone tells me one more time, enjoy your youth, I'm going to cry. And I don't stick up for myself. I'm anxious, and nothing can help. And I wish I'd done this before, and I wish people liked me more.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Olivia Rodrigo is the biggest pop star in the land right now. Her album "Sour" is both a gigantic bestseller and critically acclaimed. And she influences the culture. When the Biden administration wanted to promote vaccines among young people, they invited the 18-year-old Rodrigo to the White House to have a public chat with Dr. Anthony Fauci about the subject. Her song "Brutal" is the hardest rocker on an album that most of the time doesn't really want to rock that hard. Its super-catchy guitar riff briefly became controversial when some folks said it was a rip-off of Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up." Elvis had the good sense to give his benediction to "Brutal," saying in a statement, this is fine by me. It's how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a new toy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRUTAL")
RODRIGO: (Singing) I feel like no one wants me, and I hate the way I'm perceived. I only have two real friends. And lately I'm a nervous wreck 'cause I love people I don't like. And I hate every song I write. And I'm not cool, and I'm not smart, and I can't even parallel park. All I did was try my best. This the kind of thanks I get? Unrelentlessly upset - they say these are the golden years. But I wish I could disappear. Ego crush is so severe. God, it's brutal out here - yeah, just having a really good time.
TUCKER: Many summer songs in recent years have tended to derive from the languid grooves of hip-hop hits. This year, there's certainly catchy hip-hop songs such as Drake's "What's Next" and Polo G and Nicki Minaj's "For The Love Of New York." But maybe because of pent-up post-lockdown fervor, I don't know. This summer I hear more of an edgy rock thing going on. For example, there's Willow and her song "Transparent Soul." Willow you may know as Willow Smith, daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. She's 20 years old with already a decade of experience in the music biz. You must remember 2010's indelible hit "Whip My Hair." Now she's attacking lovers who are patent phonies on "Transparent Soul."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T R A N S P A R E N T S O U L")
WILLOW: (Singing) I don't f****** know if it's a lie or it's a fact. All your little fake friends will sell your secrets for some cash. Hey, hey. Smile in my face, then put your cig out on my back. If you ever see me, just get to running like the Flash. I knew a boy just like you. He's a snake just like you, such a fake just like you. But I can see the truth. Transparent soul, I can see right through, just so you know. Transparent soul, I can see right through, just so you know.
TUCKER: Finally, we come to Japanese Breakfast and the current hit "Be Sweet." Japanese Breakfast is the band created by singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner, she's also the author of a recent highly praised bestseller about growing up Korean American called "Crying In H Mart." "Be Sweet" is a song from the latest Japanese Breakfast album, "Jubilee." And I hear it as a mixture of influences, sort of David Bowie blended with Blondie.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE SWEET")
JAPANESE BREAKFAST: (Singing) Tell the men I'm coming. Tell them count the days. I can feel the night passing by like a mistake waiting for me. Caught up in my feelings, overthink the truth, fantasize you've left me behind and I'm turned back, running for you. Make it up to me. You know it's better. Make it up to me. You know it's better. Be sweet to me, baby. I want to believe in you. I want to believe. Be sweet. Be sweet to me, baby.
TUCKER: Be sweet to me, baby, sings Zauner. I want to believe in you. She adds a bit later, I want to believe in something. And isn't that what we all want now - things we can trust, things that won't cause us harm, things to believe in?
GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed songs from Japanese Breakfast, Willow and Olivia Rodrigo. Monday on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Adam Harris, author of a new book about why America's colleges have always been unequal. He writes about how the legacies of slavery and segregation as well as continuing racism have kept many Black students at a disadvantage when competing to get into college. He also writes about the important role of historically Black colleges and universities. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH AND JULIAN LAGE'S "FREE FLYING")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Al Banks. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH AND JULIAN LAGE'S "FREE FLYING")
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