Award-winning journalist and former National Public Radio host Neal Conan took time after the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference last weekend to talk about how he got started in radio journalism, the perils of war reporting, and the power of a first-person narrative.
“If we can get to people’s personal stories, we can get beyond opinions about the news, and to the connections we share with one another’s lives,” Conan said Tuesday in an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express.
Conan is best known as the host of NPR’s call-in program “Talk of The Nation” from 2001 until 2013, when the show was discontinued. He joined his wife, the writer Gretel Ehrlich, at the Sun Valley Writer’s Conference at Sun Valley Resort.
For 23 years, Conan was married to Liane Hansen, former host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday.” He became producer of NPR’s “All Things Considered” at age 28, served as NPR’s London bureau chief during the Cold War, and during the 1991 Gulf War was held captive by the Iraqi Republican Guard for five days.
Conan’s storied career began after getting kicked out of an East Coast boarding school for trespassing with a friend after hours at the Hartford Union Station train depot in Connecticut.
“They said we were attempting to steal a railroad engine, but even if we were, where were we going to drive it?” he said.
Conan wound up on a couch in the office of his father, a New York City doctor, listening to evening FM radio programs for entertainment.
“One night I heard the strangest thing—people speaking with accents on the radio, and telling bad jokes,” Conan said.
The year was 1965, and Conan had tuned in to the first-ever fundraising effort for listener-sponsored radio in New York City. At that time, there was no Corporation for Public Broadcasting or other government support for public radio, Conan said.
“The most remarkable thing was that they needed me. They needed public support to continue broadcasting,” he said.
“Numbers don’t do well on radio, but the human voice is the most compelling thing there is.
Conan answered the telephone at the radio station and then worked as a staff volunteer at the station’s Drama and Literature Department. His first assignment was to cover a science fiction convention in St. Louis, for which he produced “Of Unicorns and Universes,” featuring as background sound a record by then-unknown musician Jimi Hendrix.
“Luckily, the first half of my career has been lost to posterity,” Conan said.
During the 1991 Gulf War, Conan joined a group of journalists traveling from Kuwait City to Basra, Iraq, to investigate reports of Shiite rebellion against Saddam Hussein. The group was captured by members of Hussein’s Republican Guard while they were traveling north to fight the Kurds, said Conan.
Conan said he may have experienced “a glimpse” of what Blaine County soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl experienced while being held captive by the Taliban for five years.
“You really want to connect with your captors in that kind of situation, to impress upon them that you are, in fact, human. That way if they decide to take you out and shoot you, at least they will feel bad about it,” he said.
“I was left with a tremendous amount of self-loathing, because you feel like you have let people down, that you are not out there doing what you were supposed to be doing.”
Conan said he enjoys the excitement and adrenaline of being on the air, but credits the team of researchers who help make public radio shows successful. They supplied him with pertinent books, articles or films to digest before he went on the air.
“A live interview is a story. You have a narrative arc which must be clear, but things rarely go according to plan, and spontaneity can be fantastic.”
Conan said the success of “Talk of the Nation” shows (3.8 million listeners each week by the time it was canceled) was due in part to listener interest in dialogues from around the country on current events. The show features talks by doctors, truck drivers, nurses, and other rank-and-file Americans.
“When you have people from Idaho talking to people from Georgia about the same issues, we have the opportunity to discuss what unites us as a country,” Conan said. “Numbers don’t do well on radio, but the human voice is the most compelling thing there is.”
Conan had comedian Steve Martin and other celebrities on his show from time to time, but said they could be problematic because callers had to first get over their “acute awe” of the guest before engaging in conversation.
“We all have our heroes,” Conan said. “If I ever had acute awe about anyone it was Lech Walesa (union organizer and Nobel Peace Prize winner) in Poland in 1984.”
Conan said he regrets that he cannot continue “Talk of the Nation,” addressing in particular the crisis in Ukraine and political unrest in Iraq.
“Iraq is coming apart at the seams and the U.S. has spent many lives and much treasure there. It makes you wonder about the U.S. pulling out of Afghanistan now,” he said.
Conan continues to work with former NPR colleagues, including “political junkie” Ken Rudin and producer and host Alex Chadwick, who he joined in Greenland last summer to produce a segment of “Burn: An Energy Journal,” which explored the effects of global warming on Inuit populations.