The Gazing Is Over

In a metro where the dominant daily paper changes ownership, shuffles management, then spills barrels of ink to remind you how great it is, how many awards it's won, and how much things don't need to change, Minnesota Public Radio's senior director of news and information is a refreshing anomaly. William Buzenberg is happy to be here, of course. He'll tell you MPR is already one of the biggest, best, and brightest news-gathering operations he's seen. He'll tell you the St. Paul-based station can be "a model" for the rest of the country. The former Washingtonian will even tell you he's warming to the Land of 10,000, weather and all. Since taking the helm in January, though, Buzenberg has made it clear there will be no business as usual, no self-congratulatory back patting at MPR--at least not on the air. He's pushing his 30 reporters to get off their butts and get there first, to break stories instead of following on the tails of yesterday's headlines. His best people will have more freedom to pursue longer projects, but in return they'll have to come up with tape that's more relevant, more complex and provocative than the standard fare. Public radio's penchant for navel gazing will not be tolerated. And, for now at least, MPR staff is responding to Buzenberg's battle cry with a minimum of grumbling--not just because of where their new boss wants to go, but because of where he's been.

A former journalism fellow at the University of Michigan who spent his early 20s as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia, the 51-year-old Buzenberg has worked as a newspaperman in Colorado, studied international relations in Bologna, Italy, filed reports from Eastern and Western Europe as NPR's London bureau chief, and been a commentator on BBC radio and TV. In 1990 he left the field to become managing editor of NPR's news division. A year later he was named vice president of the same department, where he managed the editorial team that produced Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

A guy that fondly remembers the days when audio tape was edited with a razor blade, Buzenberg is a self-described champion of public-service journalism, which he says is being "bought off, diluted, chilled, and homogenized in many places by a soulless corporate culture"--a fact that made Tony Bol's presence at City Pages' interview with Buzenberg all the more inexplicable. Whether Bol, director of public relations at MPR, sat by silently to keep watch on his new senior director or just wanted to keep us company isn't clear. No matter; Bill Buzenberg can take care of himself.

CITY PAGES: After graduating from Kansas State University with a journalism degree, what drew you to radio?

BILL BUZENBERG: I was print, print, print, print. I did some radio in college. But print--that was real journalism and nothing else was. Radio, I didn't think, was real journalism until I really got going on my career, heard NPR, and realized: Broadcast journalism isn't an oxymoron. Radio is a great medium for information. It's a great medium for writing. It's a great medium for ideas--unlike television. It's got immediacy, but you still have time to develop a chronology and tell people how things occurred. It reaches the smart part of your brain.

CP: What's the difference between writing for radio and writing for other media?

BB: If you're on TV, the picture dominates and you're basically writing narrative to go with the picture. In radio, you're writing real narrative. It doesn't relate to the picture. It's shorter sentences. It's more active verbs--language that triggers things in your mind. On the radio you can create the image of a freight train coming through here at 100 miles per hour, and if the words are strong, and if you couple it with some sound, the listener can absolutely see and feel and hear a train. Imagination can do that. And it's not a train that's as big as a television. It's a train that's full-size.

Don Hewitt, the CBS producer of 60 Minutes, realizes sound is critically important. TV people will say his show is mostly talking heads, but there's a lot of great sound in 60 Minutes. They work on it really hard; it has real power. On so many of the news magazines you get the video files and that's all they think is important. But the video is just cotton candy.

CP: Why did you leave reporting, a job you obviously loved, to become a manager?

BB: Journalism is being run by managers who are not journalists--which is not good. So there's a real calling, a real need. It's hard, sure. It's a secondary work, not your own work. And any manager would say that. But I think you can do a better job if you have firsthand knowledge of what you're asking people to go out and do. It also helps them if they know you believe in what they're doing.

CP: OK, then why leave the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C., to run a station on the prairie?

BB: For a lot of reasons. Washington is a company town. It's not like here or London or New York or Chicago, where you have art and government and business and all kinds of things. It's just got government, and that makes it a very narrow kind of place. It's also a mean place. It's a "get 'em" kind of place. You know the old joke: People spend half their lives trying to get to Washington and the other half trying to get out.

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