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.
I see a lot of potential here. Why not the Twin Cities? In public radio, this is clearly one of the strongest production centers. I want to build on that. We can do a lot here that can't be done elsewhere, including NPR.
CP: What about NPR? Is it true that you left because of disagreements with management?
BB: There were some disagreements, yes--mainly when we talked about entertainment values versus news. The main issue, I think, was understanding the business we are in, that we are in broadcasting and news, and we see that as a real mission. It's a moral issue. It's hard to work for people who don't see that. More than that, though, I wanted a chance to change and grow, do something different.
CP: So how do you want this station to change and grow?
BB: It runs the gamut. I want basic newscasts that are very solid and tell you in five minutes what's going on and I want documentaries and hour-long specials with great depth. We don't have many documentaries outside Frontline anywhere in broadcasting, and I think there's a great need for them.
I have it in my head what we can do, and how good we can sound. Already I think MPR has very strong local news, especially when compared to anywhere else I've been in the country. But a lot of things need work. I'm frustrated. We're not at the level we ought to be. We have to get out front more. We have to have people out there who are pushing harder to come up with things that haven't been in the paper, but deserve to be. Breaking stories are part of what we are.
CP: As an East Coaster transplanted in Minnesota Nice, are you able to be as straightforward with your staff as you'd like?
BB: You'll have to ask them, but I'm sure that I've ruffled some feathers. Because you have to give feedback. You have to say when you hear something that's good and say when you hear something that's bad. And I'm sure that's not the way it's done all the time. And yeah, things are a lot quieter here and people don't want a confrontation. But, you know, in Washington that's what you do. You throw it out there and you expect them to throw it back, and in between that throwing you get something.
CP: What separates a good reporter from a great reporter?
BB: It's always that sense of "it's not good enough." It's a hunger that they just have to push. They've written it, they've done it, but they can redo it. Even when it runs they're not satisfied. It goes beyond being a perfectionist. It's not just about how they felt the story turned out. It's about how it reached people, how people heard it, how it worked on them. They're interested in the feedback, pro and con. They don't think they know it all. They're very curious. They're very interested in how things work.
CP: Does that talent level already exist at MPR?
BB: There are some very good people here, very solid reporters who are every bit as good as anyone, anywhere. There is no question people here could sit at any desk at NPR in editing, production, and reporting. And it has impressed me, surprised me, pleased me. I still want to hire some people, and I'm still pushing some of the people who are here, who I think should do more. But there's a great core ready to go.
CP: Is there an interest on your part in developing relationships with other regional stations, where stories of national interest could be traded back and forth? In other words, would you like to air stories nationally without having to depend on NPR?
BB: I can imagine a "Public Radio Reports," sort of like the old CBS Reports, that is done weekly from various places in the country. It's something that NPR isn't going to do. Right now they've got their hands full morning and evening. But maybe these documentaries and news-linked specials can be done around the country. Yes, I'd like to work with the Bostons, San Franciscos, and others who can produce original material. And maybe we can create a little desk here to bring their stories in and put our own out. It's sharing the best from the system to inform the system. And it doesn't depend on NPR. It's not a threat or a competitive issue with NPR. In my mind, it's providing the public radio system with more of news and information.
CP: What would you say to the critics who say corporate underwriting is threatening public radio?
BB: One of my challenges is maintaining the fire wall that I believe has to exist between the corporation and the news division. The news division is an independent news organization. It has to be. We don't do things because somebody says we should. I think those concerns [about corporate involvement corrupting news coverage] are legitimate. People worry about it. But I know at NPR there was a fire wall, and I'll be damned if I'll compromise that in any way.
CP: Does it concern you, for instance, that local hosts, such as Midmorning's John Rabe, participate in fund-raisers?
BB: That's a breach in the wall when you do fund-raising at a local station. We didn't do that nationally. It does concern me. But I don't see another way to do it, frankly. I participate in fund-raising. I sit on top of the wall, so it's OK for me. If it were the purest of all worlds and it were only me, that would be better. But that's a tough one for a station. No reporters will be involved with that stuff, though.
CP: As your reporters evolve, would you like to see MPR spend more time and energy promoting the news division?
BB: I think that would be a little heretical. I don't think that promotion increases your audience, really. I believe that the content of what you do drives that audience. If we do a great job, we will have a larger audience, and it will grow. A billboard is not going to make or break you. Promotion is fine. It doesn't hurt. It's just not on my radar. My argument is that we've got to find controversial stories, get them out there, and deal with them uniquely.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter