July 21, 2010
Building a Career in Radio, Alum Learns Lessons about Life
Thomson, with his daughter Eleanor
Rose. "Her extending hands say a lot
about our relationship and my world
these days," Thomson notes.
“My relationship with radio began at age thirteen,” says Peter Thomson ’85 (STPEC), environment editor for The World, a daily one-hour public radio news program produced at WGBH, Boston by Public Radio International and the BBC. “Good radio can inform, entertain, educate, stimulate the imagination, and create an intense emotional bond, all at the same time.” The result of his esteem, his talent for lyrical storytelling, and “luck intersecting with and maybe even trumping initiative” is an award-winning career that has helped set the standard for environmental journalists across the county.
Success for Thomson didn’t come easy. A terrible student in high school, he lacked focus and motivation. “I sort of wandered for the next ten years, through an extended pre-college break, two colleges—including stints as DJ at WYSO at Antioch and WMUA at UMass (where I stubbornly refused to study journalism, wanting instead to explore things that would help better understand the world)—a slew of jobs including oyster shucker, bike messenger, house painter, waiter and, finally, host and producer of a weekly public affairs program on WMUA.”
Mustering the courage to approach WFCR, the public radio station in Amherst, offering his services as an intern in the news department, Thomson was summarily turned down. He tried again when a new news director came on board, volunteering as a freelance reporter. This time he got an assignment.
“General Electric had just announced huge layoffs,” Thomson says. “I planned to interview workers coming off the afternoon shift—except I missed the shift change. Instead, I went across the street to a bar, full of soon-to-be-unemployed workers with a lot to say.” The news director was impressed with Thomson’s story and quick pivot under changing circumstances. Soon he was stringing regularly and reading the afternoon news. Within a year Thomson was reporting full time.
“For a small station, WFCR was an unusual magnet for really talented people,” Thomson says. “My colleagues really pushed me to improve and challenged me by example. My big break came in 1988 after Michael Dukakis won the Democratic presidential nomination. Our dedicated and pragmatic governor—instead of hitting the stump in Ohio or Florida or Missouri—campaigned in a peach orchard in central Massachusetts, where I got to cover him. The election was his to lose, which he famously did. But it sure was a winner for me. I became the regular western New England stringer for NPR. I also had a great editor from whom I learned so much about story structure, focus, presentation, and editing.”
The news director who hired Thomson for the GE story had moved on to WBUR in Boston, then as now perhaps the top local public radio newsroom in the country. He asked Thomson to fill in for a week. “I agreed, even though I was thoroughly terrified,” he says. “I felt like a kid from Single A suddenly getting called up to the majors. But everyone was totally welcoming and helpful.”
Clearly Thomson left an impression, because things started to happen. When a three-month reporting stint opened, WBUR called him. Then his editor at NPR invited Thomson to D.C. to work alongside her for a week. He became a regular fill-in at Christian Science Monitor Radio and continued stringing for WBUR and WFCR. And then came a job posting.
“NPR was starting a weekly environmental news program, Living on Earth,” says Thomson. “They needed a jack-of-all-trades—producer, editor, reporter, director. By then I’d developed a strong interest in environmental issues. The stories struck a surprising chord, stirring latent memories of tales about Rachel Carson and my eccentric organic farming grandfather. This new program seemed like exactly what I’d always wanted to do, even if I hadn’t really known it.”
Thomson got the job in part, he thinks, because of a story he’d done about hunting deer around the Quabbin Reservoir. “I went into it assuming that the state was succumbing to pressure from the hunters’ lobby—of course, all a bunch of redneck yahoos,” he says. “But the story was much more complex—about ecosystems, the cascade of changes set in place when humans alter ecosystems, even subtly, and the challenges of balancing competing human and natural interests in an altered landscape. I also learned a lot about my own preconceptions and prejudices, which I had thought I’d put behind me long before.”
None of the LOE’s team of five were environmental specialists. Says Thomson, “The one thing we had going for us, aside from pretty good journalistic instincts, was that we knew enough to know that we didn’t know enough about anything.” At about the same time, the Society of Environmental Journalists was born. “Most environment reporters worked in isolation on this complex and challenging beat,” Thomson says. “No one with whom to share notes, experiences, ideas. SEJ was a lifeline. After a few years of soaking up the benefits, I decided to help steer the lifeboat. The end of my fourth term on the board now takes me right up to the organization’s 20th anniversary. Playing a role in fostering and developing an institution that’s been vital to thousands of journalists, and through them to millions of consumers, has been really satisfying.”
Thomson’s ten-year stint with LOE was a period of rich professional development, but not without costs. “I’d split with my wife, moved back from Berkeley where I’d set up LOE’s western bureau, my mom died. I was depressed and unsettled, in a mood for radical change. I took off by boat and train around the world via Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the largest, deepest and oldest body of fresh water in the world, home to thousands of unique animals and plants. The experience changed my life, gave me faith in the goodness of people and taught me about recognizing and taking advantage of life’s random opportunities.”
Thomson collected great material but questioned what to do with it. “Some of it was journalism, some of it wasn’t, none of it seemed to add up to anything interesting to anyone, aside from family and friends.” Two years passed before friends convinced him to make a book of it. Sacred Sea: A Journey to Lake Baikal (Oxford University Press) has met with critical acclaim. Creating it, Thomson says, “was the most challenging, thrilling, terrifying and ultimately rewarding experience of my life—until parenthood made clear its intention to supplant authorship.”
Meanwhile at The World, where he has worked since 2008, Thomson directs environment coverage involving a team of staff and freelance reporters around the world, as well as Boston-based hosts and producers. This includes planning reporting, conceiving stories and fielding pitches, making assignments, researching topics, and working with reporters to edit scripts and tape elements. He also collaborates with other senior staff on overall program planning and priorities. Developing a show every day is intense, but Thomson is in his groove.