NPR Producer and UMass alumnus returns to campus
By Aria Bracci '17 | Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Aria Bracci '17
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Of all Peter Breslow’s credits—the most prominent of which might be the title of Senior Producer for National Public Radio (NPR)—the one most proudly exhibited when he visited UMass Amherst on Tuesday, November 1 was that the campus is, indeed, his alma mater. “It’s the most important detail,” joked Janis Greves, the English Department’s Chief Undergraduate Advisor. “And he was an English major.”
While Breslow eventually diverged from his original path (“He tried his hand at fiction writing,” Greves said. “—and failed miserably,” Breslow interjected) he ultimately secured a coveted production position. “I never took a journalism course,” he said. “NPR was my journalism course.”
Times have since changed. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Breslow explained, but he acknowledged that standards of employment and production are now different and require particular skills from the start. His workshop highlighted these skills and walked students through the field of audio reporting, beginning with a breakdown of one of Breslow’s recent pieces on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“Combatting Corruption: U.S. Customs and Border Protection Seeks Deep Reform”).
“There was a huge amount to cover,” Breslow said of the lead, which led to him and NPR correspondent John Burnett narrowing the story’s scope to a two-and-a-half-year progress report on the patrol, splitting it into two content themes: use of force and corruption.
The first day was spent with agents in the field—a product of inside access not usually permitted to reporters, who usually are referred to squad supervisors. Breslow reflected on logistical challenges, like the less-than-ambient ambience of boat motors, which led him to boldly requesting that the engine be cut to maintain consistent audio quality for the piece. Later that day and back on land, Breslow found himself running after subjects—a woman shouting “!Salgan! !Salgan!”—while lifting the heavy cables that, if they had dragged, would have affected the recording of the microphones in his other hand.
He went on to praise the “instant visual representation” of audio in the digital age. This stands in stark contrast to technology of the 1980s, like magnetic audio tape that could only be physically marked with grease and cut with razor blades. Younger journalists, he said, have this advantage, since technology has always been a part of their lives.
Breslow continued to answer questions about his own experience, but he also wanted to hear what students were doing, pitching structural adjustments for their budding concepts and offering professional tips for journalists-to-be. “It sounds like you have a lot of different threads there,” he said in response to a student’s story idea, and took about ten minutes to reenvision his piece.
He also used his experience in the field to give workshop attendants an inside look at how real-time journalism operates. His advice took the form of quick tips, and for each of them he had an anecdote:
- “You want to be rolling as much as possible.” (When Breslow was reporting on the Angolan Civil War with NPR’s Melissa Block, he turned off his microphones just minutes before a mortar explosion, missing it completely. “Once you’re out in the field, you need to stay in the field,” he said.)
- “If you’re interested in this kind of work, you have to know how to take pictures…I was into photography before I was into radio.” (He showed pictures of interview subjects along the U.S.-Mexico border, pairing faces with the voices used in his story. All of the photos in the slideshow were taken on Breslow’s phone and currently accompany the audio and text on NPR’s website.)
- “Be a good writer—that’s what helped me get my foot in the door without any journalism experience.” (“If you want to get a job at NPR, the single best way is to be an intern,” Breslow said, referencing people like Ari Shapiro as former interns for the network. The way to get those internships, he explained, is in capitalizing on individuality. “I put a lot of stock in that cover letter,” he said. “Say something in that letter that’s going to grab somebody that’s looking at forty of those letters. Make yours stand out.”)
- “I cut tape instinctually.” (Much unwanted ambient noise, he explained, can be cut without even listening to it: the sound waves, as well as the sound waves of dead air, will appear differently than those that represent dialogue.)
- “The single biggest thing is curiosity.”
According to Breslow, a lot of successful reporting depends on “the luck of the draw,” but a lot of it also requires careful questioning, respect for the law, and a thorough understanding of what audio pieces need. This draws from experience both in and out of radio, and both before and after a story begins. Throughout the workshop (particularly as it progressed with malfunctioning wifi and audio) Breslow painted a much larger picture of any one story, emphasizing that audio reporting is much more than what’s heard in the end.
Later that day, Breslow returned to deliver his lecture, “Did We Roll On That? Misadventures of an NPR Producer,” in the Campus Center. English Department Chair Randall Knoper preluded the address.
While the earlier workshop explored foundations for reporting and the effort it takes to begin—and the select times when the only factor seemed to be luck—his lecture detailed the times when things didn’t go as planned.
Breslow began with an enticing story about Nepalese villagers living near tigers’ territory. The only catch was, while investigating this lead, he soon realized there were few tigers to be seen. Since the original story had proven unfruitful, he turned instead to his guide, Danny, who had been attempting to summon tigers through animals calls. “We love sounds on the radio,” he laughed.
Similarly, when Breslow first arrived at NPR in Washington, D.C., he encountered a series of miscommunications and pressures, but not long after, a nearby airplane crash into the Potomac River set the newsroom abuzz. “I tried to make myself useful,” he said. So he did, and he sculpted his lecture to help others think just as quickly.
Breslow read from his memoir to detail more instances of problem solving. He described how, upon arriving for a “once-in-a-lifetime trip” to Antarctica, he dropped his camera, lens down, into the ice. “But as happened many times in my career,” he laughed, “the radio gods smiled on me.” Equipment was recovered, and the audio story and corresponding photo gallery were successfully compiled.
Another assignment led Breslow to security trainings with wartime simulators before traveling to report on the Syrian Civil War. In 2003, he traveled to Baghdad, Iraq after the Statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down, the city plagued with gunfire and bombings. Other assignments have led Breslow to Libya (Benghazi), Somalia (Mogadishu and Hargeisa), Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Djibouti.
This time around, Breslow offered a different set of tips than the “how-to’s” of getting into journalism: a package of “lessons learned”—some more facetious than others—from his experience in field:
- The deadline is sacred.
- Trust the locals.
- Stick with your bodyguard
- Ask what special gear you might need.
- Always pack Clif Bars.
- Keep a tight grip on your recorder.
- Don’t curse in front of the locals.
- Never let potential kidnappers drive off with your colleague.
Breslow’s reporting—from prisons to war zones—has offered him a slew of social and environmental obstacles. But he has succeeded, aided by spontaneous meetings and help from strangers, on top of the knowledge and training that originally got him there.
He reflected on his past, revisiting the crutch of chance that he’d mentioned so many times before. “You make your own luck, right?” he said, finally acknowledging his effort. “I pursued it.”