Peter Breslow '77
A global traveler and award-winning reporter, Peter Breslow '77 boasts decades of work for National Public Radio (NPR), the Washington, D.C.-based news syndicate that serves nearly 1,000 member stations across the country. He talks about his work in the field of journalism, his progression through the ladder of positions, and the skills UMass gave him to get there.
I’m hoping that this interview will give you a kind of reprieve from the heap of political talk that you’ve been dealing with lately. Could you describe your current position at National Public Radio (NPR), as well as the positions you held previously?
I’m a senior producer on Weekend Edition, and prior to that, I’ve been in production. I started as a production assistant years ago and just moved up the food chain: Production Assistant, Assistant Producer, Associate Producer, Producer, Senior Producer. And at one point I was a supervising senior producer—I was the manager of Weekend Edition: Saturday. I did that for about six years, and then I got tired of being a manager, so I asked to be switched back into more hands-on production.
Now, the most mundane aspects of my job are kind of the “bread and butter” stuff of editing interviews, pitching ideas, weekly editorial meetings—you know, you walk in the door and you’re on this treadmill of producing stories for two two-hour shows each week, so there’s a voracious appetite for ideas, and you come up with ideas and you pitch them, everything from news stories to feature stories to books to movies to music. Then on show day, Saturday or Sunday, I line-produce the program, which means I put it on the air—it’s making sure ‘the trains run on time,’ and also, editorially, that things make sense, and then if there’s breaking news, figuring out how we’re going to cover that and open up the show and stick the news in there. Often on the weekends it’s pretty quiet, especially on Sundays, so a lot of the shows are “in the can” by Saturday evening when we go home.
Then, the most fun part of my job, which has always been the most fun part of my job, is when I go out the field. That’s what I really enjoy. That can involve kind of anything, from trips to war zones. Last week, I was in Manhattan with comedian Jim Gaffigan at a comedy club, where we were doing a story about “Can ancient jokes be funny? Can comedy be timeless?” I’m working with this writer, A.J. Jacobs, and he found these jokes from literally 1900 B.C., and Jim kind of put them in contemporary language and delivered them to the audience. Two weeks before that, I was on the Texas border with reporter John Burnett doing a story about the Border Patrol, and a couple of months ago Rachel Martin and I did a story about an innovative program for prisoners at San Quentin. So it’s a broad palette.
How would you explain your experience as a UMass English major?
Let’s see. I’d gone to college for a couple years and then I quit for about three years, and then I returned to school at UMass. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I had more of a notion—although not very clear—that I liked to write, so I became an English major at UMass and did fiction writing. Absolutely zero capabilities in that regard. *laughs* I realized I’m not a fiction writer, but I did work on my writing a lot.
Then I had a summer job at the alumni magazine; that was the first time that I was really writing articles, but I never took a journalism class. But I liked writing articles. I don’t know why I never tried to work for the Collegian or anything, but I didn’t. I took a lot of literature—I was really interested in Latin America, so I took a lot of Latin American literature, and I always tried to take a course at one of the Five Colleges each term. But I was always a little bit removed. I was a little bit older because I’d quit college, and I never lived on campus. I lived on a farm out in Whately with older people, and a lot of them were sort of craftspeople—potters and banjo-makers and stuff—so my orientation was not toward campus very much. Never did radio or anything like that—never even thought about radio—while I was an undergrad.
Then I was getting close to graduation and I realized I really had no marketable skills, so I decided that I would get my teaching credentials and teach high-school English. I did that, and then I found out you could do student teaching. UMass had a program with a place called Academia Cotopaxi in Quito, Ecuador, and I’d always wanted to go and live in South America, and I knew some Spanish, but just sort of “high-school Spanish.” So I did that. That was the last thing I did, school-wise: student-teach at this place in Ecuador, and that was sort of the beginning of my world travels.
What skills from your undergraduate education do you actively utilize?
It would be the writing skills, primarily, and to be inquisitive. That’s the key thing to being a journalist, I think—being a curious person, and certainly my studies at UMass pushed me that way. But I would say the biggest, single, concrete thing was learning the ability to write well. I had to adapt that to radio writing once I got to that field, but the basic skills—the foundation to build on—was there.
And what skills did you have to learn on the job?
I had to learn how to be very fast. I started out on All Things Considered, and I had to learn the ability to work on an extreme deadline and not freak out, and be able to maintain my calmness when news was bursting around me, and keep my focus, and be able to work in a frenetic environment where twenty-five things are going on at once.
I would produce the show, and three telephones would be ringing, and a plane has crashed, and you’re juggling seventy-five things at once, trying to figure out how to do it. Then I had to learn how to edit interviews very quickly—just the physical aspect of it, which, early on, was with quarter-inch tape and razor blades—but also editorially. Working on a daily show helped me to do that really quickly.
Also, the ability to recognize a story, and to recognize when something warranted a story and when it rose to the level of actually investigating a story. Then research skills—how to find the right person, how to pre-interview them, what angles to go for. There’s a million things. Then, when you go out and do a story, how to put the story together. It’s a whole puzzle. How do you take all the elements—the interviews, the sound, the script—and not just get the information across but get the information across in a way that’s entertaining? If people aren’t drawn into the story enough to listen to it, no matter how much good information you have there, it’s completely worthless.
In the process of learning these lessons, have you encountered any tricky ethical challenges? How do you personally address these?
Well, there’s an ethics that’s very particular to radio; you can be incredibly deceptive if you want to be. There’s no visual there, right? The sound that you’re saying is the sound of this waterfall in Venezuela—who’s going to know if it’s really a waterfall in Venezuela or if it’s a waterfall in West Virginia?
And you’re editing. You’re taking a twenty- or thirty- or forty-minute interview that somebody does, and you’re editing it down to four minutes. If you were so inclined, you could completely distort what somebody says. We’re very particular about it. Say I’m driving down this road for a story, but I forgot to roll tape on the sound of us driving in the car for that story—I couldn’t take car-driving sounds from some other story that I might have and use it. I wouldn’t do it, because it’s not ethical. It’s not what I’m saying it was.
You really have to be meticulous about it, and cognizant. I can say of the literally thousands of interviews I’ve edited, no one has ever complained that they were misrepresented, because we always make people sound better than they really are: we distill the essence of what they have to say, and we take out all their hedging and “um-ing” and “humming” and “ha-ing.” We just make them sound perfect in a certain way. *laughs*
The way that you’ve done this editing over the years has obviously changed, as you mentioned. Can you speak to the technological advances that you’ve witnessed in radio?
As I said, when I started, it was quarter-inch tape and reel-to-reel machines and a razor blade and a white grease pencil that you’d mark. Then you would take the tape and put it in an edit block and slice it and then take splicing tape and seal it together.
Now it’s all digital, so I record digitally and load it all into my computer and I edit it. Back then, once you cut the tape, that was it. That was the only copy of the tape, usually, especially if it was a studio interview. If it was something you’d dubbed that was originally recorded on cassette, you could go back to your cassette. But basically once you cut the master, that was it, whereas now, you always have the master sound file of the interview you can go back to. You can hit “Control-Z,” and you undo whatever edit you did. But back then, if you made a bad edit—it was physically peeling the tape off and re-cutting it and physically putting the tape back on. It’s so much quicker, and it’s so much easier now to edit.
In terms of the equipment, the recording equipment is better and cheaper and smaller. The first time that I ever used a satellite phone, it was way back in the late ‘80s. I was on Mt. Everest, and it was this gigantic thing that had to be powered by a generator. Now when I go—these are most crucial in war zones stories—they’re the size of a laptop. You can just carry it yourself.
So because of these technological advances, a whole class of employees has disappeared. Our sound technicians—we don’t really use them anymore, except in the building to drive the shows when they’re on the air. We don’t go out in the field with them anymore, and we don’t mix audio in the studio anymore, which is a shame because, with a good sound technician—in the field and also in the studio—it’s like having an extra set of ears, or like having an extra producer. I do all my own mixing on my laptop. It’s cheaper, but it will never sound as good as with a really good engineer mixing in the studio.
Can you imagine what other improvements like look like in the future? This is already a pretty big jump from physically cutting tape, but—just picking your brain—can you imagine what other things might arise?
I think it would maybe be just tweaks of this, but I’m not a tech person at all. *laughs* There are certain bugs in some of the stuff that we do. I guess you could have a program that does the editing for you, and there’s some algorithm: “Okay, give me the essence of this forty-minute conversation we had"—I’m sure some computer could probably do that—“Make sure that you include him talking about ‘blah blah blah’ and ‘blah blah blah’ and ‘blah blah blah.’” *laughs*
And the transmission of audio—I know that something has to be available soon. For example, when we want to interview somebody remotely and they can’t get to a studio, and we want to improve the audio, we have an app called Report-IT that they download. They record themselves and they upload it to us, but it’s funky; sometimes it works well, and sometimes it doesn’t work so well. So I would imagine that would be something pretty easy—pretty close in the future and pretty easily done—to improve the reception of full-fidelity audio, as opposed to telephone quality.
Speaking of bugs, do you think that there’s anything that journalism currently lacks?
It depends on what you’re talking about. God, I just read an article in The Washington Post about these fake news websites. It’s just horrifying. It’s absolutely horrifying. And these guys know. They make no bones about it—“we’re just making stuff up!” But it’s getting clicks, and it’s getting eyeballs.
When I hear somebody say “just Google it” as if there’s any sort of quality control there—unless you know what you’re looking at when you Google something—you could just be reading completely bogus stuff. And that’s what’s scary. The great journalism is still there, but it’s being infiltrated and diluted by this advocacy stuff—and bogus stuff—that’s just blatantly untrue. It’s scary that people are so willing to accept it; just because they see it on a website, they think it’s the truth. That’s what is scary in terms of journalism.
Turning more inward now, do you get opportunities to incorporate your personal interests into your work?
Yeah, yeah, all the time. For example, I’m a huge blues music nut, and I make Scott Simon do blues stories all the time. He hates the blues. *laughs* I make him do them all the time, and he fakes it as well as anybody. People are always coming up to him saying, “Oh, Scott, thank you so much for your dedication to the music,” and he goes, “I can’t stand it. It’s my producer—he makes me do these stories!”
We all bring our ideas. I’m very outdoors-oriented, so I do a fair amount of outdoors stories. Especially for interviews on the show, if you can find a good angle for a story that you’re interested in, and you pitch it and you get a host interested—you get host “buy-in”—you can get it on the air pretty easily. I used to do more stories on my own—you know, my own reported pieces as opposed to producing something else—and I did a story about a basketball game that I started when I first moved to D.C., and the game has now been going on for over thirty years, so I did a story of my own about the basketball game.
In the past, I’ve really finagled myself into stories. I mean, I got to go on a three-month expedition to Mt. Everest because of my outdoor interests. I think everyone brings their own personal style and touches and ideas.
So is there anything you still haven’t seen or done that you hope to?
I’m sure there is. *laughs* Well, I’m missing one continent. I’ve never been to Australia. I’ve got to find a story in Australia so I can go there. Then I’ll have all my continents.
That’s a good goal to have.
Yeah, I’ve been around the world more than once for NPR, but there are still lots of places that I’d still like to visit. It’s great going to do the stories as a journalist because you get to meet the most interesting people right away. You immediately get plugged into somebody who’s doing something interesting. It’s harder for me to go some place as a plain old tourist because, as a journalist, you have access to some of the most interesting stuff that’s going on.
For a final thought, what do you hope will be your legacy, whether it be at NPR, in your field, or in any other capacity? Is that something you can conceptualize?
My legacy? Well, I’d like to think that I’ve taken my microphone to places—introduced places and people to our listeners—that they wouldn’t normally get to meet or visit. I’ve gotten to do things that maybe somebody thought about doing but couldn’t really: you know, climb Mt. Everest, or record a rattlesnake spitting venom on his microphone, or interview whatever interesting filmmaker there was. The idea that I’m able to represent the listener—hopefully I’ve done it over the years in an entertaining and interesting way. Hopefully somebody has said, “Oh, did you hear that piece on NPR this morning that Breslow did? It was really cool.”