When I arrived at work on Friday morning, things seemed oddly calm. People were sitting at their computers, quietly typing. Two producers were standing and comparing morning commutes. You’d never guess that they, like me, had spent most of their early mornings poring over the latest updates in the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers – absentmindedly munching cereal or sipping coffee as our eyes scanned newsprint and computer screens.
All Things Considered’s morning editorial meeting, at which the staff proposes stories for the day’s show, was brief – more of a strategy meeting than a pitch session. The Executive Producer let us know that we’d be organizing special coverage of the manhunt throughout the day – picking up from Morning Edition at noon and then carrying through until … the story was resolved.
By the time we all returned to our desks, the atmosphere had changed. Now we were purposeful, even a little frenzied. ATC’s supervising producer Julia Buckley – who’d been crowned “Master Booker” for the day’s coverage – divied up assignments among the staff. She set up a big white board near the studio showing which staffers were seeking out which guests. My assignment was to find Watertown residents who had witnessed the shootout between the suspects and the police that had occurred there early Friday morning.
I quickly set to work, scanning endless twitter streams for people who had posted photos or firsthand accounts of the gunfight. I must have tweeted at twenty people before one called me back. This man had heard the gunfire 15 feet from his front door and had tweeted pictures of the violence. Now he was locked down inside his house, watching as SWAT teams scoured the neighborhood. Still on the phone, I shot my hand into the air and started waving it furiously at Julia. She came over, and I hurriedly whispered the guest’s story to her, covering the receiver with my ear as I spoke. “Lets have him on at 12:30,” Julia said. 12:30 was in five minutes.
My co-intern frantically typed up a card – a short document describing who the guest is for the director and the hosts – while I explained to my guest that he was going to be going live in five minutes. Then I transferred him to the studio, briefly turned up my radio to make sure he made it onto air and then returned my gaze to my computer screen.
That was pretty much how the rest of the day went. I made endless phone calls – after I’d exhausted Twitter, I began cold calling Watertown residents listed in White Pages. Some numbers were disconnected, many went to voicemail. Those who did answer often said they hadn’t seen anything, only heard the pops of gunfire and the booms of explosives. The eyewitnesses I did find all had amazing and terrifying stories to tell. I remember being floored by the courage of one young women who’d had bullets shot into her home. She was alone, except for her dog, but her voice was steady as she recounted her story to me.
The day raced on. My notes from my conversations with Watertown residents became more and more riddled with typos as the hours passed. At one point someone bought a chocolate cake and placed it at the front of the newsroom. My co-intern brought over two slices, and as the sugar flooded our bloodstreams we both remarked that we felt nauseous – whether from the cake or the adrenaline, we couldn’t tell.
Four p.m. rolled around – the start of ATC’s regular coverage. Normally, it’s an intern’s job to print scripts and run them into the studio for the hosts to read while they’re on air. Much of the program is pre-taped, but the intros you hear at the beginning of every piece are always read live. But Friday was totally different – during the six hours that Robert Siegel and Melissa Block were on air, nearly every word they said was live. Scripts were being written 30 seconds before they needed to be read, and even if there had been time for us to run them in, there weren’t enough breaks in the live feed for us to sneak in to the studio and deliver the scripts. So for six hours, the hosts read off computer screens, often finding out what they were going to talk about as they read the words. I am still astonished that they managed such a feat – I’d have cracked under the pressure after about 15 minutes.
The FBI press conference at around 6:30 – the one at which they announced that the one at-large suspect still had not been found, and the lockdown had been lifted – came as a welcome break. For a blissful 15 minutes, there was nothing to do but watch and listen.
But then came the announcement that the suspect had been found lying in a boat – in Watertown, no less. So I started up my phone calls again, seeking anyone nearby who could tell what they were seeing. One woman lived five doors down from the house with the boat, but she was on the ground floor and was afraid to go anywhere near a door or window with good reason. I stayed on the phone with her a long time while the various producers and editors in the studio figured out when the hosts would be able to talk to her. I asked my guest about the work she does, how long she’d lived in Watertown. I like to think her voice became a little calmer as we spoke.
And then finally, finally, the announcement came that the suspect had been captured, and the tone of our phone calls changed. I called back one man who I’d spoken to earlier in the day. In our first conversation, he’d told me that his three large dogs weren’t coping well with the lockdown order. Now, he was jubilant. “I’m going to take my dogs for a walk!” he said. “That’s the first thing I’m going to do.”
By now it was about 9:30, half an hour from the end of ATC’s last regular feed (in normal circumstances, the show is fed from 4 to 6, 6 to 8 and then 8 to 10, with updates throughout the night as needed). It was decided that we would stay on air until the end of President Obama’s statement. When Robert and Melissa finally signed off for the night, everyone in the building began to clap. The applause continued as people began trickling out of the studio – the executive producer, the show manager, the director, and finally, the hosts. The newsroom slowly emptied as exhausted reporters and producers packed up and headed home.
As Robert Siegel said at the end of the show, “I think it’s fair to say the city of Boston and the nation have earned a weekend.”
-Sarah Kaplan, All Thing Considered intern
I’ve worked in major news rooms during breaking news events before. I, too, have been glued to a screen and tuned in to a police scanner, following a high-speed chase or waiting for source confirmation or watching as my Twitter feed solemnly tallies up the victims during a terrifying national crisis.
But I’ve never been at work within a news organization during a breaking news event quite like Monday’s horrific attack on the Boston Marathon. For one, it was my first day in the new NPR HQ, and everything that day felt shiny and new and wonderful.
And I’ve never been caught up in a news cycle that affected me so personally. Out there, among the more than 25,000 runners, was my older brother. When news of the bombings on Back Bay’s Boylston Street first tumbled through my Twitter feed, I couldn’t get a hold of him or his fiancée, who had been waiting for him to finish the race not far from where the two bombs went off.
It was dizzying and disorientating to sit through a flood of emails and tweets about the race, watching as the incredible NPR NewsOps team just one floor below me checked the facts, found sources and delivered a moving and informative All Things Considered show on the first day of operation in the new building.
In a way, it was reassuring to know that with every new development in the case, a ‘News-All Staff’ email would pop up in my NPR inbox, gently yet quickly informing me of what we as a news organization knew about the breaking news story at just that moment. The breaking news updates didn’t tell me that my brother was safe, or that my future sister-in-law had found shelter far away from the chaos and hurt of Boylston Street, but they did let me know that a world-class news organization like the one I’m so lucky to work at was out doing its job and asking all the right questions.
I’m a news guy. In a sense, working in media is the only thing I really know how to or want to do. I take comfort of watching news happen and hearing effective stories get told. Being surrounded by an engaged newsroom diligently working away at a terrible tragedy like this gave me a gentle kind of reassurance – I would find out what happened when and why and how, and eventually I would figure out where my loved ones were hiding in Boston.
My brother and his fiancée posted a relaxed note on Facebook a few hours after the bombing, reassuring us all that they were safe and out of harm’s way and searching for cell service in the crowded digital cloud of the city. When my brother finally called me as I walked home from work that night, I burst into tears.
Unfortunately, not everyone with loved ones near that finish line on Monday got the same good news that I did. A lot of people are still hurting and waiting to hear. But I’m proud to work in a place that tries to tell everyone’s stories as they happen, making intelligent connections and telling the real and verified facts as they happen.
-Nick Andersen, Digital Arts intern
Working on an NPR show gives you the inside look at how things get on the air. Let’s be honest: how many people really think about what it takes to get something heard on All Things Considered? I didn’t. Once I started working with Weekend Edition, I learned a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that was surprising. (I can’t share them all: it’s something to be experienced!)
Like most show interns, my goal was to get something on air. Each show has a process for doing so, and it may vary a little.
At Weekend Edition, we have three meetings a week to determine content. In these meetings, producers pitch story ideas to the senior editors and the hosts. If they like the pitch, it gets on air.
Interns have a place at the table to pitch at most shows. I admit: I sucked at pitching at first. It can be intimidating to throw an idea out there with seasoned producers. After weeks of practicing and honing my pitching skills, I landed one: a California sea lion who could keep a beat, disproving a leading scientific theory.
Once the idea was off the ground, there’s a lot of legwork involved. I first had to determine whether the guest was a great talker, so I had to find him and conduct a “pre-interview.” I then coordinated logistics with various studios and Scott Simon’s schedule to arrange the interview.
After that, I had to write up the script. This included the intro to the story and the questions Scott would ask our guest. There was a lot to think about when writing, like how do I catch a listener’s attention? I rewrote my script several times.
After the script goes through the edits and the host looks it over, it’s time for the actual interview. During the interview, I listened carefully and made a mental note of what edits I wanted to make and the things I wanted to keep in.
After that, it was more editing, listening and generally fiddling around to get the piece to sound how I wanted it to. Once an editor listened through it, the piece was ready for air.
The entire process can be challenging at times, but there’s nothing more rewarding than knowing that you made an impact on the show, even if no one knows who was behind the production. You don’t do it for the recognition.
It’s a very surreal experience to hear a piece of your own production on national airwaves. To be honest, I had goosebumps. It was an honor to help tell the story of a student’s work with sea lions and bring a little joy to listeners on a Saturday morning. I hope to do it again soon.
-Krystina Martinez, Weekend Edition intern
Working at the Washington Desk is nothing short of exciting. This past Wednesday, I had the opportunity to shadow one of the reporters, Scott Horsley, at the White House! It was a great day to go, not only because of the warm weather, but also because President Obama was expected to unveil his budget plan that morning.
After my security was cleared, I met up with Scott who led me to the press area in the basement of the White House. Each media network has its own tiny space where reporters and producers are busy reporting, typing, emailing back and forth and making phone calls. I was inches away from on-air news correspondents who I had only seen on television.
Shortly after Scott gave me a quick tour of the press area, the PA announced the ‘last call’ for the press to go up to the Rose Garden. I was super nervous standing among distinguished journalists from different networks, but I couldn’t wait to hear, and see for that matter, the President speak! After hooking up the Marantz recorder to the mult box and turning to a fresh new page in my handy-dandy reporter notepad, I waited for the President to show up.
After the President’s 10-15 minute speech on the fiscal plan, Scott and I went back to the NPR desk to start writing a script for All Things Considered. Scott was on a tight deadline: the story was going to be aired that afternoon at 5 p.m. The ‘shadowing’ experience was a chance for me to witness from beginning to end how a news story makes it on air. In this particular case, the process started with recording President Obama’s speech and uploading it onto the computer.
Using the audio, Scott wrote the script and use sound bites from the speech to make the story flow. Around noon, we were off to a news conference at the South Court Auditorium. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, along with a panel of the President’s economic and domestic policy advisers, discussed the Fiscal Year 2014 budget. After some Q&A, the news conference came to a close, and it was time for lunch.
The rest of the day consisted of Scott writing and recording various stories related to the budget for All Things Considered. Before the piece was ready for air, Scott had to communicate and do a read-through of the script with Washington Desk Senior Editor Beth Donovan. Taking note of her editing advice, Scott changed some words around and re-recorded the script before sending it over for final review. By 4:30, the piece was all set to air. With all the work that was put into it, Scott’s 4-minute piece finally went on a couple minutes after 5 p.m. I couldn’t help but squeak a little “Yay!”
It was such an incredible learning experience. After returning my red press badge to security, I walked out of the gates of the White House and headed on back to school; I had a great story of my own to tell.
My name is forever sharpie’d in the basement of the White House
-Mónica Pastores, Washington Desk intern