By Andrew Bunker
BU News Service
“Live radio is like heroin,” Tom Ashbrook, the host of WBUR’s nationally syndicated radio talk show, “On Point,” told a room full of students at BU’s College of Communication recently. He offered an array of advice ranging from how to treat a radio guest and callers, to the importance of seizing opportunities.
Ashbrook spent much of the 90-minute talk detailing the path that he took from growing up on a farm in Illinois to hosting his own nationally syndicated daily radio show. Along the way, he made stops as a reporter for the South China Morning Post, and a reporter and editor for the Boston Globe.
An unconventional track to be sure, he told the story of how he went from relative disenchantment with the world of journalism, to launching an Internet start-up, to seizing an opportunity to host a show on WBUR reacting to the 9/11 attacks. What began as a temporary stint, has turned into more than a decade on the air, and what he calls “the most rewarding job I could imagine.”
“What I took away from his talk was that you need to be ready to grab an opportunity when it comes, comfort and experience be damned,” said Alexander Hyacinthe, a journalism graduate student. “If you dedicate yourself to working at your craft, time will smooth the rough spots,” said Hyacinthe.
Dedication was an overriding theme of Ashbrook’s talk. He detailed the amount of work and preparation that goes into producing each morning’s show, starting with a post-show meeting that he and his producers hold every day.
They begin with a frame for the next day’s show, including topics, guests and what research needs to be done. Once they decide on a topic, the producers head off to book guests and compile relevant music and audio clips. Ashbrook is sent home with a stack of reading, or as he calls it, “homework.”
“When I come in the next day, I have all my homework marked up, with important details highlighted and underlined,” said Ashbrook. “You have to study your ass off, then coming up with questions is easy.”
His description of his approach to interviewing was pretty basic. He doesn’t write any questions before hand, and he often doesn’t even know what he is going to ask next during an interview. He described his way of interviewing as “dancing.” He likes to lead the interview and feel how the interviewee is responding.
As the two are “dancing” through the segment, he uses verbal cues to figure out what to ask next. For Ashbrook, the most important aspects of an interview are curiosity and preparation. Aside from that, he claimed to be winging it.
As the talk wound down into a question and answer session, Noelle Graves, a second semester journalism graduate student, asked Ashbrook what the transition from being a print journalist to being a broadcaster was like.
What’s different, he said, is the immediacy: “The act of being in the moment. If I am going to suck, I am going to suck right now. If the show is going to be great, we are going to be great right now.”
What stood out to Graves wasn’t the direct description of what being on the air is like, but how he described a successful show as a product of “we” and a bad show as a product of “I”.
“I think that speaks volumes to his character,” said Graves. “When the show is bad, he takes ownership. When the show is great, it’s a team effort. That’s what I took most from his talk.”
“I have never actually been convinced that I can be myself while still doing what I love, but I left Tom Ashbrook’s talk knowing absolutely that I could,” said Natalie Lessman, a journalism graduate student.
“When he told us not to underestimate what we are actually good at,” said Lessman, “it was just such good advice that I had never heard anyone say.”
Ashbrook’s program, “On Point” can be heard live every weekday morning from 10am to noon on 90.9 WBUR. The program is repeated every evening from 7-9pm, and it can always be found at WBUR.org.