Neal Conan Puts ‘Talk of the Nation’ Into Sharp Focus
From the firefight he survived as a captive of Iraqi soldiers in the Gulf War to the year he spent announcing minor-league baseball, Neal Conan is drawing on all his experiences for his new job, host of National Public Radio’s midday call-in show, “Talk of the Nation.”
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the show that formerly dealt with issues such as education, religion, music and health care has been focused solely on topics surrounding the U.S. response to the attacks. “The events forced us to reinvent the show,” which Conan said no longer will consist of “an author, an academic and phone calls for an hour.”
“We want to make it much more responsive to the news of the day. The show is much quicker, more lively and more agile than it ever was,” he said, and the staff wants to keep that going. “Ideally we hope people tune in for the show and not just for the topic.”
“It’s almost overwhelming to be in this situation. Where do you get off? What qualifies you? Then you realize you are qualified to do it,” said Conan, who’s spent 25 years on the air and behind the scenes at NPR. “It’s going to be an enormous challenge, but I think we’re ready and we’re at the right place at the right time with the right instrument.”
The program, which airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KPCC-FM (89.3), shifts from guest analysts in the studio to briefings from NPR reporters to callers from around the country. Conan might be talking to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) one minute and taking a call the next from a postal worker wondering if he should be concerned about tracking anthrax into his home on his shoes.
“This show can be a free-form news talk show, but we have to be ready to flow to the news,” said Conan, who takes over for Juan Williams, who left the show to do other projects for NPR.
Conan started his new job Sept. 10, with one hour devoted to surviving unemployment and the other, somewhat ironically, to discussing U.S. military commitments around the globe and whether they constitute an “American Empire.” On Sept. 11, “we came in ready to do a show and looked up on the TV.”
Now he can’t even remember what the topics were supposed to have been that day. Starting two hours early, Conan took over for “Morning Edition” host Bob Edwards and anchored NPR’s coverage for the next four hours, returning for a three-hour overnight shift. He talked to callers who witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center, to NPR reporters and to analysts, trying to convey the facts and the immensity of the day’s events.
“It has really reinforced the necessity of a midday news program,” he said. For the rest of the week, Conan continued anchoring NPR News Special Reports for four hours in the afternoon and again for three hours late at night. The schedule has expanded and contracted in the weeks since, and this week the show reverted to its two-hour daily format, but it will expand again if events warrant. “This kind of format, it’s a perfect medium for us,” said Kevin Klose, president and chief executive of NPR. “They can cut away to a press conference” if something big comes up during the show. On Wednesday, for example, the first hour of the show was devoted to Secretary of State Colin Powell’s live testimony before the House Foreign Intelligence Committee.
But flexing the show to meet the news requires a personal life that’s even more malleable. Conan and his wife, Liane Hansen, host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” have been adapting for nearly two decades, such as using a chance meeting in the hallway recently to discuss when and how their 18-year-old son, Connor, was catching the train home for the weekend. The couple also has a 20-year-old daughter, Casey.
Conan was born in 1949 in Beirut, where his father was running the medical school at American University. Later his father moved the family to Dhahran, where he started a hospital for Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company. “We lived there for a couple of years,” Conan said, “and then we moved to exotic New Jersey.” He regrets not having kept up his Arabic, though.
Conan bypassed college and started his radio career at age 17, volunteering at WBAI-FM, a listener-sponsored station in New York City. In 1972 he went to WRVR-FM in New York, where he worked with Robert Siegel, currently a co-host on NPR’s afternoon newsmagazine, “All Things Considered.”
Siegel was a reporter and director of news and public affairs at WRVR, and he remembered Conan after he moved to NPR in 1976. The network’s New York reporter was on vacation, and Siegel said he “immediately thought of Neal.”
Conan filled in and in 1977 was hired as producer of “Weekend All Things Considered.” Since then he has worked as NPR’s defense and national security correspondent, executive producer of “All Things Considered,” acting managing editor of NPR’s news and information, London bureau senior editor and guest host of “Morning Edition,” “Weekend Edition Saturday” and “Talk of the Nation,” among other jobs.
The reporter who always wanted to be a baseball player at least got close to the game in 2000, when he spent the season broadcasting for the minor-league Aberdeen, Md., Arsenal. He recounts his experiences in the upcoming book “Play by Play: Baseball, Radio and Life in the Last-Chance League.” Having to fill three hours of air time every night during the games “gave me much more stamina, much more ability to think off the top of my head,” Conan said.
“He’s a very good, very smart news reporter, with a real sense of radio,” said Siegel, who was interim host of “Talk of the Nation” in 1992. “He has a very, very wide range of interests, which, for that show, is phenomenally important.”
“It’s a very demanding place to be,” Klose added. “He has a remarkable capacity to do interviews, breaking news and call-in at the same time. You don’t find many people who do all three of those things at once.”
Yet the way he moderates the show, it’s hard to tell he has more compelling stories than some of his guests. Conan, after covering the Gulf War, went with a friend, New York Times reporter Chris Hedges,to investigate an uprising in Basra. They ran into a contingent of retreating Republican Guards and, “as Chris rightly said, it’s pointless to get in a car chase with people with machine guns.”
“They accepted from the beginning we were journalists, not spies, which was good,” Conan said. “We were hoping they would just kick us out. They decided we needed to go to Baghdad.” En route, the convoy was attacked by rebels. But the pair’s captors took care of them, shielding them from the bullets, just as they had given them blankets and shared their meager food and water earlier.
“We were parked next to a gasoline truck, and all you can imagine is some 12-year-old rolling a grenade under it. It was a bad night,” Conan said. After the trip to Baghdad, they were released to the Red Cross. But the experience offered Conan insight that will prove even more valuable as he tries to moderate a daily national conversation on the current crisis.
At a time when some Americans want to see world issues only in black and white and view the denizens of some Middle Eastern countries as demons, Conan knows that not all of Iraq, for example, nor even all of the Iraqi military should be seen as sinister or inhuman. “There’s an enormous chasm between the people and the government. It’s not a monolith. People are people everywhere.”
Neal Conan’s “Talk of the Nation” can be heard weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KPCC-FM (89.3).