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Remembering NHPR's Former President, Mark Handley

We’d like to take a moment to remember former NHPR President and General Manager Mark Handley, who died recently after battling cancer. Handley will be remembered as the leader who transformed NHPR into a statewide network.

Under his leadership, NHPR went from a dual-format station playing both news and classical music, to all-news. And he helped launch NHPR’s The Exchange. NHPR’s Vice President for Operations and Finance Scott McPherson and host of The Exchange, Laura Knoy, spoke with All Things Considered host Peter Biello about Handley's life and legacy. 

Scott, tell us about that first accomplishment, turning the station WEVO - a very Concord-centric network, into NHPR, a statewide network, early in his tenure in 1990.

Mark set about early in his career, that vision, that mission of being a statewide network. He worked to put stations on the air in Keene and in Hanover, and when the opportunity presented itself in the late 90's to acquire a commercial station in Berlin, that was really the crowing achievement for him, because it connected the North Country with the rest of the state which was his vision from the early days.

How would you describe his management style?

Mark was a wonderful manager. He was really one of the kindest and most unassuming and thoughtful bosses you could ask for, he was always generous with praise and quick with a smile and he was always willing to get his hands dirty to solve a problem. Personally, he was wonderful to me and gave me a lot of opportunity to grow and evolve in my career as well.

Right, because you didn't start as VP here...

Correct. I started with The Exchange and Laura, and Mark apparently saw something within me along the way and said, 'Hey, how would you like to try this other side of the business?' And twenty years later, I'm still here.

And what about you, Laura, how would you describe his management style?

Um.."How ya doin'?" That was his management style. You know, he'd walk around, "How ya doin'? How ya' doin'? What's going on?" And really interested, not perfuctory. Even if he had a criticism or something he wanted to change, he was always smiling, he was always a happy person. So, I think he took that, you know, was it Mary Poppins who said, "a spoon full of sugar?" Yes.

So, he put you at the helm of The Exchange when it started in the mid-90's, tell us what you know about his role and the genesis of The Exchange.

Well, Peter, I think he felt that it was time. This was in the early to mid-90's, The Exchange started in October of 1995, and talk radio was sort of taking off, but you could call it kind of fight radio...a lot of arguing, a lot of shouting, so I think that Mark wanted to get NHPR involved in that, but in an NHPR way. So, you know, it sounds old-fashioned, but civil discourse, in-depth conversation,  a chance for New Hampshire people to jump in on the issues of the day. We on The Exchange like to call ourselves the original social media - so yes, you get a chance to jump in, it isn't just us telling you, you get to call in and tell us what you're thinking. It's interesting too, when the show started we specifically didn't call it a "talk show," because those had sort of a naughty reputation. We called it a "call-in show," now that feels old-fashioned because people send in emails, and tweets, and Facebook and so forth, but that was why we branded it that way. I think Mark also saw the show as a way to unify New Hampshire. People often say that New Hampshire is a collection of regions, you know people in the Upper Valley are concerned about what's happening there, and people in Nashua are concerned about the Southern Tier, and that's understandable, we're all like that. But I think Mark's hope - and I'd like to say I think we have accomplished that hope - is we provide a statewide forum for everybody in New Hampshire to share their hopes and dreams and concerns.

And we actually have a clip of Mark talking about why he wanted The Exchange to exist, and he actually talks about you, Laura, so let's listen to that.

"If we were going to cover New Hampshire well, we weren't going to do it with three-minute news stories, because we just didn't have enough manpower to constantly... But a call-in program  could make a big step in that direction. So, we started talking about that, and she was interested, and pretty soon, I think it was '95 we hired her. And by that time, my mind was pretty well set that we were headed for a news format. And I really saw that there was a need for a place for a calm and rational discussion of the issues, and The Exchange was to be that at the local level, but certainly NPR was airing great programs, and we weren't airing them because we had classical music on at the time." 

That transition from a classical-talk format to all talk was a tricky one for a lot of stations to make. Scott, how did Mark Handley handle that?

Well, I think the seed for making the format change started, I think it was the summer of 2000, when we aired gavel to gavel coverage of the impeachment of a former New Hampshire Supreme Court justice. We aired more than 250 hours of this coverage, replacing classical music with this coverage. And then in the fall of 2000 with Bush versus Gore, we preempted a lot of classical music to cover that very important news story. So when we made the decision in early 2001 to make the format change, it was sort of just a natural transition. And I think Mark saw the opportunity and realized that the time was right. And I so remember sitting in the conference room at a managers' meeting, and him saying, "What's it going to take to make it happen?" And we talked about it, and I think it was about three months later we made the switch, and we've never looked back.

Final thoughts for both of you, we'll start with you, Scott. How will you remember Mark Handley?

I'll remember Mark - um...I'll remember Mark's mischievous smile the most. He would walk down the hallway, come into my office, and he had this look in his eye...and you knew he was up to something, (laughter) and he would say, "What do you think of this?" And it was just that bounce in his step and that look in his eye. I knew he was up to something, and I knew it meant great things. And, that's what I'll remember the most. 

And Laura?

This is really, well you stole some of what I was going to say, Scott. But Mark was a sailor, and I have a small statue on my desk at my home, which I've had since I was a little girl of this sailor. And it just occurred to me talking to you that it looks like Mark! (laughter) He was a small person, he had a big, bushy beard, and a big, full head of hair, and really twinkly, twinkly blue eyes from squinting, maybe out on that boat. A lot of people might not know when he retired, of course, no one wanted him to retire, they loved him so much, but he said, "No, no, I'm going to do it because I want to sail around the world with Judy before I can't do it." So, he did. He sailed around the world with his beloved wife Judy, and I'm so happy that he was able to do that. So, when I think about Mark I think about what Scott said, but I also think about him on that boat, he loved that boat, he loved to sail. He took me, once...I've always hated sailing, but I had to go because it was Mark, so I put up with it. So, I'll always picture him on that boat. That's when he was fully alive.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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