Virginia Prescott's Goodbye To Listeners
Even though I spent the first 21 years of my life in New Hampshire, I did a lot of growing up much later at NHPR. My experience in community and public radio had been vast and fulfilling by the time I returned to my home state in 2008. I’d produced programs for NPR with sleek professionals in New York and Boston; trained journalists in the Balkans; and worked with stations in West Africa that deliver programs via cassette on motorbikes. But I had never sat in the host’s chair.
I came back to become the “voice” of new local program that had been in development for some time. The iPhone was still fairly new then. I didn’t even have a Facebook account. Still, news consumers could hear their favorite radio programs online and find a million ways to occupy themselves without having to turn on the radio. NHPR had the vision to create a program that operated like a savvy, dialed-in friend. It was to be a show that sifted through the deluge of information suddenly at our fingertips to find the things that people from New Hampshire would want to talk about. We named that program Word of Mouth. We quickly grabbed the name on a new social media platform called Twitter.
I arrived with a love of conversation, a desire to tell stories, and a belief that the human voice has extraordinary power to surprise and influence us in subtle and profound ways.
In the years since, I’ve had thousands of conversations that changed me. I’ve interviewed a robot, sung a karaoke duet -- very badly, I should add -- and though it still turns my stomach to think of it, choked down grilled beaver meat while on-air. I’ve talked to fancy people, fanatical people, and many, many people who’d never been on the radio before. I’ve been schooled by a Supreme Court justice, stonewalled by authors who I considered larger-than-life, and moved to tears by the grace and humility of complete strangers.
As my friend, the poet Jason Shinder wrote, “Humility will find you.” And it found me, over and over again. One of the most valuable lessons came early on: a great interview is not about appearing to be smart. A great interview is about listening, truly listening to what the other person is saying and letting go of the outcome. I haven’t always been able to be that vulnerable or get out of the way, but it’s something I aspire to. There have been some hits, and as my brilliant colleague Taylor Quimby pointed out, some mortifying misses.
I have learned so much and love meeting people who tell me that they got turned on to something they never thought about on Word of Mouth; or they binge-listened to Civics 101 on a long drive and learned something new; or that the 10-Minute Writers Workshop encouraged them to jumpstart a scary project. Simone Weil said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I am honored, given all the many choices you have in your lives and the preciousness of your hours that you’ve listened to me. All the more as I’m the ninth of 11 children - I’m always grateful for attention.
It's your emails, social media posts, and run-ins at the supermarket or at Writers on a New England Stage that have made me feel like a part of some community of curious, interesting people. I don't remember details from a lot of my radio conversations, but knowing that my work connected with you, out there listening -- whether it made you excited or mad or started a conversation in your world – is what matters, imagining that I'm in some crazy dialog across time and space and devices has mattered for 10 years.
None of those conversations would have been possible without a whole lot of producers and editors and engineers and leaders through those years who made me think and sound sharper than I had a right to. It is a long list of names, but to me they are bright lights that continue to illuminate my life.
I will carry some dazzling, shiny memories of my years at NHPR. Perhaps more importantly, my experience here has taught me how to move on when things fizzled. As for my next act, I will be hosting a daily program for Georgia Public Broadcasting. It is a plum job in the very city where my partner, Matt, lives. Love and radio; that combination has moved me along for decades.
There’s a bit from a Donald Hall poem that’s been running through my head these last few weeks. It’s from a poem called “Seventh Inning:”
Expel quickly this night of farewell:
If they didn’t burn out, they wouldn’t
It has been beautiful. Thank you.