Looking Back (Part 2)

(Last week I published a piece of my own story, a summer diversion.  Here’s a bit more.)

National Public Radio [1] was a wonderful place to work, and I stayed for 8 years, from 1974 to 1982.  Many of the voices you grew to know were there then: Susan Stamberg, Bob Edwards, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, Robert Krulwich, Carl Kasell, Scott Simon and Ira Flatow, among others. Back then, one of the producers of “All Things Considered” was a guy named Bob Siegel–you know him as Robert Siegel, for many years a host of ATC.

“Options in Education,” my weekly series, became a fixture on NPR, and we managed to raise money from the Ford Foundation [2] and a couple of other places.  With my own weekly 1-hour NPR program and a mandate to report on ‘education,’ I had a pretty big tent to operate in, and I loved just about every moment.

Radio is a far more engaging and intimate medium than television. Listeners hear only a voice and apparently fill out the rest of the picture–height, age, weight, et cetera–in their minds (at least they did so before the internet eliminated secrets).  We would get somewhere between 75-100 letters a week, often very personal.  We answered all the mail.

Susan Stamberg’s office was across the hall, and one day I noticed that she had taped about a half dozen envelopes addressed to her on the door–and each envelope had a different spelling of her name: Stanberg, Steinberg, Stonehead and so on.  As it happened, I regularly received similar envelopes, and so I proposed a contest: a year of collecting different versions of our names, with lunch to the winner [3]. After a year, Susan had about 30 variations on her name, but I had nearly 40, including Bob Merrow, Joe Marrow, Ed Merrill (but, alas, never Ed Murrow) and so on. My favorite, however, was “John Moron.”[4]

I took full advantage of my freedom to report. I snuck into China with a group of Canadians in early 1977 or 1978, the first NPR reporter to get into that vast country. Because a Canadian physician, Dr. Norman Bethune, had cared for Chairman Mao during the Long March and thereafter, Canadians had special status, while Americans were viewed with suspicion.

Visiting schools and universities in (mostly rural) China was revealing [5]. This was in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, and we saw and heard first-hand the devastation that spasm of narrow mindedness had wrought.  A lasting memory is of an older man whose hands were misshapen because all his knuckles had been broken.  When we met him, he was working on a farm, but we learned that, prior to Mao’s demand for a Cultural Revolution, he had been the first violinist at a prominent symphony in a big city.  The revolutionaries, some just teenagers, had ‘re-educated’ him to cleanse him of his bourgeois ways…and had broken his hands to guarantee that he wouldn’t backslide.

The Cultural Revolution was officially over–Mao was dead–but its effects were permanent for many.

We arrived early at a few elementary schools, before the teachers had shown up.  What a surprise to find that the classes were quiet, orderly and under way, led by young boys wearing Cub-Scout-like uniforms with bright red bandanas.  Although these ‘Young Pioneers’ were no older than their classmates, everyone followed orders. That simply would not happen in the US.  It was on one level impressive, but scary on another.

As I said, the Cultural Revolution was officially over, but apparently the Young Pioneers had not gotten the news. I’ve often wondered what those young students grew up to become.

*****

In 1976 I did what may have been the first in-depth reporting about gay kids in schools.  I discovered–and reported–that quite often the kids suffered most at the hands of gay teachers, who were forced to be in the closet themselves and often did not dare reach out to children who must have reminded them of themselves at a young age.  Unable to find comfort at schools and often shunned at home, many gay kids dropped out onto the street, where they were exploited by predatory men known as ‘chicken hawks’.

How that program came about has a backstory. I had gone to Boston to be on a panel at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools.  I hoped to find some interesting people to interview for my weekly program.

I learned that meetings do not make for great radio, and so I had no material for my weekly program.  A few months earlier I had consulted with my newly formed National Advisory Board (which the organizations giving me money required me to have).  I told the Board that I thought I should be covering dramatic and controversial issues in education, in order to attract national attention. I suggested topics like child abuse and—because it was in the news in Washington—homosexual teachers.  The Board was appalled at the idea and advised me to stick to traditional education issues like teacher training and school finance.

All well and good, but there I was in Boston at a boring meeting with an hour to fill.  So gay teachers it would be, I decided.  Because I had no clue about how to begin, I called the hippest guy I knew at Harvard.

“Larry,” I said, “I want to do some reporting about gay teachers and am hoping you can help me.”

“How did you know?” he asked.

“How did I know what?” I asked in return.

After a while, I figured out that he was gay, and he figured out that I had been unaware until that moment.

Larry introduced me to the underworld of gay men and women.  A teacher himself, he knew many closeted gay educators, and soon I was interviewing them.

The kids have it worse, several told me, and so Larry took me to shelters to meet the young boys.  Though classified as ‘runaways,’ most had in fact been thrown away by their families, because being gay was a mark of shame that disgraced the entire family, at least in the eyes of their fathers.

The 1-hour program we produced, “Gay Teachers, Gay Students” brought my series the national attention I was seeking. (Listen to the program here.)  It was reviewed in the Washington Post and a few other national publications.  In a gay newspaper the writer praised the program by noting that he couldn’t tell from the broadcast whether I was gay or straight.

My Advisory Board was wrong.  Restricting reporting to classroom education and school finance would neither grow our audience nor move people.  From here on out, “Options in Education” and I would define ‘education’ in the broadest possible terms.

*****

Later I spent nearly three months in juvenile institutions (which we were not supposed to call ‘prisons,’ although many were) in several states.  This transformative experience that taught me that, once a bureaucracy has been created, its first obligation becomes to perpetuate itself, whether its original purpose was to save souls or collect trash. That is, I learned to distrust bureaucracies.  [6]

I discovered that, once a state had opened a juvenile facility, it needed to keep it full of young offenders to justify the annual expense of keeping it open, keeping adults on the payroll, and so forth.  And they figured out ways to lock kids up, even when the juvenile crime rate went down. They did it by criminalizing behavior that, in times of high juvenile crime, drew a slap on the wrist or a call to the parents.  So,for example, in 1981 Minnesota began locking up kids who ran away from home for a day or two, just to keep the juvenile institution full and the adults working. When the juvenile crime rate was high, those kids were labeled PINS (persons in need of supervision) and were sent home with a (figurative) slap on the wrist and a lecture.

*****

One of my brothers had a mental breakdown when he was 21. Because of that experience, I have been alternately fascinated and repelled by our national attitude toward mental illness. Because of George’s struggles [7], I decided to report on mental health services for children.  I spent about six weeks visiting facilities in Maryland, Texas and a few other states.  What I learned is now old news: Rich kids get therapy; poor kids get powerful drugs. Rich kids are treated for as long as necessary; poor kids are put out on the street when they hit the (limited) number of days that will be covered by insurance.

The 4-part series I produced on that subject was controversial because of the tough issues and because of occasional profanity.  Another lesson I learned: tough issues may not get you thrown off the air, but curse words and descriptions of explicit sex will.

In Texas at a state institution for young children with mental problems, I interviewed children for several days. The interview that is burned in my mind was with a young girl, maybe 9 years old.  We were alone in a fairly large room, sitting on a couch, talking about whatever was on her mind. I wasn’t sure what to ask, so I just listened.  Suddenly she stood up in front of me, smiled and asked, “Do you like me?”  Yes, of course I do, I told her.

“But do you really like me?” She smiled again when I said yes. Then she did an awkward curtsey and lifted her dress up over her head, showing me her underpants.  “Now do you like me?”

I was dumbfounded. I ended the interview right there because I didn’t know what to do or say. A 9-year-old girl was offering me her body.  What sorts of awful things must have been done to her by adults, and for how many years?

And how does one treat the mental problems caused by that abuse?  The answer again depended on family income and/or insurance.  In private mental institutions treatment was individualized and not drug-dependent.  But in state institutions, where children were entitled to a few weeks of treatment and there were not enough counselors, the default treatment was drugs.

I saw that up close at a Texas institution for older children, where (to my amazement) I was allowed to interview whomever I chose. Again, one interview has stayed with me. She was about 15 and back in the institution for the second or third time. It was this interview that got me thrown off the air, because she told me in graphic detail what had happened when she was released when her allotted weeks ran out. “They gave me a few dollars and opened the gate and told me to go,” she said. “I had to hitchhike home. It was a hot day, and a convertible of boys came by and stopped to give me a ride. I got in, but they wouldn’t take me home until I gave them all blow jobs, so I did.”

We put that on the air, although we sent all the stations an advance warning notice and we put a disclaimer on the air at the beginning of the program.  As it happened, some stations aired my program in the afternoons. After all, it was called “Options in Education,” and what could be more wholesome than education in the afternoon?   Most NPR stations were affiliated with colleges or universities, and a college president in Texas happened to be riding in his car, listening to ‘his’ NPR station, when all of a sudden he heard some girl talking about blow jobs.  In a New York minute, that Texan banned my series from ‘his’ air.

However, I gained a friend from that 4-part series, a more than fair trade. Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood heard the programs on his public radio station in Pittsburgh and wrote me a fan letter!  From then on, whenever he came to Washington, I would take my kids out to see him. In later years we would get together on Nantucket, where we both spent parts of the summer. He was a great man, and I miss him still.

(to be continued, perhaps)

—-

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1. Now it’s just NPR, not National Public Radio, which may be appropriate, because the N doesn’t apply (I have Irish friends who listen to ATC), it’s heard on the internet by many listeners, and–sadly–NPR is less Public than it was, because of all the corporate funding that targets specific coverage (of ‘Asian Rim issues,’ for example) and chips away at journalistic independence. That’s an issue for us at Learning Matters as well.
  2. 2. And in particular Harold ‘Doc’ Howe II and Edward J. Meade, Jr.
  3. 3. When Ira Flatow learned about the contest, he wanted in. We turned him down.  We knew who would win that contest.
  4. 4. It is possible that this variation was not an error, however, because the letter began, “You are an asshole” and went on from there.
  5. 5. It was also a tense time for me. At any moment my recorder and audio tapes might have been confiscated, because what I was doing had not been approved by any central authority (I hadn’t asked). At every stop a new local guide joined the group, taking over the ‘chaperone’ duties.  I remember their being very friendly but not sophisticated; however, every third day or so, a national guide would join the group, probably to make certain ‘the Canadians’ were being treated well. Whenever a national guide arrived, I stashed my cassettes with two American sisters I had befriended, probably an overreaction on my part. When I returned to Washington, I enlisted the aid of Chinese Government representatives (no Embassy then) and produced a multi-part series about schooling in China for my NPR series.
  6. 6. The NPR series that resulted, “Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice,” received the George Polk Award, and I got to have lunch with I.F. Stone and Kurt Vonnegut.
  7. 7. George took his own life in 1971, after a long struggle with mental illness.  He was only 23 years old. We felt helpless when he was being treated, and his five siblings and our parents struggled for years to understand his decision.  Acknowledging and then coming to terms with my own anger was as tough as dealing with my sense of having failed him.

    His suicide occurred when I was in graduate school in Cambridge.  The family gathered on Nantucket to mourn and seek comfort.  The following year I moved my family to Nantucket, where my other brothers and I built a house with our own hands, an exercise in physical/emotional therapy and family bonding.  I wrote my doctoral dissertation there and finished the Harvard program in record time.

7 Responses to “Looking Back (Part 2)”

  1. Jon McBride 06. Aug, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    John -

    Your last two blog entries, from where I sit, are the early outline of a book that would make riveting reading. Please give it a thought…

    Cheers -

    Jon

    • john merrow 06. Aug, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

      Thank you, Jon, but I think only my friends would care (and journalists don’t have many friends, alas).

  2. Anne Wheelock 06. Aug, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

    I agree with Jon McBride. This is a wonderful story. More, please!

    Happy traveling,

    Anne

  3. Educator 06. Aug, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    Please take us through your entire career up to now!

  4. Joan Countryman 06. Aug, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

    Hey John,
    More. More. It’s a lot more interesting than you seem to think.
    Cheers

  5. Amy Valens 06. Aug, 2014 at 11:56 pm #

    I see I should have been listening more to NPR in the 1970′s! I was mainly a KPFA listener in those days, partly because of their programming,but also because their signal was strong enough to reach me in the boondocks, while KQED was much more iffy. I appreciate the candor of your comments about corporate sponsorship. Doesn’t look likely to change in the near future, much to our loss.

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