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NPR journalist Peter Breslow talks successes and failures in radio

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Photo courtesy of Aria Bracci.

Photo courtesy of Aria Bracci.

Peter Breslow, senior producer of Weekend Edition at National Public Radio, spoke to about 20 students in the Campus Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Tuesday evening.  His talk, “Did we roll on that? Misadventures of an NPR producer,” sponsored by the English department, reclaims the critical lessons he’s learned as an international journalist for NPR.

His talk largely incorporated personal stories from traveling and reporting across the world, from Africa to South America. Many of his mishaps and misadventures were read as excerpts from his memoir, currently in the works.

Breslow’s first lesson learned in radio journalism was the importance of deadlines.

“Deadlines are sacred,” he said, reminiscing on his early days working in radio. As a “radio rookie,” his first job at NPR involved tape-cutting, the physical cutting and reconnecting of audio tapes. In his first few attempts at tape-cutting, he admits he could barely make the deadline.

Once Breslow started reporting internationally, he often was sent into war-torn countries. He recalls a mishap in Somalia, where he and his colleague went out without their appointed body guard. After an unfortunate wrong turn, their vehicle was halted by a mob of angry Somalians.

What was his lesson after almost getting pulled out of the car by the mob? “Always stick with your bodyguard,” he said.

Prefacing his mishap in Ecuador, Breslow told the audience, “You’re going to think I’m a complete klutz.”

On an NPR assignment, Breslow interviewed Ecuadorian women who fish through a thick, knee-deep swamp searching for crustaceans to sell.

“Just as I was finishing up, I was holding a mini disc and it slipped out of my hand and into the muck. I grabbed it out and I couldn’t get it to play,” he said. In a moment of frustration and panic, he cursed amidst the local Educator women who had just interviewed with him.

He learned two lessons that day: “Keep a tight grip on your recorder” and, “Don’t curse in front of the locals.”

Breslow made clear that reporters should hold on tight to their cameras, too.

Moments after stepping off the plane in Antarctica to report and shoot photos for NPR, he dropped his camera on the ground. He laughed and said, “Miraculously, as has had happened many times in my career, the radio gods smiled on me and I was still able to take some photos.”

He’s also managed to drop a camera into a human corpse while recording the sound of flies buzzing around a deceased body. NPR didn’t end up running any of the photos, he said.

Breslow said trusting the locals has opened up multiple reporting opportunities for him.

“I was upset when I wasn’t going to get my story,” he said, after his flight wouldn’t stop in at his original destination, Somaliland. He bumped into a local man at the airport who offered Breslow free transportation to Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa. This experience allowed him to carry out his assignment while engaging with the locals.

Although he made light of his mistakes and acknowledged he’s learned valuable lessons from them, safety in warzones has to be taken seriously. He said the cardinal rule, which he learned from first-hand experience, is “never let potential kidnappers drive off with your colleague,” meaning never allow people to separate you from your fellow journalist.

Lucia Miller, director of development for the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, helped get Breslow to come speak at UMass.

“The stories Peter Breslow shared today show the decades of adventures and amazing work from around the world,” said Miller.

Breslow’s humor throughout his presentation made learning about his experiences in the field of international radio journalism memorable, but also advised student journalists to take precaution by utilizing the lessons he’s learned from his mistakes.

A Peabody Award winner and a UMass alum, Breslow also conducted a “Writing for Radio” workshop to students earlier on Tuesday in Bartlett Hall. He demonstrated his process of crafting and producing a successful feature story for radio.

Serena McMahon can be reached at [email protected] and can be followed on Twitter @serenaamcmahon.

About the Writer
Serena McMahon, Social Media Coordinator
The award-winning journalist shared her vision for a revolution in the Middle East during her speech to students and faculty in the Campus Center Monday.
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