Marco Werman is an American radio personality. He is a host, reporter and senior producer in public radio.
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All righty everyone! Thank you for the excellent questions. This was a lot of fun, and at some point, let's do it again.
In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram.
I got my first job in journalism at 16 as a copy-boy at the News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Since then, I've worked in documentary photography, print, radio and television. I have been with The World since it launched in 1996. I have just finished hosting today's show, with stories from Ukraine, Baghdad, Scotland, and Quebec. We even had a story about an American cheese maker living in Russia. Here are some of my recent favorites from the show, many of which have to do with global music:
Here's my proof: https://twitter.com/pritheworld/status/511926894087131136
Thanks for doing an AMA. I'm a big fan of PRI and post articles to Reddit frequently. What is it like to work in a public media organization based in a nation that is strangled by the corporate media? And how often do you find they are ignoring important news stories that only public or independent media is reporting on?
one of the great things about working for The World is our editorial independence. That is something I never take for granted, and knowing journos at other outlets (including corporate media), I know how rare it is these days. given that, i try not to think too much about the competition and how much it is a hard row to hoe at those places these days.
What is your favorite/the most memorable story that you've covered?
Hard to say, but 2 come to mind. My first big story: the assassination of Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso in 1987. Not fun, but a fascinating story. And second: getting into Libya for that brief moment of calm between Gadaffi being totally evil and getting killed - covering the total eclipse there in 2006.
And just for the record, I'm not sure Gadaffi became a nice guy during that period; nor as the Arab Awakening engulfed his country.
That Youssou N'dour story when he ran for president of Senegal in 2012 and was disqualified -- that was an exciting story to report.
Hi Marco! Love the show so much. I have a couple of questions if you don't mind.
You and your team have such a global approach I am often surprised that you are based in the states. Can you speak to the culture at The World and how stories come up?
Also, I have to admit sometimes I am confused about the difference between PRI and NPR? Can you shed some light?
I assume you have traveled extensively. Is this some kind of pre-req for working at The World? What has shaped you the most during your travels?
1. we have a newsroom that, we are told by the ppl who have worked here, is the best newsroom they've ever been involved in. our producers are internationalists, we speak many languages, we are well travelled, and patriotism is more about countries and not one single place.
2. NPR is a network that is supported by member station dues. they're based in washington. PRI used to be APR, which was created to distribute Prairie Home Companion. Though the PRI mission is somewhat different these days, they're basically a distributor of programs that they oversee for and offer to the pub radio system.
3. travel is not a pre-req, but it does make all of us here very curious about the world. that is the pre-requisite.
You seem to have such a passion for world music- where does that come from?
my parents had very diverse taste in music. but it was my 6 years in west africa where my mind was blown open to everything i had NOT been listening to all my life. it hasn't stopped since. if it's in a language i don't know, i just want to hear all the music around it.
plus music can tell stories that conventional storytelling never seems to unearth.
Hello Marco, I'm a huge fan of the world and listen often. How much time do you spend traveling abroad to find stories or just to pursue your own interests in other countries?
When I was helming the music desk, i did a lot more travelling. Now, hosting full-time, less flexibility. Sometimes I feel that NOT being in the world as much is a disadvantage, I'm less "plugged in." but that's not so. still, i miss the travel, and seeing new places. Was last in Oxford UK in April (not exotic, but lovely), and before that, Dakar Senegal in 2012 for the election in which Youssou N'dour was supposed to have run, but was disqualified.
I love The World, especially stories that give a glimpse into everyday life in other countries. Can you ask the producers to please give us more "World in Words"? Or ask Patrick Cox to start a full show or podcast? Thank you!
We've been doing this series on translation, so language, like music, is another one of those great stealth vectors into daily life around the globe. Now that you say it though, a whole themed show on some aspect of language could really rock. Thank you for saying! I'll pass along to Patrick.
What does a typical day look like at The World? How does the newsroom prepare for a show?
a constantly moving machine of talented editors and producers feeding the beast. editors setting up reporter packages a day or a week in advance. producers coming up with killer ideas, and names of people who can deliver on those ideas in interviews. we meet at 830est with our london team on the phone, we hash it out for 30 mins under the guidance of our incredible show producers jeb sharp and clark boyd, and then we push on hellbent for leather to our 300pm deadline. somehow it all works.
How do you stay positive when the news is so negative and/or polarizing?
great question. it is not easy, especially the last 6 months. i took a meditation class this year. i do yoga every morning. i listen to lots of music and recall leonard bernstein -- "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." i try to remember that humans have been around for a long time, and i keep the faith that we as a species won't totally cash in our chips. but yes, it is challenging.
Do you ever have trouble not sounding like you're saying your name on the radio when introducing yourself in real life?
haha. yes. it's weird to hear your own voice. it's weird to say your name over and over and over again.
but no, in social sits, i just say "Hi, I'm Marco." And that's that. someone told me once about a dj in NJ who never stopped sounding like he was on radio. i'm myself, and that's the way i sound in real life.
Hi! First off, in my senior year of high school I had to do a project on the media, and I chose PRI as my "channel" (the other options were channels on tv), so I listened to you for 10 hours and wrote 10 pages analyzing your show, ultimately giving it an "unbiased" rating.
To the question: Who are your favorite kinds of people to talk to on your show?
thank you for giving us that "unbiased" rating!
my favorite interviews are with people who are not famous, who just have really great stories to tell about themselves that mirror something about ourselves. stories that make us think.
During a story last month you mentioned that you surf. What are your favorite places to surf in the states and overseas?
I'm east coast all the way. Never surfed out west, sad to say. learned down in NC. i cherish my two/three weeks each year on Cape Cod, though the waves are unpredictable. I got really jealous when i interviewed Ishita Malaviya, India's first pro female surfer (their only pro surfer in fact!), and she was telling me about the waves at her spot on the Indian Ocean. Never cold, always long soft breaks. Can I add Karnataka to the list of places I want to live?
What is your favorite restaurant in Boston?
currently, I love Casa de Pedro, run by a Venezuelan who has created a festive space with evocative food that transports you to latin America.
let's talk about food some more.
favorite local hangout in my hood: central kitchen.
favorite bar: river god's
favorite chinese: dumpling cafe
So often I read or hear stories in American press where they quote "government sources" as a main source in their story.
How confident are you that in most cases U.S. government sources tell
reporters the truth? Is it common for the press to receive inaccurate information from government sources?
Based on your experience, do you think the public should have a healthy skepticism about what our national government tells the press especially of foreign affairs?
Skepticism is always in order, whether you're a journo or not. That's why you, and we, always need to dig further to find out what else is known about what "officials" are saying. I'm not saying the US government does not tell the truth. But let's face it: there are enough examples of truth being bent, or not told at all, to doubt things that are presented as fact.
Hi Marco. Thanks for doing this AMA. I very much enjoy The World.
Can you talk more about how you got to where you are now. What would your advice be to someone hoping to be involved in international journalism/radio broadcasting? Was there ever another career path you considered? It sounds like you visit some amazing, "off the beaten path" places... is there anywhere in particular you'd recommend?
I never planned on going into radio. I wanted to photograph, but I picked up the AP string in Ouagadougou, and needed a bit more money to survive (small retainer), so I started filing for the BBC Africa SErvice. I didn't have a TV as a kid, so radio came pretty naturally to me after having listened to a lot of Firesign Theater, comedy albums, and EG Marshall doing the CBS radio mystery theater. After that, one step followed the other, and here I am. I once wanted to be a film director -- feature films. but I'm glad I didn't go that route. I was on a sound stage once in Hollywood, and, yes, that city has entertained the hell out of me, but the crew was so impressed to be around an east coaster in public radio that they felt kind of ashamed about what they were doing. I realized then that I probably wouldn't have been very happy in the star-maker machinery.
Are there any pieces that for whatever reason don't make it to air?
Yes. There are many reasons for why that might happen: the piece was not as good as we expected, the reporter's narration is garbled, the facts may be wrong, etc. Or, we miscalculated timings, and the story just won't work on that particular day, and we push it to the next day if poss.
Hi Marco, If you were to move to a foreign place (city, town, rural area) for the next 2-3 years, what would be your top 3 choices? Do you automatically rule out war zones and other places especially dangerous for American journos?
Tokyo, Bogota, or Dakar. Three cities I've encountered in the last 5 years that I want to know better. You may noticed that none are in war zones. I've got a family, and don't want them stressed out, and I don't me stressed out either. Those days are done. I lay on the floor in Ouagadougou in 1987 waiting for the shooting to stop. Don't need that anymore thank you.
Would you rather cover music or news?
my approach to covering music has always been to fold it into the news. it's a unique approach, and i think it says more about what's going on in the world than headlines. and it extends the reach of conventional music journalism. i wouldn't want to just be a "music reviewer".
Can you give us a hint to the answer to today's GeoQuiz?
Um, was there a GeoQuiz on the show? I think we didn't have one today.
Hi. Thanks for doing this! Do you have any advice for non-journalist majors who would like to get their foot in the door but do not necessarily have the official connections or credentials to market themselves as journalist, despite maybe having self-taught skills?
As i said earlier, I'm not sure I'm the best person to give advice on the current state of the industry. but i do know that these days, there are lots of self-taught journalists who are working. they are smart, they are able to converse fluently on a number of current topics, and able to weave the thread between all of them. i believe that if you are a good story-teller and can master the technology, then you're on your way. the only problem as we've been seeing in recent years is that the full-time jobs are fast disappearing. and the challenge will be for freelance/contract types to not get sucked into the race to the bottom.
Does Lisa Mullins' voice give you goose bumps when she speaks to you in person?
No. She is the salt of the earth, and as a total mensch/woman, she doesn't give me goose bumps. but i know some ppl love her voice, and goosebumps are totally understandable.
How has the business changed since you first started as a copy-boy?
where to start: analog got taken over by digital, slowly and then completely. public radio used to have one, then two news shows, and they were both at NPR. journalists used to focus on print or radio or tv. now they do it all under the internet umbrella. actually very little remains of that original architecture. so much has changed, and when young people ask me for advice, i often tell them i don't know how to advise.
oh yeah, was just thinking last night that there are no pneumatic tubes for delivering copy around the buildings anymore. yeah, i was there for that. we had lots of fun sending stuff in the tubes that wasn't supposed to be there at the News & Observer!
I was really surprised yesterday to hear Dr. Joia Mukherjee talking so frankly about racism being the main cause behind the apathy towards the Ebola outbreak. Blatantly talking about the racism that informs the US's foreign policy decision seems to be a touchy issue that even the most serious news report avoid in such honest terms (so thanks for that, it was very refreshing to hear). What are the most controversial stories you've covered that have triggered the most divisive reactions? What are your guidelines at The World to handle the most sensitive subjects?
In this day and age when social media does scads of opinion gathering on every story we air, I don't have a good sense of what causes divisive reaction. The Mideast always. You can count on that. But the most reaction I've ever gotten was after I aired a story about the Ethiopian singer Gigi. She stated on our program that when she was young, she had been left out of her church's singing rituals because she was female. Many were upset, even angered, that she asserted that. Some supported her, and agreed that that was the case. I still am not clear whether it's true or not.
We don't have formal guidelines on handling sensitive subjects other than common journalistic sense: hear and represent as many sides of a story as possible. When speaking with people who are under the gun, or are in pain, put yourself in their shoes. And, importantly, remember that you the listeners come to us to learn more about what's going on around the world, and to connect with what's outside the US, but you don't necessarily want to be pounded over the head with one sad story after another, centered around sensitive subjects.
Beyond format, what are the things you look for in a pitch that will make you want to pursue a story and work with an unknown producer?
a fresh angle to a story; can the producer present it in a way that is not just laying out the facts, but engaging the ear?; and, have to say it in this digital age, what other value can you add to the radio story? video? pictures? etc...
Can you give us a sneak peek into particularly fun/unique upcoming stories or projects that The World is working on?
we're thinking a lot about themed shows these days...not necessarily covering a single topic for a whole hour, though sometimes that would be the case. we had a whole show on ISIS that we did with The Takeaway; we produced a special on veterans; we'd like to do one on global education; issues around privacy; and personally, I'd like to do a whole music show.
You mentioned your favorite stories, do you have a list of your least favorite ones? Not necessarily because of the way they turned out but maybe because of a behind-the-scenes process that was particularly grueling or things you discovered you'd rather have left alone?
I have actually not liked the "big interview" with (fill in the blank). That would be any number of former diplomats, ambassadors, heads of state. The answers are almost always gauged to be non-answers. They are for the most part trained to parse out and withhold. And often, we've been in situations where lots of producers have thoughts about THE perfect question, and then too many cooks, and really, it's not too much fun.
Do you listen to the radio in your free time? Do you have favorite shows? What lesser-known shows or podcasts would you recommend we check out?
Yes I do. I love On The Media. I still listen to a lot of local radio because that's where you still hear human voices that haven't been focus-grouped to death. And I listen to stuff on Soundcloud like the great DJ Gilles Peterson at the BBC in London.
I've subscribed to the show since 2008. Listened to it while living in Senegal, Germany, Peru, and now again in Germany. As a fellow journalist, just wanted to say that i love what you guys produce.
Also, I thought your name was actually Mark O'werman for longer than I would like to admit.
As a writer who is curious about radio, I was wondering if The World ever accepts freelance querys for story ideas? I record most of my interviews for accuracy purposes, and have considered editing them into a story before, but have never really looked into it. Besides podcasting, do you know of any way to sell audio stories on a freelance basis?
We work with freelancers a lot. That is practically our operating model. But there is a lot of variability out there in terms of journalism, writing, radio technical ability, ways of conceiving a story, radiophonic creativity, and so on. So for a program like ours that does not have a lot of time and resources to train inexperienced people -- even people who have some of the skill set but not all -- we need to hear story pitches from people who are ready for prime time. One suggestion is to hone your chops by volunteering at your local community or public radio station. Try "selling" them a story (selling in quotes, because I reckon that you may do it for free given local station budgets), and work from there.
Geo quiz -- too easy. You dig?
I hear ya. We tried when we were doing it every day to tweak the difficulty up and down. But I think for many of you listeners, we can make them harder. We're not going to audition people for Jeopardy, but yes, I dig.
Is it weird I read that title in your voice from the show intro?
No, not weird. I think that makes sense.
FINALLY! I will never ask myself again, "Is it Marco Werman or Marc O'Werman?". Thank you Mr. Werman.
Glad this AMA cleared that up at least!
were you totally stoked when your show was in Weeds? (Nancy was driving the "hoopti" and a bunch of thug dudes pull up next to her and your theme song comes on blasting out of her radio.Classic.) My kids laughed so hard when they saw it, they think of me, the NPR listening mom in the Volvo. Love your show
It was amazing to have that kind of cross-promotion! Yes, totally stoked to hear it, and on THAT show too.
Man, how did I miss this?
Just on a whim, historical, regional and cultural context are very important to understanding the news. For instance, Turkish government relations to Kurds is something that seems to be horribly misunderstood or the pivotal role Turkey plays in the region as the barrier between the western world and the arab world, yet so much news ignores or severely brushes over such important information. Ashort ssummary after the lead could change the way people listen to the news. I understand the desperate cramming of information space and the relative short amount of time journalist have, you have to play as if everyone is upto speed, is this an actual issue or do I have a different approach to information and news?
That is a very good suggestion. It is often all about time (the show is actually only 47 minutes once you take out the billboards and newscasts). But there is also a need for clarity.
Thanks so much for doing an AMA, Marco! I really love your show and wish I could get NPR more easily while working here in Nigeria :( My question is this: Is there any significant journalistic achievement that you really want to accomplish still, in your career? So do you feel you still have work left to do to leave the legacy you want?
Thanks for beaming The World into Nigeria!
Yes: I don't know if it's work left to be done, but I got into journalism because I thought that by drawing peoples' attention to things around the world that might be able to turn negatives into positives. It's hard to see though, without drilling down to a granular level, how things are getting better. It'd be nice to see concretely how my journalism has made the world a better place. Maybe I'm too close to see it.
Why does everyone on NPR have weird names?
Can you guys buy cheaper mics so I don't have to hear the spit-bubbles in your mouth pop while you talk?
We call that intimacy.
Are you sure you name isn't Mark O'Werman? Because that's how I've always heard it.
I'll double check my birth certificate, but I'm pretty sure that's it.
If you were not in journalism what would you be doing? Is it difficult to stay unbiased in some of the stories you cover? I love the show and the website.
I've worked on a farm, and I hate the hours, but at this point, it seems the wisest career path would be to settle down somewhere that is quiet and be self-sufficient: raise chickens and grow food. Live somewhere near some decent waves.
We all have our opinions. But my job is asking other people to share their opinions and thoughts, and to challenge them if need be. It's not about me.
Is it a requirement to have a weird name to work for NPR?
Thank you for what you do.
I live in rural East Texas and love listening in when I can pick up the broadcast.
My name is Marco as well so I have to ask...
Do people still make Marco Polo jokes as you age? It has gotten pretty stale at this point.
Hi Marco! Yeah, as far back as I can remember. Stale doesn't even describe it.
I can haz job?
ooh I hope I am not too late. Can you tell me if finding unique music for the show has become difficult? As relatively untravelled American, It seems like the world of music has become about regional twists on distinctly American Genres. Am I wrong?
Not too late! I'm digging in for the latecomers.
I don't agree with that. I was away from the US from 84-90, and in that time, the lines for international and esoteric music literally got redrawn in record stores. "International music" became "World Music," and found new fans, and drew in rising artists in that period like Youssou N'dour, Salif Keita, and Marisa Monte. In addition, stores began paying more attention to local independent artists, and foreign musicians, especially those who were crossing over into pop genres. And then brick and mortar collapsed, but the ways of finding that music just got shifted online. And of course online brought with it a whole battery of new ways of finding music (from cool record retailers like dustygroove.com to Smithsonian Folkways http://www.folkways.si.edu/ to http://www.mondomix.com/, and of course my buddies at afropop.org). So go wild!
Can you please put the Ferguson incident and ensuing riots in perspective for me?
How is covering it different than, say, Rodney King?
It's an American story, but it's one that the world was/is watching. Race is one of those things that defines America for much of the planet. We are seen as a version of South Africa, and now in recovery. Only here, and in many parts of the new world, it's worse than South Africa, because blacks were treated as second class citizens for a century, and degraded as property for a couple of centuries prior to that. That legacy continues to play out. Have you seen this Aug. 27 Daily Show clip on Ferguson? http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/ufqeuz/race-off
It's required viewing on the subject in my humble opinion, especially as far as coverage goes.
As for The World, we found that speaking with foreign correspondents on the ground in Ferguson gave us that perspective of "the world looking in on the US." It's a reminder too of the moral responsibility that comes with being the so-called world's superpower: you better get it right at home.
I notice that pretty much every one of your guests thanks you by name when you end the interview. I do not hear this often at all with other radio journalists, except maybe Terri Gross. Do you really make that much of an impression on them?
Really? I hear that from time to time, but I don't think it's that consistent. Maybe people just like saying 'Marco.' Makes them think they're in a Fellini movie or something. Ciao, and whatnot.
Do you people make up your radio names? I'm sure you've heard of the game. :) I listen to you people all day at work- in construction- and have listened to NPR at work a lot of the time since I was 18 (30 years ago)- my little brother also listens to NPR at work (tile guy.) I heard the second and fourth shows listed above (one string and bluegrass rocked Nigeria) and really enjoyed the hell out of both of them. I don't know what to ask you except how does it feel to know that millions of people listen to what you have to say, and a lot of them shape their paradigm in part around that? Other than that- just keep doing what you do! Aloha- B.H. from the B.I.
To your question: it's humbling. I always am aware of the power of this medium. Of any medium, but especially radio.
How many other people thought his name was Mark Overman and not Marco Werman ? Just me ?
I think everyone who has not visited pri.org and seen it written out.
Why is your show so sexist and bigoted against men? It seems to have a very pro Marxist Feminist bias.
Ha! We struggle daily to raise the ratio of female to male voices on the show. And I can assure you, we keep an informal count. I don't know where you're hearing the revolutionary feminists on The World.