Lynn Neary Parlayed an English Major Into a Life in Radio Journalism
NPR Arts Correspondent Lynn Neary will appear in Springfield Monday May 4th at 7:00pm at the Springfield Art Museum to help Ozarks Public Broadcasting wrap up our 40th anniversary year. KSMU's Randy Stewart talked by phone with Lynn at NPR headquarters in Washington about her journey from English major in college to NPR reporter and anchor.
Lynn was first heard on NPR in 1982 as a newscaster on the network's then-new morning magazine program Morning Edition She says she took a "very circuitous route to newscasts on Morning Edition. When I got out of college, I really didn't know exactly what I wanted to do... and it took me a while to find it." Eventually Lynn realized that she was interested in "doing something that was important and might help people--and that seemed like news (i.e. journalism) to me."
She had taken some acting classes and even flirted briefly with the idea of an acting career. "But I realized that if I wanted to be an actress I was going to spend a lot of time doing things I didn't want to do, like looking for a job all the time! That's when I really started thinking seriously, 'What do I want to do? What am I good at?'"
Lynn tried various other professions, including working in a law firm and working at a psychiatric hospital, before finally realizing that her acting training would probably give her the ability to talk on the radio. "And I always loved to write--and the writing, I guess, is where the English-major part of it comes in. I knew I was a pretty decent writer. And I thought I could put those things together--and I did. I came up with radio journalism, and that eventually brought me to NPR. I'd always been interested in journalism, but I was kind of afraid of it. This was in the early 1970s, and women were just then sort of breaking into those kinds of professions. And I wasn't sure I could do it." But once she tried it, she knew she had an aptitude for it.
Upon reaching NPR in 1982, in addition to reading live newscasts on-air, Lynn Neary was assigned to what was then called the "Cultural Desk." "The idea was, we were going to look at news through the prism of 'culture,' and we wanted to define 'culture' broadly--not just as the arts. And I was the first reporter that was hired to do that. So I was General Assignment Reporter on the Cultural Desk, and I was covering things like race and religion, First Amendment issues. And once I started doing some religion reporting I realized that it was really pretty fascinating. About a year (later) they came to me and said they wanted to start a religion beat."
These days the "Cultural Desk" at NPR has reverted back to being the "Arts Desk," which is how it began. And again, says Lynn Neary, at a certain point "the powers that be came to me and said, 'We want to create a publishing beat. Are you interested in that?' And I thought, this is just perfect for me, as a former English major: I get to read novels and talk about them!"
Lynn has done a lot of hosting of NPR shows as well. "I have hosted all of the NPR programs I think--except World of Opera!" Among other things she's filled in on NPR's Performance Today. "And that was fascinating for me, because I wouldn't say that I have great expertise in classical music. So it was totally interesting, those six weeks, maybe a couple of months, that I spent on Performance Today and just immersed in the world of classical music, and people who were such experts in it. Part of what makes my job at NPR all these years so interesting is that we're always learning something new---always. I swear, every day!" The conversion to digital audio editing and production has been one of those areas of education and growth for Lynn (as indeed it has for all of us in the business!).
When asked what advice she might give to students who might like to follow her career path, Lynn Neary always says, "it sounds like a cliche, but I do always say first of all, follow your passion--find out what it is that you really love. And within journalism you can specialize, so that's part of why you're sort of looking for what it is that you feel really passionate about. I think writing is incredibly important, and I can't emphasize enough to young people that they need to learn how to write. As an English major I had to write so many papers--it helped me learn to structure a story." She also says young people need to be fully "savvy" and conversant with digital technology, "especially now with social media becoming so important."