Get to Know: Renee Montagne of NPR’s Morning Edition

While I can’t remember the exact date, I do remember the day that I made the switch. Mid-way into my morning commute, stuck in traffic, I flipped the radio dial to find a traffic report. Happening across an interesting story that caught my attention, I forgot about the traffic and kept listening. And listening. By the time I made it to my office I had added the station to my pre-sets and haven’t stopped listening to NPR since.

So it was a big thrill to get to work on This is NPR, the story of the network’s first 40 years (hey, I’m 40 years old this year, too!). I loved reading the behind-the-scenes stories, seeing the photos from decades past and getting to know more about the people whose voices I have come to know so well.

Renee Montagne is one of those voices. She has been a reporter for NPR since the mid-80s and has anchored Morning Edition since 2004. Many Morning Edition listeners may not know that Renee and her co-host Steve Inskeep work in totally different time zones.

In the spirit of more discovery, I interviewed Renee to find out what it’s like to be a guest (if only in voice) in millions of households, cars, radios and iPods every day.

April: On the air it seems as if you are sitting right next to Steve Inskeep, even though you are across country. As the West Coast anchor for a live morning show that originates in D.C., what is your daily schedule like? How many people work for Morning Edition at NPR West?

Renee: We have a small slice of the total staff for Morning Edition (the only show at NPR that is staffed 24 hours) – there are 6 people at NPR West, and about 30 back in Washington D.C.

Working on the West Coast means keeping East Coast hours and, in my case, because Morning Edition starts at 5 am EST, I start at 2 am Pacific time.

I get into NPR West at midnight – actually an excellent time for commuting in LA, as it takes me exactly 14 minutes door to door from Santa Monica to Culver City.

There is plenty to pack into the 2 hours before the show actually goes on the air. I pretape interviews, mostly with people overseas; I pretape scripts on features where there is a complicated sound-mix; I write introductions to reporter stories, and odd bits of news we call “filler,” and funny bits we call “returns” that run at the half hour.

(One joke we have on the West Coast: since we start at 2 am, our live show ends at 4 am, BEFORE the East Coast show begins).

As for my hours, most days, with updates, editorial meetings, feature interviews, writing and editing the pieces for the next day – I work until 11 am.

April: You have worked on both Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Other than the time slot, how do they differ in production and how does a story find its way to one show or the other?

Renee: Stories get onto the air in basically the same ways. We are offered, or request, stories from the dozens of amazing reporters on NPR’s Desks: Foreign, Science, National (which includes political reporters at the White House and Congress and stories from member stations), Cultural. There are several editorial meetings throughout the day to communicate our needs and all kinds of logistics – like the length of a reporter story and when it will be in.

Both shows generate stories of their own. Everyone on the Morning Edition, down to the newest intern, has a chance to offer suggestions for “host” interviews, or for what we call tape & copy, which producers often create themselves.

Host interviews cover a range of subjects. When it comes to book authors and musicians, they need serious host buy in, since we – the hosts – have to read the books and listen to the music. At Morning Edition, Steve Inskeep and I are open to most suggestions for talking to newsmakers, experts, thinkers, and regular folks, anyone we think – or the staff thinks – can tell us something our listeners want to hear.

Steve and I also go out and cover the news. As I write, he’s in Cairo, and this morning he sent a piece on how a Muslim girl in love with a Christian boy sparked Christian/Muslim violence there this week

And then there is breaking news, every day. Which is how, say, I come to speak to a businessman in Tripoli, who wanted to speak (anonymously) about the “smell of freedom in the air” a few days after Tripoli exploded in protest; or a poet on a scratchy cell phone describing the art being made in Tahrir Square; or a state senator in Wisconsin on why he’s left the state to thwart a vote on taking away collective bargaining.

April: How often are you recognized in public? What do fans say when they meet you?

Renee: Surprisingly often, but almost always when I say my name.

Only occasionally when I speak. And virtually never when I’m walking down the street.

When listeners meet me, the most common thing someone will blurt out: “I thought you’d be taller, and blonde!”

April: You’re not always behind the desk. You have been able to travel all over the world for stories. What has been the most surprising country that you have visited?

Renee: I’ve never been surprised. But I have fallen in love with two countries: South Africa and Afghanistan – the people and the land.

Both countries have pulled me back time and time again.

April: In This is NPR you write about your time reporting from (South Africa in the early ’90s and Afghanistan in the 2000’s). While your days were likely consumed with tracking down your stories, you can’t be immune to the situation. How do you cope with the drama and suffering around you?

Renee: In the moment, the very act of recording and documenting events functions as a kind of emotional buffer. In South Africa, I would go alone into the townships, to help tell what was often a story of strife, but also one of the warmth, and beauty, and tenderness I so often encountered there.

When the township wars were part of daily life in the townships, I might, on a single day, find myself running along Zulu demonstrators swinging wooden clubs called panga pangas; being offered tea in a small hut wallpapered with soup labels; ask a child to stop pushing a toy long enough to give me directions; and lean over of a body in an emergency room, with only half a face.

Back at my apartment, (aka “the Johannesburg bureau”) I’d spend hours cutting tape and writing my script, then recording the story, and sending it over the phone to NPR D.C. At some point, the pain and the sadness – in South Africa but also Afghanistan – does become my own as well.

It hardly compares to that of some of the people I cover. And it’s made up for by the sense that telling the story – their story – has meaning, for them and for me as well.

April: Fans really love the behind-the-scenes stories and pictures in This is NPR. Some people are just tickled to discover how John Ydstie, Sylvia Poggioli (it is misspelled on the cover of the first edition!), and Mandalit del Barco spell their names! Are you ever surprised by how NPR listeners feel so connected to, and interested in the personalities behind the mic?

Renee: I’m more tickled than surprised – but as a listener myself, I do find all the unusual names at NPR pretty amusing.

NPR fans in the Los Angeles area are in for a treat this week as Renee Montagne will appear at Book Soup on Thursday March 17th at 7pm. Book Soup is located at 8818 Sunset Blvd., W. Hollywood, CA 90069.

April Whitney
Entertainment Publicist

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