Think. Talk. Repeat.
Local talk radio got a boost five years ago with the launch of one eclectic show. What’s next for Jeffrey Callison’s Insight?
Sacramento is no different than the rest of the country. Its media outlets are suffering. The daily newspaper has shrunk. Television reporters are covering multiple beats, sometimes in the same broadcast. The ever-revolving door that often defines radio-station employment is feverishly spinning.
It’s a frightening time for traditional media. What if you couldn’t read the local daily newspaper at breakfast or at the coffee shop because it was no longer published? What if there were no local television news? What if local commercial radio was automated and deejays became as irrelevant as printers’ X-Acto knives in the era of pagination?
Where would we get the news?
Sure, there’d still be the Internet and alternative news sources like SN&R. But in the diminishing variety of mainstream media, one niche Northern California media outlet news station has steadily been growing its audience. Capital Public Radio 90.9 FM, an affiliate of National Public Radio, isn’t immune to economic woes, but Insight, its morning news magazine, offers an optimistic answer to where we’ll get filled in on what’s really happening in our region.
There’s a reason—Jeffrey Callison, Insight’s host and producer.
Poets, local authors, entrepreneurs, politicians, athletes, newspaper columnists—all are welcomed in Callison’s eclectic mix of a program.
Insight doesn’t showcase rhetoric or seek to shock or patronize. It doesn’t feature a bombastic host who laughs at inside jokes or berates callers. It doesn’t thrive on wacky news stories, sports clichés or sex jokes with hopes of ratings spikes.
Its shtick is its lack of shtick.The play’s the thing
Perched in a modern but otherwise nondescript building on the fringe of campus, CPR is a university auxiliary—it’s licensed to Sacramento State—with an expansive full- and part-time staff whose framed portraits are displayed on the lobby walls of the five-year-old corporate headquarters on Folsom Boulevard. Begun in 1970 as a student-run, low-watt station, CPR now boasts a broadcast range extending from Tahoe City to Groveland and western Nevada to the Bay Area.
With Callison as its first host, Insight was launched in 2004 and steadily began to solidify CPR’s position as a viable radio source for news and opinion in the greater Sacramento area.
The program celebrates its fifth anniversary this very week on July 19.
“I’m not just interested in hard news or policy wonk stuff,” said Callison, 48, a former actor and musician who joined CPR as a classical music host in 1996. “I enjoy everything. I’m curious about pretty much everything and a master of none of it. If I were too much of an expert in anything, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. I need to move on to the next thing. If you’re too much of an expert on any given subject, the danger of live radio is that you can get too deep into it.”
Callison was born and raised in southern Scotland and is the eldest of four sons. He enjoyed listening to BBC radio in his youth. With his father and brothers, Callison often exchanged the banter of world affairs, discussing things as varied as books, philosophy and politics, especially during family meals. Perhaps unknowingly, the experience was establishing his later journalistic leanings.
The broadcaster began his studies at the University of Edinburgh with a focus on English literature, philosophy and improvisational theater. On a whim, he tried for a part in a local theater company and got the gig. The acting thrilled him. After a few years of performing in Edinburgh, Callison moved to Paris and complemented continued acting work with part-time piano and guitar gigs.
It was during this time Callison met and eventually married a young woman from Santa Cruz who’d been visiting Paris between college semesters. When she returned to California, Callison joined her. The marriage didn’t last, and Callison eventually found himself volunteering at the NPR station in Santa Cruz. Eventually, he advanced to a paid, on-air job.
After seven years in Santa Cruz, he made the move to Sacramento and began a four-year stint as a classical music host. (His background may explain why Callison seems partial to classical music and theater guests.) He became the CPR news director in 2000. Sometime later, the idea for Insight developed via Callison’s diverse reporting interests.
The show’s subtitle is “Hot topics. Bright ideas.” In programming marketing material and on the CPR Web site, the hour-long show is promoted as “A daily in-depth talk program, featuring a variety of people and issues of interest to listeners in the Sacramento region and Western Nevada.”
Reminiscent of a newspaper city editor or rewrite man, Callison doesn’t wear a green eyeshade like editors of yesteryear. But with his Scottish accent, he’s a unique newsman in an across-the-radio-dial sea of loud voices, smugness and sarcasm.
“I realize I sound very Scottish to Americans, and I am from Scotland and I do have a Scottish accent,” Callison explained. “But when I’m in Scotland, they hear it very differently. When I tell Americans that, they sort of don’t believe it. But when I’m in Scotland and I tell them how Americans perceive me, they don’t believe it, either. They hear the Americanisms in my voice. I sound like a foreigner in both countries.”Entertainment meets journalism
On one recent visit to witness the show, Callison is in his usual mode—controlled high speed. The sleeves of his light-purple dress shirt are rolled up past his elbows, and he’s content in a swivel chair. In-studio guests sit across the desk and, like the host, they’re enveloped in close quarters by microphones and radio control boards.
In the next studio, visible to Callison through a thick, small glass window, are senior producer Jen Picard, a rotating corps of assistant producers and technical director Mark Jones, a nearly 30-year CPR employee. The colleagues communicate via hand signals and a studio intercom. As theme music fades, Callison seems focused and confident.
“I kind of joke sometimes that we’re psychically connected,” said Picard, a former Northern California newspaper reporter. “It’s funny. As different as Jeffrey and I are, we have some very similar sensibilities. We’ll both come into the station, and one of us will say, ‘I just read the coolest story. We have to have the person as a guest.’ The other person will say they saw the same story and thought the same thing.
“Sometimes, I can just look at Jeffrey and know exactly what he’s thinking. After three years of looking through the glass and watching him, you tend to pick up on things.”
On this visit, Mark Deven, the Woodland city manager, is the first guest via telephone. He discusses pending budget cuts and media buzz concerning the shooting of a Yolo County farmworker by plainclothes sheriffs.
Next up are Heidi Komlofske and Ross Rojek, co-founders of the Sacramento Book Review, and one of the publication’s prolific reviewers, Alex Telander. The segment details the business partners’ desire to build a sustainable regional publication in a tough economy. It’s a feature-oriented, lifestyle segment with a twist. Prior to his current employment, Rojek served a prison sentence for mail and wire fraud. Callison’s colleagues discussed the sensitive components of both segments’ guests prior to the show and Callison then covered the subjects on air.
“One thing I will say is that over the years, every time something risky crops up, I have to act on it,” Callison said. “If there’s a question that makes me nervous, I have to ask it. What I’ve learned is every single time I’ve been nervous to ask an important question and I ask it, I’m always glad I did. And every time I don’t, I’ve always regretted that I didn’t.”
Between introductory and closing music, promos and credits, four segments are now the norm for the Monday-through-Friday, one-hour program. Beyond book reviews and city politics, on this visit the show features a pre-taped segment with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, interviewed by CPR’s Capitol bureau chief Marianne Russ. It concludes with a telephone interview with Christin Hanna and some of her students. A part-time area junior-college student, Hanna is founder and director of the Tahoe Youth Ballet.
Insight is fast-paced magazine-style radio reporting. It’s topical without any sense of in-your-face headlines, and it’s a strong example of a modernization of NPR. The network’s stigma as a magnet for dull afternoon talk shows whose hosts discuss tree fungus and holiday cookie recipes has all but dissipated with a nationwide broadcasting makeover.
“What I bring to Insight is a background in journalism and in entertainment,” offered Callison. “And I think what you need to do in an interview is find the right balance between the two. Sometimes, if it’s a really important topic, it’s maybe 90 percent as a journalist and 10 percent as an entertainer.
“But if it’s a light topic, you’ll flip it around and just keep it slightly anchored as a serious thing. But you have to make sure it’s light and entertaining.”Never not working
In-studio guests to Insight are greeted by a receptionist and then escorted by one of the show’s producers to a “green room” just across the hallway from the on-air studio. Guests can listen to other guests’ interviews, and they’re then again escorted across the hall by a producer for their interview.
The on-air studio is dominated by radio equipment, sound-level monitors, long, moveable microphones and a plain motif of plain desks, walls and chairs. A small, rectangular “On-Air” sign is positioned above the studio entrance door.
“I have to say that I don’t really know that I am ever truly not working,” said Callison, who estimates he conducts 1,000 interviews per year. “Because even if I’m just sitting watching TV, things crop up. It’s the nature of the business. But there’s another factor, too, that helps to do something like what I do. And that is there’s a technique in interviewing that stands you in good stead whether or not you’ve had any time to prepare or not.
“There are general ways of interviewing people. There’s a big difference between interviewing someone for a story or interviewing someone live on the radio, and having been a reporter myself, I’m very aware of the differences.” If you’re interviewing someone for a story, he said, you can usually take your time and come back later if you didn’t get everything you needed.
“But when it’s live on the radio, there has to be an arch. It needs to start somewhere and end up somewhere. And it needs to have the length it deserves, whether it’s four minutes or 24 minutes. And sometimes that also means using an interview technique where you don’t have time to prepare.”
Insight isn’t geared toward investigative journalism, nor is it always just dialogue between host and guest. Not too dissimilar from all but gone freeform commercial FM stations, Insight often features in-studio musical guests—such as Sacramento stalwarts Mumbo Gumbo, chamber music, tenor saxophone great Sonny Rollins and youth choirs. Callison appreciates and praises musicians, but he’s at his best with one-on-one interviews.
“People understand they’re on a live radio program,” he said. “I think questions should be fair. I mean, we’re not plucking things out of thin air for sensational purposes. It has to be legitimate. It has to be connected to the issue we’re talking about. We’re not just going to dig into some person’s past just to embarrass them. But if the topic is relevant but awkward, you still have to bring it up.”
Callison has utilized guest hosts during his five-year tenure. But after several-thousand interviews, he’s stated matter-of-factly that no one has ever walked out, refused to answer a question or responded to a question in disparaging terms. Yet he also explained plenty of guests are apprehensive to appear because of their perception of public radio, particularly guests from conservative organizations.
In many cities around the country, including Sacramento, NPR is often regarded as liberal radio featuring programs with lofty agendas. Callison related, however, that repeated demographic studies reveal a CPR audience divided nearly equally among liberals, moderates and conservatives.
“Guests have arrived here thinking it’s to be a trap,” said Callison. “They think we’re nothing but a liberal organization, and it’s going to be a Bill O’Reilly in reverse. But we have no interest in that whatsoever. It’s very satisfying to me when people who are part of an ongoing debate leave here feeling like they got a fair shake and their opponents also felt like they got a fair shake.”Endlessly curious
Despite Insight’s innovation, broadcast-schedule changes can be disastrous for radio programs. That’s what Insight faced in March, when two former NPR shows geared to niche ethnic market shares were scrapped via budget cuts. As a result, Insight was switched from its former 2-3 p.m. perch to its current 10-11 a.m. position. What had begun as a one-topic afternoon program with listener call-ins had morphed into a four-segment, quicker-paced morning show without call-ins.
“Jeffrey is endlessly curious,” said CPR station manager Carl Watanabe. “Insight is now faster-paced with a quickly moving audience. Jeffrey has so many interests—that’s what makes him good at show like this.”
Insight is now sandwiched between Fresh Air, the NPR interview program hosted by Terry Gross for the last three decades, and Talk of the Nation, the news/interview/call-in program. The change couldn’t have been more fortunate, since Insight’s lead-in and exit shows are among NPR’s most popular programs.
“It was a positive thing; it was a really good move,” said producer Picard. “The lead-in to Terry Gross is great, and then to go into Talk of the Nation, is great, too. It has a lot of Sacramento listeners and callers.
“But there’s also something about the morning. People are just more awake and with it in the morning. So not only do we have our listeners paying more attention, we need to be way more on the ball. It’s been amazing,” said Picard. “Of course, we were a little bit nervous about the move. We had to speed it up, add more to our plate (four segments instead of three) and be on a new time. It was little bit nerve-racking. But in a way, it now seems this is the way we’ve been the whole time.”
“I have been at the station since the beginning of Insight,” said Dennis Newhall, the longtime Sacramento radio broadcaster who does evening shifts on CPR during its KXJZ jazz programming. “I think it has grown to become a valuable resource for anyone in the community who wants to learn more about the issues that are important here, as well as to stay informed about entertainment opportunities.” He added that, recently, resources have been brought into play to expand Insight’s musical segments with entire bands set up for live (sometimes taped) performances.
“The value of such programming cannot be underestimated. I think Jeffrey’s interest in his subjects, and in the show in general, is acute. He spends a lot of time and effort to present a cohesive, interesting daily hour.”
Callison and Picard pick most of the show’s guests. But Insight’s steady rotation of interns contribute ideas, too. They also conduct research on guests, write segment copy and record promos and station IDs. The group meets about 30 minutes prior to each show for last-minute updates and then evaluates each show within minutes after the broadcast.
With his enthusiasm and animated style, Callison is skilled at putting guests at ease. It’s a style that works for radio, and it would likely work just as well in a visual medium.
Callison remembered Insight’s very first show during a recent interview and, in a follow-up e-mail, provided more detail. The first guests were: developer Tony Giannoni, then Sacramento City Councilman Dave Jones and John Thomas, president of Maloof Sports and Entertainment. The topic was a new arena for Sacramento, the now failed idea Giannoni had publicly suggested building on K Street.
Callison’s recalled being fearful that no one would listen to the program and no one would want to be a guest. But neither scenario was ever an issue. Within the first week of the show, controversial former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante was a guest. Callison remembered Bustamante as unexpectedly candid.
Nevertheless, while topical, Insight also had the potential for bad radio. After all, it was part of NPR, a network often misunderstood and often the subject of dry, hilarious routines for national comedy troupes.
Likely the most well-known parody of NPR is the Saturday Night Live skit where cast members host the NPR program Delicious Dish. During a winter holiday, wearing old-fashioned Christmas sweaters, the hosts—in perfect deadpan—are discussing Christmas treats with Pete Schweddy. Played by Alec Baldwin in grand monotone, Schweddy introduces the secret of his family recipe for Schweddy Balls. The skit, in which its players remain stoic despite hilarious comic material, is still often broadcast on SNL anniversary shows and is a YouTube favorite.
Callison is aware of NPR’s staid reputation and believes public radio should consider the success of commercial radio and apply doses of its entertainment qualities.
“There’s a desire to be the opposite of commercial radio,” he explained. “While it’s good to avoid the sensational, crass, hype and all that stuff, it doesn’t therefore mean you go to the complete opposite. There are things that work about commercial radio; that’s why people listen to it.
“What we want to do at Capital Public Radio is not be old-school public radio, but to be lively and real and to make sure there’s always substance.”