WBUR’s On Point: three years, 40 stations — and growing
By Tim Stoddard
Public radio listeners tuning into WBUR on the evening of September 17, 2001, probably didn’t recognize the baritone behind the microphone on Special Coverage, a live five-hour show covering the nation’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Tom Ashbrook, a veteran print journalist, had been on the air only three times before that night, and he and the team of producers in the studio didn’t expect to be working together past New Year’s. But it was soon clear that there was something special in their coverage of the unfolding war in Afghanistan, the cleanup efforts at Ground Zero, and the controversial Patriot Act.
When Special Coverage ended in February 2002, Ashbrook and his team stayed on board and their program was reborn as On Point, a two-hour nightly show that delves into each day’s news and provides a forum for discussion and debate with listener call-ins. Three years out, On Point attracts a growing audience of listeners at about 40 stations around the country. In response to the show’s popularity, National Public Radio (NPR) this month began distributing On Point nationally. As the biggest name in public radio — and with vastly more marketing resources than WBUR — NPR should help On Point be picked up by many more stations around the country. NPR’s move is “a big endorsement,” says Ashbrook, “and we’re thrilled about it. But it’s the listeners voting with their ears that we’re most excited about.”
Born of fire
On Point is a hybrid talk show and newsmagazine featuring news debriefs from reporters in the field, in-depth conversations with newsmakers, thinkers, and callers, and personal reactions to news in the form of speech excerpts and radio-diaries recorded by listeners. Ashbrook is often joined by Jack Beatty, a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly.
On Point distinguishes itself from other programs, says Ashbrook, in its tone, style, and rhythm. “We were born out of the energy of the response to 9/11,” he says, “and I think the urgency and impatience for answers that followed 9/11 still inform the show in many ways. The ’90s were a great kind of holiday from history, but events came back with a vengeance in 2001, and we are in a time now of huge, urgent issues. We like to have fun with the show and we like to be adventurous, but at bottom, we want to urgently illuminate what the hell is going on in this world.”
If public radio is sometimes stereotyped as staid and boring, Ashbrook sees On Point as defying those characteristics. “Public radio came into its own in a time of relative calm, peace, and plenty,” he says. “I think that because of the circumstances of our birth On Point brings a different tone to its mission. I see the show as a kind of gladiator for NPR listeners. We really want answers — we don’t want pap.”
As it has evolved and flourished, On Point has filled a special niche in evening radio at 7 p.m., after All Things Considered, NPR’s evening news broadcast. “There was no other live program in public radio that took the news and really chewed it over with in-depth coverage every night,” says Sam Fleming, the station’s managing director of news and programming. “People didn’t have a reason to stay with us at night after All Things Considered, and now they really do. I hear over and over that people are not watching television as early in the evening as they used to because they enjoy listening to On Point so much.”
Raised on a farm in Illinois, Ashbrook attended Yale University and worked as a surveyor and dynamiter in Alaska’s oil fields before becoming a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe. An award-winning reporter, he spent 10 years covering Asia from India, Hong Kong, and Tokyo and served as Globe deputy managing editor until 1996, directing coverage of the end of the Cold War and of the Gulf War. But at the height of a dream career in journalism, he quit his job and started an Internet company with a college friend.
He left the burgeoning company in the fall of 2000 and was headed to New York on the morning of September 11, 2001, to meet with some venture capitalists about a new business. “When that day arrived, it just brought all of my newsroom instincts surging back to the fore,” he says. Ashbrook shelved his entrepreneurial plans and later that week received a phone call from WBUR. “NPR’s national staff was beginning to be run ragged from the heavy coverage in the aftermath,” he says, “and they told me that they needed fresh horses.” Two days later, he was on the air. “It was one of those duty-calls moments. What journalist could say no? It didn’t really matter that the medium was different.”
Ashbrook has surprised many radio veterans with his versatility. This was evident, says On Point senior producer Graham Griffiths, when Ashbrook hosted the show’s live coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions and of the New Hampshire primary. “Those events showcase the mental agility that Tom has,” says Griffith. “He doesn’t miss a beat on live coverage. It’s a real treat for producers to work with somebody of that talent.”
Ashbrook’s typical day starts with an editorial staff meeting at 12:30 p.m. detailing that evening’s program. Then he retreats to his office with “a mammoth packet” of reading that consumes much of his day. He returns to the studio midafternoon to prerecord interviews with far-flung reporters in Baghdad or Jerusalem or wherever the news is, then holds another editorial meeting before getting “in the groove” by 5:30 p.m., editing scripts right up until showtime. “It’s an amazing amount of material to be absorbed every day, every week,” he says. “It’s like drinking the river.”
It can be a rush, he says, to pull together a show in a few hours that showcases some of the leading thinkers of our time discussing news and ideas with listeners around the country.
While there have been many shows that the staff have savored, Griffith says, at the end of the day, that’s not the point of On Point. “We’re trying to create something that’s as close to a national dialogue as you can get,” he says. “We’re not doing it for the guests, we’re not doing it for us: we’re beholden to the listeners. That’s the driving force for us.”