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Martha Little Settles in at WBUR

A news director looking for “the narrative arc”

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“We do a better job of sucking listeners in to the radio when we can pull at their heart strings,” says Martha Little, who started as WBUR news director September 1.

Only essentials decorate Martha Little’s bare, white-walled office at WBUR. Her knit purse is tossed beside a pair of running shoes stuffed with socks. An apple perches next to her computer. A giant coffee mug labeled “Death Before Decaf” sits on her desk.

Since starting September 1, the news director at Boston University’s National Public Radio station has spent most of her office time in serial meetings with management and staff, leaving few moments to settle in. Wrapping herself in a brown sweater to ward off the air-conditioned chill, Little, 47, settles into a chair for one of her last Friday afternoon meetings.

The public radio veteran says she is enjoying her first strictly managerial gig with NPR. “I’m at the point of my career when I want to exercise my management muscle, ” she says.

That exercise included a coast-to-coast journey. Little was the senior supervisory editor of NPR’s Culver City, Calif.–based midday news magazine Day to Day until March 2009, when the show, along with News & Notes, was axed. She was among 64 employees laid off in an attempt to close a $23 million budget shortfall.

WBUR and its management team were familiar to Little. Three years ago she was offered the position of managing editor; she declined, feeling it was not the right time. Still, she has always liked the Boston team, and the feeling is mutual. Little says that general manager Paul La Camera (COM’66) and managing editor of news and programming Sam Fleming told her, “If we don’t get you this time, we’re going to try to get you again.”

Shortly after the February layoff, Little contacted Fleming about East Coast positions with NPR. With former news director John Davidow bumping up to executive editor in charge of the station’s newly revamped Web site, Little soon was chosen to assume his former role.

“It was a good fit for me,” she says. “It’s sort of the right position at this point in my career.”

She plans to spend more time in the newsroom, observing the work flow shift by shift, making sure the operation runs smoothly. “This team really needs encouragement and direction, and that’s where I can help them,” Little says. “Eventually I hope I can cut the cords a bit and they can fly off on their own.”

Discussing reporters’ long-term projects to help them find the balance “to serve the beast” of daily news reporting is another goal. The Boston team is a talented group, she says, but could benefit from fixes in story structure to make their work really zing. She wants reporters to think of stories as mini-screenplays in which the listener follows a central character or conflict through a narrative arc.

“I think it’s very important for radio pieces to connect on an emotional level,” she says. “We do a better job of sucking listeners in to the radio when we can pull at their heart strings” — while providing news.

Little earned a bachelor’s in international relations from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s in international political economy from the University of Southern California. She credits her education with giving her the framework to analyze journalistic structure.

Her first media job was as editor of a magazine on Russian business development. She moved into radio to become the senior news editor for American Public Media’s daily business program Marketplace.

Little is looking for more coverage of local immigrant communities and for Boston-based stories to consider national or international context. So far, her bosses are on board. “I feel no resistance to trying new things,” she says.

Returning to Massachusetts is a reconnection with her “heart place,” as her husband, Emmy award-winning television editor Raoul Rosenberg, calls it. Their two sons, August and Willem, miss the warmer, sunnier California weather, but are adjusting well. Living in Brookline has its perks: Little has parked her car for five days at a time without turning over the engine, walks or bikes to work, has a grocery store nearby, and her sons’ buddies live in the same neighborhood — all not possible in L.A.

Boston also promises cultural treats, but Little isn’t yet able to say how she’s using her free time.

“I don’t know yet,” she says. “I don’t have a life outside.”

1 Comments

One Comment on Martha Little Settles in at WBUR

  • Jemimah on 09.24.2009 at 3:57 pm

    As a huge fan of WBUR’s news, I’m not sure I like the direction Ms. Little wants to take the station. “Pull at their heart strings?” If I want that, I can watch network news stories about puppies in drain pipes. That’s not why I listen and contribute to WBUR. I also have to say that her remarks about her new news team are a bit condescending, and don’t imagine that they like hearing that, like wayward children, they need “encouragement and direction.”
    Maybe the new News Director just felt like she needed to justify her nascent position at this great radio station, so she grabbed at “to-do” straws for this interview. I hope so.
    p.s. Doesn’t Bianca Vasquez-Toness do a good number of stories on immigrants??

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