short takes

Cad Call

A journalist's stutter is a curse and a blessing
May 15, 2009

A stutter is not something I’d wish upon anyone (though I could be tempted). Mine is blessedly behind me, for the most part. But it comes back on occasion; and usually at the worst moments for a reporter, such as when I’m trying to establish trust on the phone, or have to approach a prominent person in a noisy, public setting.

My humiliation has not been entirely for naught, however. I came to realize that a stutter could disarm, and even bestir a desire to help. More, people reveal themselves in their instinctive response to another’s distress. I didn’t have to finish my question—in the middle of which I stuttered badly—to see that Ray Flynn, Boston’s former mayor, was a functioning human being. His eyes showed genuine concern. In a similar situation, Pete Rose, the disgraced former batting star, gave me a look of incomprehension. Former New York mayor Ed Koch was his usual unpleasant self—though in fairness, I can’t remember whether it was my stutter, or just him.

Working at a small media outlet provides something of a similar window. I host a weekly show on KWMR-FM, the community station that serves the rural, western side of Marin County, California. We have a committed audience of avid readers, and so it is an especially good venue for writers. But an e-mail from me is not like a call from Oprah’s booker, or one from the Today show; and the way prominent people respond can reveal something about them that Oprah probably doesn’t get to see.

To be sure, I generally try to avoid big shots. They just aren’t as interesting as the lesser-knowns who are hungry for at-bats. As a reporter in Boston, I found that statehouse pols were candid and unrehearsed—qualities less evident in say, members of Congress. I can’t blame them, given the gaffe baiting they usually face. Still, if someone has been all over the media, I don’t see why my listeners need to hear them again.

It’s not a hard rule, however, and some media celebs have been gracious in the extreme. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek is one. Ralph Nader, too—he has talked on my show as though to a packed hall in New York. But not all on the left are so egalitarian. David Barsamian, the radio personality and author, was so ill tempered that he made my studio engineer shudder.

At least Barsamian showed up. I had reservations about inviting John McWhorter, the linguist at the Manhattan Institute. He’s another who moves in the media fast lane. But I like to talk with genuine conservatives (as opposed to right-wing ideologues), and he seemed to be one. (One of my best shows ever was with Dr. Leon Kass, who chaired George W. Bush’s commission on bioethics.) Besides, language is so inherently interesting, and the connections to politics so fertile, that when McWhorter published another book—Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue—I couldn’t resist.

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But when I called at the appointed time, there was no answer. This is the moment a radio host dreads. I had to fill the hour with riffs on the book, which, unfortunately, was a disappointment—contentious where it should have evoked. McWhorter never got back to me to apologize, as others have, even after I contacted his assistant. I have a feeling he doesn’t behave that way with Oprah, and others of her stature.

But then there’s Jonathan Schell, whom I reached on his cell phone at a restaurant. He too had forgotten; but he insisted on leaving his friends to drive home and do the show. Thanks again, Jonathan. There’s a place for you in small-station heaven.

Jonathan Rowe is a contributing editor to the Washington Monthly and YES! magazine. The Glaser Progress Foundation provided support for this article.