Issue 19.6: December 2016/January 2017

From Mic to Mac Nuts

National Public Radio veteran Neal Conan settles into a life (mostly) off the air
Story by Michael Shapiro. Photos by Megan Spelman.

Like a lot of small farmers around the country, Richard Vernon was already struggling when the drought of 2012 hit. His dairy herd had dwindled to a hundred head, and he’d had to borrow against the farm to keep even those cattle fed.

“This is our way of life,” Vernon said to Neal Conan, the host of National Public Radio’s popular call-in show Talk of the Nation, “and we don’t have perhaps another year or two at best to hang on.”

Six months later, for a retrospective show featuring memorable callers from the previous year, Conan checked in with Vernon to see how he was doing. Badly, it turned out: The rising cost of diesel and grain had further squeezed him. He couldn’t buy Christmas gifts for his four kids. He’d had to let land go. Yet Vernon stayed positive, even crediting Conan and TotN for helping him endure. “There were times in my tractor, when my cattle were bawling … and I don’t have enough feed to give them,” he said. “And I want to get out of the tractor and give up and walk away and just be lost. But instead I stayed in the tractor and listened to you guys that I can get through this day. So thank you guys for being what you are to all of us, people like us that are just barely hanging on by a thread.”

“That call was extraordinary,” says Conan today, when I ask him which among the thousands he took as host of TotN stood out. “But they were almost all calls from people telling their stories. We tried to structure the show that way: I don’t necessarily want to hear your opinion on the Middle East or Turkey. What I want to hear is your story. You’re an expert on your own life. You can tell me why you did something, how it changed you, what’s different now. That tells someone in Oshkosh or Maine or Hawai‘i what you’re going through. That’s unique. That’s fantastic stuff.”

And it was one of the reasons listeners tuned in to NPR’s only national call-in program. Another was Conan’s deftness at the mic: his civility in handling difficult callers, his erudition, his ability to elicit those stories. By the time Conan ended his eleven-plus years as host in 2013, 407 stations were carrying the show to four million listeners each week, “the largest audience in its history and no small achievement for a midday program,” says Conan. During his tenure, TotN grew to become the third most popular news show on NPR, behind flagship programs All Things Considered and Morning Edition, and it ranked among the top ten call-in radio shows nationwide.

Which made NPR’s decision to cancel TotN in 2013 all the more baffling. Though NPR execs denied it was a budgetary decision, the organization was in a seven-million-dollar hole at the time. Conan learned of the cancellation three months before it was announced publicly, and in keeping with the gentility of his on-air persona, he never broadcast so much as a quaver of dismay. But once the news broke, TotN’s audience was as openly incensed and bereft as Conan had been privately. It wasn’t a loss just for him professionally, but also, he believes, for the national discourse. “There are so many moments when there’s a real need for people to talk to each other about how they’re reacting to various national crises,” he says. Few know the depth of this need better than Conan: September 11, 2001, was his second day hosting TotN. The show, he says dryly, “might have been useful during the 2016 presidential election.”

Neal Conan at the microphone during the final broadcast of Talk of the Nation in 2013. Conan hosted the popular National Public Radio call-in show for more than eleven years, but many listeners were unaware that he was a veteran journalist who’d been with NPR for thirty-six years as a writer, producer, correspondent and bureau chief.

On June 27, 2013, Conan signed off with a simple “bye-bye,” bringing his thirty-six-year career at NPR to a close. That same day, Don Marsh, host of Missouri Public Radio’s St. Louis on the Air, interviewed Conan and asked about his plans. “I suspect I’ll get more sleep,” he joked. “I plan to relax for the next six months or so. Travel. I want to go to beautiful places and talk to people and figure out what I want to do next.”

Conan found that beautiful place, where today he’s something of a small farmer himself, if by default. The property he bought in Hāwī, on Hawai‘i Island, came with 175 mature macadamia nut trees, the fruit of which he and his partner, writer Gretel Ehrlich, dutifully harvest. “We collect ’em, trade ’em, share ’em with our friends,” Conan quips as we walk the orchard with Ehrlich. And they sell a few, too: “Twenty-six thousand pounds last year!” If gentleman farmer seems a bit outside the wheelhouse for a guy who spent most of his life since age 17 in radio studios and newsrooms on the East Coast, it is.

Conan cut his teeth at counterculture station WBAI in New York, “the Village Voice of radio,” he says, which was at the center of the upheavals of the 1960s. “As a kid it was magical. Mostly I was behind the scenes, working as a board operator, which is not a glamorous job. But I did station breaks—‘Coming up next we have a conversation recorded at the Contra Costa Country Club in Contra Costa County, Contra Costa, California.’ Say that four times fast.” By 18 he’d moved up to the news department and onto the air covering Vietnam, the antiwar movement and Watergate. “At one time I was confident in saying I’d covered more demonstrations than anybody else on the planet,” he says.

Conan at work in the home studio in Hāwī, on Hawai‘i Island, that he shares with his partner Gerta Ehrlich. The couple met six years ago.

Conan left WBAI and worked briefly in commercial radio, where he met news anchor Robert Siegel, who’s now a household voice to every public radio listener. Siegel brought Conan along at the fledgling NPR to work on All Things Considered. “That was a tremendous experience,” he says. “I was coming into the organization very young—27 years old. We have interns at NPR now who are 27, and I was producing All Things Considered. I’d never been to college. You couldn’t begin to get a job there with my experience now. The show took off, and I’ll always be really proud of being a little part of that.”

Once All Things Considered hit its stride, Conan returned to New York as a reporter, then headed to London, where he worked as NPR’s bureau chief. “As I used to say, I was the only on-staff NPR correspondent between Montauk Point and Diamond Head.” While in the UK Conan had his first taste of war reporting in Northern Ireland, an experience that would serve him well when, several years later, he was captured by Saddam Hussein’s forces.

“It’s really hard to find people anywhere who have had as much worldly experience as he has,” says Ehrlich (pictured above). “I can write fast,” says Conan, “but boy she can turn a phrase. She’s a really good writer.”

In 1991 Conan arrived in Kuwait City a day before the first Gulf War ended and ran into his friend Chris Hedges, then a correspondent for the New York Times. Hedges was heading to Basra to cover a rebellion, and Conan wanted to join him. “So we drove up the next day, and we got captured by Iraqi forces who’d been stranded south of Basra. Regular army—cannon fodder, in other words. At that point the war was over. They said, ‘Didn’t you realize that you were entering Iraq illegally?’ I said, ‘Yeah, me and those half a million American troops down the road.’” The Iraqis turned Conan, Hedges and four other journalists they’d detained over to Saddam’s Republican Guard, who kept them captive as they headed back toward Baghdad. But a bridge across the Euphrates in the city of Ur had been destroyed; a pontoon bridge had been built, but the convoy had to wait for a slack tide to cross. “So we’re sitting there parked on the main street of Ur, lined up tail to nose. Sure enough as dusk fell we were ambushed. This is one of those moments … your first thought is self-preservation, your next thought is: All right, we’re in a firefight between the Iraqi Republican Guard and Shia rebels—whose side are you on?”

The journalists survived and were handed over to the Red Cross in Baghdad a few days later. Conan returned a little wiser (“I now know how to reload an AK-47”), a little afflicted with PTSD “in ways I didn’t understand at the time,” but not cowed. During the ordeal “I thought about a lot of things,” he says, “but not for a second about changing careers. It was really interesting.”

Portrait of the journalist as a younger man: Conan at NPR headquarters circa 1989, when he was executive producer of the network’s signature news program, All Things Considered. To his left is Ann Hampton Sides, then a production assistant, and facing away from the camera is news anchor Robert Siegel.

If nut farming isn’t quite as interesting for the erstwhile “golden-throated radio announcer,” as Conan jokingly called him-self three weeks before the end of TotN, it’s even less exciting for Ehrlich, who was raised on a horse farm near Santa Barbara and owned a cattle ranch in the mountains of Wyoming. She wrote of that experience in The Solace of Open Spaces, a 1985 memoir that essentially launched her literary career. She went on to write many books of essays, memoir, fiction and poetry, including This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland, an account of her visits to the Arctic, and Facing the Wave—recounting her travels along the devastated coast of Japan in the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake—which was nominated for a 2013 National Book Award.

For someone as tough and cattle-hardened as Ehrlich, mac nuts are downright boring. Still, the couple is fighting other new-to-Hawai‘i battles. The vegetable garden’s been ravaged twice by feral pigs. Then a pounding rain left only the kale unbruised. And they’ve learned that some things, like tomatoes, just don’t take to Hawai‘i. That goes for people, too: Ehrlich isn’t yet sold. “I’m adjusting,” she demurs. “I’m used to forty below in winter”—which is one reason they now divide their time between Hawai‘i and Wyoming: Her cabin at 8,300 feet isn’t the kind of place most people would choose to winter.

The two “met” on the air in 2004, when Conan interviewed Ehrlich—he from NPR headquarters in DC, she in California—about her then-new book, The Future of Ice. “He didn’t know much about climate change in the Arctic,” Ehrlich gibes, “so I wasn’t very impressed.” They met incarnate about six years ago, when Conan was in Wyoming touring with a show called First Person: Seeing America. “We hit it off right away,” says Conan. “Almost instantly,” Ehrlich agrees. “That’s the scary part. I was terrified because you couldn’t find two … how do you say it …?”

“More dissimilar,” says Conan.

“More dissimilar people than us. Totally urban, totally country.”

Whatever their superficial dissimilarities, it’s clear Ehrlich and Conan share an abiding respect for one another, he for her writing talent, she for his worldly experience. But there’s something else at work in their connection.

“We’ve both faced death straight on,” says Ehrlich. “I was hit by lightning,” an experience she chronicled in her 1994 book, A Match to the Heart, “and he was captured in war.”

“And it was the same year,” Conan says.

“And what happens to your life after. This tumbling turmoil. We both kind of lost our marriages in different ways for different reasons. It’s never quite right again.”

“It’s never quite the same,” says Conan. “That’s for sure.”

“You might think they’re different,” Ehrlich says, “but ranch life and the life of a correspondent are somewhat similar. Every day something either goes wrong or you’re being assaulted by the enemy or some life-and-death thing is happening. Ranching is hard. You’ve got to be sharp, and the weather is always doing horrible things to you. You learn to sleep anywhere, get on anyone’s horse or set a guy’s broken leg in the stirrup and send him down the hill. It’s constant. He was in Ireland during the Troubles, in the Middle East. Not everybody can handle that. But we like it. 
That’s where our sense of life comes from.”

Walking into the garage they’ve converted into a study is like entering two complementary hemispheres of a single, eclectic brain. Hers is the right side; the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves behind her desk groan under the weight of literature, poetry, nature writing. On her desk is her current project: the final draft of the novel she’s been writing for years, Gin Chow’s Book of Predictions, about drought in California. The left side, appropriately, is Conan’s. His equally distressed bookshelves sag with politics, biography, history—and baseball. Conan’s not just a fan, he says. “There are people harder core than me, but very few.” He even wrote a book on the subject, Play by Play: Baseball, Radio and Life in the Last Chance League. In 2000, after his trials in the desert, Conan took a break from public radio to call games for the Aberdeen Arsenal, a team from Maryland in the independent Atlantic League—a kind of minor league to the minor leagues. It didn’t pay much and the book didn’t sell (“both readers really liked it,” he says), but it was good practice for the two hours of live radio he would be doing on TotN the following year. “With play-by-play announcing, you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen,” he says, “so you’d best be ready to yak away.”

On Conan’s desk, too, is his current project: the microphone he uses to broadcast the Pacific News Minute for Hawai‘i Public Radio. After TotN was canceled, “it took me a while to get over being furious,” he says, “but I’ve always loved radio, and I want to keep doing it.” The nation’s loss is Hawai‘i’s gain, as Conan’s brief roundup of topics relating to the Asia-Pacific region and a weekly spot as news analyst on local talk show The Conversation are currently his only presence on the airwaves. There’s discussion of developing Pacific News Minute into something more substantial, a half-hour or even hour-long show in cooperation with Bill Dorman, HPR’s news director and the voice of The Asia Minute. The working concept, says Conan, is “to do a show that focuses on the Asia-Pacific region based on the idea that Hawai‘i is in the center of the most dynamic, strategic, economically important part of the globe. In addition to China, Japan, Korea, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia—plus all these little places that nobody pays enough attention to.”

“Whatever the future holds,” I say, “the next step is to get you on the air more.”

“We’re rooting for that,” says Ehrlich.

“We’re rooting for that,” Conan affirms.

“It’s a terrible waste of a great mind,” says Ehrlich, “to have him picking nuts in the afternoon.” HH