Melissa Block ’83 feigned dismay as she began her lecture shortly after 4:00 p.m. on March 11, facing a capacity crowd at Radcliffe Gymnasium. Addressing an audience that normally would have been listening to her on their car or kitchen radios at that hour, the veteran cohost of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered joked, “There’s going to be a big dip in the ratings for our local stations today.”
Block was introduced by the Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski, who praised the prizewinning reporter for doing “what the best journalists do: she steps out of the way and puts the story ever first.” During a tightly scripted presentation that included reflections on the history of All Things Considered, the growing impact of digital media, and the increasingly compressed daily news cycle, Block did step out of the way several times, sharing audio clips that conveyed both an insider’s view of radio and a sense of the medium’s reach and 21st-century relevance.
From a tongue-in-cheek segment on a day in the life of an All Things Considered reporter to a reprise of her haunting, on-the-scene coverage of a 2008 earthquake that killed close to 70,000 people in China’s Sichuan Province, the audio snapshots demonstrated the range and force of what Block later called NPR’s “intimate mode of storytelling.” “We take you around the world and deep into people’s minds,” she commented.
Block said that style of reporting has remained a constant during her nearly three decades at the network, as has the extent to which women’s voices have defined NPR’s broadcasts. In the tradition of the network’s “founding mothers” Susan Stamberg, Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg, and Linda Wertheimer, Block said, the new generation of “fearless women reporters” who are covering violent uprisings in countries such as Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Yemen “have produced some of the most riveting journalism I’ve ever heard, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.”
Block noted aspects of her daily work that have changed during her NPR tenure: unwieldy, reel-to-reel tape machines have been replaced by tiny flash card recorders; the network’s foreign bureaus have grown from one in 1984 to 20 today; and communicating with far-flung correspondents is now a matter of “a couple of clicks on a cell phone” instead of hours of dialing and redialing via Telex.
But progress has come at a price. Along with the positive changes brought by expanding coverage and evolving technologies has come the reality of “a news cycle in overdrive,” Block noted. “No one waits for the evening news to find out what’s going on.” The pitfalls of what she termed “the headlong rush to be first” were plainly apparent in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act, when several major news outlets (not NPR) misreported that a central tenet of the law had been struck down.
“What’s the shame in taking the time to digest a complicated story?” Block asked. “How much credibility is lost when you get the story exactly wrong? I would say it’s immeasurable.”