Welcome to Boston Mamas Rock! – where we’re giving a voice to fabulous local mamas from all walks of life. Read on for today’s interview with Anna Bensted, mother of two, executive producer of WBUR’s Inside Out, and impromptu open house thrower for hundreds of Harvard undergraduate students. Then go ahead and nominate yourself or a friend!
Christine: Tell us a little bit about yourself Anna. I know you are a veteran in radio programming (including 15 years with the BBC). Were you always passionate about communications? Did you have an alternate path before launching into the world of broadcast media?
Anna: I didn't get hooked on radio until after university. I was at the start of what I was convinced would be a very respectable career in publishing. But I was also volunteering at a local radio station in the evening - to help out and to get to know people in a town new to me. One fun part was doing live programs for all the local hospitals. I am sure the patients went home sooner, just to avoid our dreadful shows. Anyway, I soon realized I was going to have to give up the well-regarded job in publishing - even if that seemed a little crazy The spoken word turned out to be much more alluring for me than the printed. So I chucked in the day job, went off to India for 6 months with my sister, trekked up near the Everest base camp in Nepal, came back, and went knocking on the door of the BBC. Following a few months of training there doing all sorts of production work, plus some embarrassing on-air learning, I was asked to fill in for a host who was away. After that, they gave me a staff position – I’ve been in radio ever since.
Christine: OK, so I’ll admit that I know nothing about documentary production. What is the origin of the fascinating stories you cover? Do reporters pitch topics they are passionate about? Do you cast out assignments based on what’s on topic in the news? Is it some collaboration of the two?
Anna: Ah, where do the ideas come from... it's both easier and more difficult if you are not part of a newsroom dedicated to daily news stories. Sometimes it's really a gut feeling about a change that's going on - maybe in the way people are living out their daily lives. We are doing a documentary right now on what it means to be middle class in America in 2008. I am also working on a series about the way Boston looks so different these days - new buildings, new spaces, the new energy from that. Certainly other people at the station suggest ideas.
Reporter Rachel Gotbaum was insistent last summer that we needed to do a series of reports on what's happening to primary care in America; the result - a documentary called "The Doctor Can't See You Now." It really seemed to hit a chord with listeners when it aired this spring. The great thing about having the time - and time is the luxury in this business - and working as I do with a very talented fellow producer like George Hicks, is that it means that as a team we can fine-tune material until it's as right as we can get it.
Christine: Has a particular documentary really stuck with you? Why? What has moved you the most in the work that you do?
Anna: There are programs and moments from interviews that have stayed with me for years after we have finished mixing a broadcast. I can hear them in my head now. And yes I have to admit (I'm looking ahead at your next question!) they are mostly pretty "heavy" moments. Reporter Michael Goldfarb's tape from a young girl who had not spoken a word after being tortured in Africa. Years later she was working with a therapist who got her to play the drums while she was being asked to remember what had happened. Her beat on the drums got louder and louder, faster and faster until the sound became furious. As I listened it was chilling, I could hear the young woman's anger and pain pouring out. In fact after those sessions, she began to speak. When Anthony Brooks was reporting on the use of the death penalty in this country he asked one man who had been exonerated after years on death row, what he had wanted most as compensation. I can still hear the answer, spoken with the utmost dignity: "I just wanted someone to say they were sorry." These are just seconds worth of sound, of voice. But to me, and I hope to listeners, these are stories that bring home so much that goes on around the world with little coverage.
I love oral history too, and we sometimes get that into our programs. Sean Cole collected tape from three American sailors who had taken the ship Exodus from here to Europe in 1947 and onto what was then Palestine. There were thousands of Jewish refugees on board. To hear, 60 years later, those three guys talking with such emotion about what that trip meant to them, what they and the refugees went through, was very moving. And we cover more recent history too as we did with a documentary about the Boston Medical Center. Hearing of the dedication of the people who went through an incredibly fraught time to ensure that this city has a hospital where all can go to receive proper medical treatment, to hear that sense of mission was inspiring. I am sure you can tell that now I've started it's difficult to stop thinking of the voices, the audio scenes that we have worked on. There's an awful lot of great material these reporters bring back.
Christine: Human trafficking. British Jihad. The death penalty. You cover some pretty heavy stuff. What do you do to keep things light at the office?
Anna: Well, yes it's true, heavy stuff. That's where my instinct takes me - there are too many serious problems around the world to spend much time on light-hearted stuff. But we are not miserable at work, I promise. You can tell what nerds we are if I tell you that we amused ourselves one afternoon by playing a piece of tape again and again in which a Norwegian scientist out on an Arctic ice sheet got so excited about an ice measurement (another jolly topic for us - the effect of melting ice caps) that he let out squeals of delight and some truly formidable strings of expletives. All done in English but with a wonderfully rich Norwegian accent. His guffaws of delight and the swearing made him utterly endearing. I love meeting and hearing from people who are passionate about their work. The other aspect of daily life at the radio station that's fun is that I get to hear stories and jokes from some of the WBUR personalities…that all helps. Bill Littlefield is a great storyteller and he has a wicked sense of humor - to use my son's turn of phrase. The people who work at WBUR are a remarkable bunch; there are lots of gifted musicians, storytellers, joke tellers, literary types, political junkies - I know it will probably sound corny but it is a privilege to work amongst them.
Christine: And related to the above, do you find you are able to let your work go when it’s time to punch out? Have particular topics been hard to let go of when you leave the office?
Anna: It’s very, very hard to let go of the work when I go home. I'm always thinking about what we could be doing to improve our stories, how we can find the most important ones to tell, worrying about how - with a traditional medium like radio - we can keep up with the changing habits of our audience. Always worrying about whether we have got a story right, did I make the right choice in an edit, was it right to add that music, choose that interviewee…What are our new programs are like, are they effective, are we doing the best for our listeners…Are they ways I can better help the people at the station… It’s not the sort of job you can leave behind!
Christine: As executive producer of Inside Out, do you find that your role as a mom equips you well for the job? Any particularly humorous anecdotes you’d like to share? Feel free to substitute real names for initials.
Anna: Yes, definitely. There is another producer here who has children of a similar age and we compare notes about how trying to get reporters to finish their stories is like getting your kids to tidy their room. We give them false deadlines with minor threats: "If it's not done by…" And that sounds an awful lot like what I used to say to my poor son Piero. Newsrooms can get pretty tense, so knowing how to calm things down can be very useful. I haven't used a time out…yet. Also, it's not a very fancy life in public radio, and the occasional plate of cakes or sweet treats can buck people up a bit. But in the end what it's all about is that WBUR people are happy if a program has gone well or if there's good feedback from the audience.
Christine: My understanding is that your sons are grown (and out of the house?), but when they were little how did you juggle the demands of your career? How did you handle maternity leave (short, long, long stretch out of the workforce then ramped back in, etc.)?
Anna: Yes, both my sons are in college. When they were little it was indeed tough. I went through many variations of a working day: full-time (but I was too sad at being away from my sons all day) so then part-time (first time my BBC boss had given out a part-time job) followed by three-quarters time (the program needed more of me but I still had time to be with my lads in the afternoon) then working from home not in an office (having moved to the US from the UK I needed to be with the boys while they settled into the school here but wanted to keep my BBC work up) and now finally full-time again at WBUR.
And nothing beats a supportive and housework-loving husband. We've been lucky enough that he has flexibility in his work and that's been a great boon. But more than that it's been his instinct to fully share everything about bringing up a family. At one point for example he took over making the school lunches when I started working on a very early shift, a breakfast show. He prepared these lovely lunches for them and started making them for me too. Now our sons are grown, he still makes a lunch every day for me to bring to work.
Christine: Do you have any pearls of wisdom for moms who are considering ramping back into the workforce?
Anna: Yes I do indeed. Don't be too hard on yourself about getting it all just right. I spent too long wanting to get the whole work/family balance perfect. There are bound to be periods when childcare set-ups are OK but not ideal, or work is taking too much of a back seat. But take the long view; kids are tougher than we think and will be fine even if arrangements aren't perfect, and there will be a time when, if you want to, you can kick into top gear for work. Just keep a foot in the work door until that point comes.
Christine: I understand that your husband is a housemaster at Harvard. Do you find undergrads on your door constantly? Looking for food? Internships? A job at WBUR?
Anna: Not too many unexpected calls for help or for food. We have great resident tutors and deans in the house who look after the daily needs of the students and we have a wonderful dining hall open most of the day. I often do open houses for the students over the weekend and I am getting pretty snappy at buying food for two hundred on Sunday morning and laying it out in the evening for them to have something a little special. I'll do all chocolate desserts, or masses of cheeses or an Indian evening with lots of spicy stuff and Tabla music from some of our students. It's hard work but fun to do because the students really seem to appreciate it. We also often eat in the main dining hall and my husband is rightly proud of the fact that he knows each of the 450 students by name. I don't do quite so well on that front!
And yes, every year there are students who are interested in a media career so it's good to talk to them about my experiences in radio; sometimes I bring them over and show them around the station. Some students say they get a kick out of waking up, turning on the radio and hearing me fundraising very early in the morning. That offsets to some extent knowing that thousands of WBUR listeners wake up, hear the fundraising, and groan loudly.
Christine: And finally, what’s your favorite thing about being a Boston mama?
Anna: Being in a city that kids can grow with and find something for each stage. It's a good-sized city, and it's changing all the time. For the series I'm working on with reporter Ken Shulman, "Boston by Design," our team is going out with these wonderful articulate and charismatic architects, historians, and designers - they are explaining for our audience just how much the face of Boston is changing. With the Central Artery gone, there's a new feel to the city and I think that's great for kids as well as adults. It makes for a more vibrant place. There's all the history too. For the program we take a trip down Washington Street and Congress Street and there's so much that can be told about Boston in just those two streets. I came home after the first day of recording and realized how much more there is to Boston than I'd realized, so much to discover, and that's what makes it a good place to be a Boston Mama.
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