Lessons From Liane: Be Patient, Give People Props

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Liane Hansen

Liane Hansen

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Liane Hansen is hosting NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday for the last time on May 29. She first came to NPR in 1979 as a production assistant on All Things Considered. After working various jobs in public broadcasting, she rose to the host chair of Weekend Edition Sunday in 1989. Host Michel Martin speaks with Hansen about her accomplishments, bucket list and future plans.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now it's time for our "Wisdom Watch." That's the part of the program where we speak with people who've gained wisdom from decades of achievement. Today, we speak with a woman who's been many things in her long career. She sold muffins, worked in a screw factory, and performed in community theater. But to millions of public radio listeners, she is simply the voice of Sunday morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY)

LIANE HANSEN: From NPR News in Washington, D.C., this is WEEKEND EDITION.

MARTIN: Liane Hansen first came to NPR back in 1979 as a production assistant on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And she took over the mic at WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY on November 5th, 1989. Since then, she has traveled around the country and the world, bringing her listeners stories about art and politics, conflicts and reconciliations and affairs of state - and of the heart.

And Liane Hansen is breaking our hearts, signing off for the last time this Sunday, May 29th. And she was nice enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studios. First Oprah, now you. What are you trying to do to us?

HANSEN: I don't know. I mean, I think I took a page from Oprah's book by announcing it a year early.

MARTIN: You two girls talk?

HANSEN: No, we didn't talk. I just thought giving people some notice rather than sort of just being disappeared. And personally, for me, I turn 60 this year, and I think it's a time for reinvention. So I am following that still-small voice inside me that says, do this.

MARTIN: At one point when you - as, you know, let us down - trying to let us down easy and set the date, you had a list of - a bucket list - stories that you wanted to be sure you fit into your last year hosting WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY. Any of the highlights you want to tell us about this past year?

HANSEN: Oh, Ringo Starr. I got to meet a Beatle, finally. On the last show, I'm actually going back to a couple of people who I interviewed early on. One is David Loxterkamp, who was a country doctor. And I just - he'll be on the show, telling us how his life has gone for the last 20 years.

And we've also invited David Kay back to the program. David Kay was a former weapons inspector, and he broke the news on WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And I wanted to check in with him not only about what he's doing - he's now a photographer - but his sort of take on the world now, so many years later.

So, those are some of the things that I've had the chance to do.

MARTIN: I'm going to look forward to that. And I also want to talk about just what you mentioned there with David Kay. There is this perception, a wrong one, that all the big stuff happens Monday through Friday - and that no news is broken on the weekends, that weekends is all about kind of easing it in and so forth, like that.

When you took this job as the WEEKEND EDITION host, were you worried about that - that you would no longer be able to get your hands on the hard news?

HANSEN: Oh no, not at all. I mean, before I came on board, Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral, which sort of devolved into, you know, a riot almost, happened on a Sunday. And Tiananmen Square happened on a Sunday. For me, it was just a question of when the news would break. And it wasn't too much later that Nelson Mandela was released, right on our watch. So we have had no shortage of news breaking on a Sunday.

MARTIN: And in fact, I think I've got some tape from some of these major stories. Why don't we play it now? Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY)

HANSEN: A woman who served as personal assistant to Clarence Thomas for over two years has accused him of sexually harassing her...

A new chapter in the political history of South Africa opened today when Nelson Mandela emerged from Victor Vester Prison and ended 27 years as a political prisoner. As he walked through the prison gates, he...

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEKEND EDITION THEME MUSIC)

HANSEN: Sad news, while you were sleeping, the death of a princess. Diana, Princess of Wales, died early this morning from extensive injuries sustained in a car crash in Paris.

From NPR News in Washington, D.C., I'm Liane Hansen with special coverage. Earlier today in Tikrit, Iraq, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was taken into custody by U.S.-led coalition forces. At a news conference in Baghdad earlier today, U.S. Administrator L. Paul Bremer confirmed the news.

MARTIN: Wow.

HANSEN: Wow. You know, there are so many interesting back stories to those breaking news - Anita Hill, for one. I remember we were in our old building on M Street. And Nina Totenberg came into our office, about 4 o'clock in the afternoon on a Saturday, and she said: Do you have room for a story for me? And I said Nina, we always have room. And then she began to explain what was happening with Anita Hill. And I was tasked with doing an interview with her. And I almost had to play devil's advocate with her, because at that point, you weren't sure if it wasn't something that just was being dropped politically. So we didn't know what we know now.

MARTIN: Can I just tell you, I was the duty correspondent at the White House for the Wall Street Journal, and I remember hearing your report, and, you know, my heart racing, trying to think OK, OK. What am I going to do? How are we going to match this?

HANSEN: Mm-hmm. M-hmm. Yeah.

MARTIN: I remember that.

HANSEN: And then the Nelson Mandela - as you know, we have three feeds at the program - for the East Coast, Midwest and the West Coast. And the actual release came during the second feed of the show. So I was broadcasting with the late, great Daniel Schorr. And this was an issue that was very important to me. I had lived in England, and what was going on in South Africa was so much a part of my life then. And the minute that Nelson Mandela walked through the prison gates, and Dan and I are doing like, play-by-play, I started to tear up.

I was so just - I - see - I get goose bumps now just thinking about it. And Daniel Schorr said to me, as we were broadcasting, he sort of bucked me up and said: Now remember, we're here, you know, to tell people what's happened. We know it's an emotional story. People who were listening thought he was giving me a dig. But no, he was giving me advice. I mean, he was the guy who didn't flinch when he read his own name on the enemies list. And I just remember that little piece of advice that I've held with me.

MARTIN: But you know, that leads me to another question, which is that you took the helm of this program at a time when it was not that common to have women helming serious news programs.

HANSEN: No.

MARTIN: I mean, it's no longer a big story.

HANSEN: Right.

MARTIN: It was a big story when Katie Couric solo-hosted the evening news at CBS - now, again, of course, Diane Sawyer. But it's no longer the big wow.

HANSEN: Right.

MARTIN: But - so...

HANSEN: But understand, I was taking over for Susan Stamberg, who was the first woman to do a national broadcast, and it was on radio. And yeah, I had heard about women don't have the gravitas to present news and...

MARTIN: Or serious news, people don't want to hear the high-pitched voice. They feel like they need a deep, male voice, you know, all of that.

HANSEN: Honey, I can get as deep as they want.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HANSEN: And it doesn't make the news any less important if it's a woman's...

MARTIN: Did you ever go get any pushback from that, though? Anybody not taking you seriously because...

HANSEN: Oh, I think, you know, people didn't take me seriously because - it's interesting. They didn't remember the time when I was actually the host of WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED for two years. When I came back into radio after having my kids, I joined the staff of PERFORMANCE TODAY, which was a classical music - it was kind of a hybrid that they were trying for six months. So when I came to do Susan's program, everyone thought I was an arts lightweight, that I didn't know news. And that's funny because when I was hired to do PERFORMANCE TODAY, they said to me, you just know news. You don't know features. So what goes around comes around, you know.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We have a very special guest for our "Wisdom Watch" today, my colleague Liane Hansen of WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY. She is entering a new chapter after more than 20 years on the air here at NPR. Her last program is this Sunday. And again, I'm trying to keep it together when I have to say that because I'm not ready to say that.

I wanted to read some of the comments that, as we mentioned, that you told people that you were going to be making this change. And people have been posting comments. There are just too many to read all of them. I just picked a couple.

IIt's difficult to pick just one interview, since all of them over the years have revealed her intellect, compassion and - to use a word that should be uttered only on rare occasions and only to a rare individual - class.

HANSEN: Hmm.

MARTIN: And then, here's another one. I feel old. I remember when Liane was the newcomer, and that feels like it was just last year. I can't believe it's been two decades. Where did the time go? Now, I have to get used to another new host. Sigh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HANSEN: Yeah. Well, you know, people had to get used to me after Susan. And my replacement, Audie Cornish, many of our listeners know her from her reporting on Capitol Hill, and I really feel that the show is being put in good hands. She brings mad skills to the program. And I told Audie, when people tell you you're not Liane, I want you to stand up proudly and say no, I'm not. I'm Audie.

MARTIN: Well, that's lovely. Well, thank you for that. You participated in The Day of Listening in 2008. This is a Public Radio project that encourages Americans to spend some time on the day after Thanksgiving interviewing someone who's close to him or her. Your son Connor spoke with you.

HANSEN: I know. He interviewed me.

MARTIN: He did. At one point, you said: I feel a connection to everyone who is alone on Sunday morning.

HANSEN: I do. Sunday is a very tough time if you're alone. It's a time when, usually, people are getting together with families and friends. And there's a lot of people who live solitary lives, and the radio is their connection to people. I really feel that I wanted to be not only someone who brings them information and news, but be a companion as well, because I know how tough it can be.

MARTIN: One of the things that I was struck by, though, in looking at the comments, were how many people listen to you on their way to worship.

HANSEN: Oh, yeah.

Many of the people who listen to you are members of the clergy. Sunday is, of course, the day of worship for most Christians. And many of the people wrote in to say: I am - for example, here's a couple: You started with Sunday morning the same year I was ordained a deacon in the Catholic Church.

HANSEN: Oh, my.

MARTIN: For many years, my wife and I listened to you Sunday morning as we drove 20 miles from our home to our parish in the cascade mountain community of Morton, Washington. Here's another: He says that on Sunday mornings, we had a 30-minute drive from our small town to a neighboring town with a Quaker meeting, and just under half the way there, we would lose the radio signal. And sometimes he said he'd pull over to hear the last little bit...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...of a story because some of - and, which their kids found hilarious. And one more: For 10 years, as a Lutheran pastor, my Sunday mornings followed a happy pattern: a cup of coffee, a pastry and Liane. And when I left the ministry, I felt like I was losing a big sister.

HANSEN: It's interesting. I have heard from people who said that the clergyman used what he had heard on the show in the sermon. But the other thing was meeting a Methodist minister in South Dakota who came up to me and said, I give up. I'm starting my service 10 minutes later because people are staying in the parking lot, listening to your show.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Guilty.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HANSEN: Or they're doing the puzzle.

MARTIN: How did the puzzle start, by the way?

HANSEN: It was actually Susan's idea to have a puzzle segment on the show, because it was considered - it was a Sunday newspaper. You know, so you have your front page, your opinion page and a puzzle. She wanted to use Richard Maltby, who wasn't available. And he recommended a young guy who was the editor of Games magazine, Will Shortz. And so they had a puzzle, but it was infrequent, and it was just Will and just Susan.

When I came on board in 89, I thought, this is one place where we can actually be interactive - before the days of the Internet. And honestly, that puzzle segment, it's my - the most fun I have on the show - except when I'm interviewing, you know, musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, you had some just amazing - I mean, I'm trying to contain my own envy. You know, Quincy Jones...

HANSEN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, we just mentioned.

HANSEN: Berry Gordy.

MARTIN: I was going to ask, was there a favorite? I know, don't you hate that when people ask you, what is your favorite? But I'm going to ask, was there a favorite?

HANSEN: Oh, my favorite - not in person - was Sir George Martin, who was the producer for all of the Beatles albums, and he was the most delightful person. But I had a tough question to ask him. He was losing his hearing, and I didn't want to say: Oh, what does it feel like going deaf, after spending a life in music? So I asked it, in a way, how are you coping with this? And he said, you know, I always saw music. I always saw, you know, the Beatles as four different colors, and I would be mixing it. So I thought, wow, that was a great idea.

MARTIN: One of the things I've been - on your tour of your - around the country, visiting with listeners and fans and friends, that, will it be - the first time many people have seen you?

HANSEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: What's that like? What's that like...

HANSEN: It's hard...

MARTIN: ...to meet people after this relationship, where they may have...

HANSEN: Well, first...

MARTIN: ...decided who you are without - you know?

HANSEN: Right. Without knowing what I look like.

MARTIN: Yeah.

HANSEN: And then seeing me...

MARTIN: Yeah.

HANSEN: And watching the disappointment in their eyes...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HANSEN: ...you know, because they have already had an idea of what I look like. I'm never - sometimes - oh, you're exactly - and other, you're not at all what I expected. People thought I was African-American. Really. A couple people thought I was. The first thing I was...

MARTIN: Wait a minute. You're not African-American?

HANSEN: No, I'm not. Maybe a skosh. Maybe a - I know. Latina, maybe.

MARTIN: The red hair.

HANSEN: The red hair. No. No. A skosh Latina, I think...

MARTIN: OK.

HANSEN: ...from my great-grandparents' Spanish side. I would say to them, so that's what you look like, and just pause and say: I thought you'd be taller.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, what's next for you?

HANSEN: I don't know. And that's kind of the scary part and the good part. There's this small voice inside me that's saying: It's time for you to do this. And I'm going to leap and wait for the net to appear. I will be trying to get some commercial voiceover work, because it pays a little money and it will augment my retirement income. I might try writing. I don't know. I would like to get back into acting, even on a community-theater level. And I want to be involved in a community. I want to be for something. I want to root for something. And I want to work to make that community better. And so I am just going to get involved and see what happens after that.

MARTIN: So it could Mayor Hansen.

HANSEN: Oh, no, no, no. No. People ask me if am I going to run for public office, and I say absolutely not. I have more skeletons in my closet than you have on Halloween, you know, and no one's going there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HANSEN: That door is locked.

MARTIN: You make me want to know more.

HANSEN: Oh, someday we'll go out and have a drink.

MARTIN: That's right. But before we let you go, we do call this the "Wisdom Watch" because we do hope that this a time when you'll share some of the wisdom that you have gained over the years. And there's - you have just so many things you could tell us. But I would love to know if you've got some wisdom.

HANSEN: It's - I find that if you treat people well, even if they have made a boneheaded mistake, you don't gain anything by berating them for it. I think you get the best out of people when you encourage them, even if you say to an intern, for example - the quote that I always use, quotation, is: Confucius said, You're not a fool because you make a mistake once. And that says, you know, now you know what the mistake was. Let's hope it doesn't happen again.

And the other thing I've learned is patience. In this business, what can go wrong, technically, will go wrong. And it doesn't help to get frustrated because it will ruin the interview. You have to just pretend that it doesn't happen. So patience, and giving people props.

MARTIN: Liane Hansen is the host of NPR's WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY. Her last program is this Sunday, May 29th, after 23 years in front of the microphone, and she was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studios. Let's give you your props, Liane. Thank you so much. Thank you for everything.

HANSEN: Oh, thank you. You're quite welcome, Michel. And I'll be listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE FIVE")

MARTIN: And that's our program for today.

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