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On the Radio

Telling stories and changing the world ... over the airwaves

Have you ever lingered in your car, just to catch the end of a radio story? It’s a medium that speaks to us—literally.

With an immediacy and intimacy unlike print, television, or video, radio conveys the sounds of a scene and the emotions and nuance of the human voice in all its colors ... while our minds fill in the blanks.

Since NPR first launched in the 1970s, Swatties have been drawn to public radio and helped shape it into what it is today.

It makes sense: After all, radio has the power to surprise, spark empathy, and move us all a little further toward the common good.

In 2004, Swarthmore launched an extracurricular radio program called War News Radio, the brainchild of 60 Minutes producer David Gelber ’63, H’17. Frustrated by the lack of  coverage given to the Iraq War, Gelber thought Swarthmore students could do better. Supported by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, WNR continues its coverage, focusing on the conflicts in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Grateful for her WNR experience, Jess Engebretson ’09 went on to spend a year as a Watson Fellow exploring radio and reconciliation in Rwanda, Indonesia, and Liberia: three countries with histories of violent conflict instigated or exacerbated by radio. Back home, she became a producer for Backstory, a national radio program focused on American history, and then took a job with a nongovernmental organization to teach audio storytelling to displaced residents in South Sudan.

“These ‘camps’ of displaced persons were more like small towns of 20,000 to 40,000 people,” says Engebretson. “With no newspapers or radio, and a largely illiterate population, audio programs functioned as a major news and entertainment source.”

Disseminating a twice-weekly, 30-minute show in multiple languages—including audio dramas that reflected issues experienced by people living in the camp—Engebretson came away from her Sudanese experience with a new respect for how audio storytelling can create community “in a way akin to literature.”

Today a doctoral student in English literature at Columbia and a podcast producer for the long-form series Life of the Law, she’s launching a new podcast to “bridge the divide between academic research and popular conversations that are going on around people’s dinner tables.”


Hansi Lo Wang ’09 says he majored in WNR more than political science.

“It wasn’t just professional development for me, but a culmination of my values of being an engaged citizen,” he remembers. “After talking about war theoretically and reading about it, I was interviewing people in Iraq.”

During one such interview, he heard gunshots—“and the reality of it grabbed me through the phone line.”

A year out of Swarthmore, Wang won an NPR Kroc Fellowship. He worked his way up from web producer to production assistant on All Things Considered, went on to Weekend Edition and Code Switch, and now is a correspondent on the National Desk, based in New York.

Wang credits Ken Sharpe, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science, with teaching him some of the most important skills he uses every day.

“Ken’s constant poking and prodding with questions—I try to do this when I tackle a story,” he says. “What are all the different sides? What does the world look like from another person’s perspective?”

In the end, radio journalism appealed to Wang because he could be engaged with current events and participate “at a level that isn’t activism, but is just as important: informing the public.”


“Radio gives voice to the underrepresented,” says Abby Holtzman ’16. “Rather than having others narrate their lives for them, people can narrate their own, and I want to bring out these voices as much as possible.”

During her first year at Swarthmore, Holtzman hosted a show on WSRN called Students, Stories and Songs, where she interviewed freshmen about what they missed about their homes.

“I bribed people to let me interview them by offering to buy them samosas at the Kohlberg Coffee Bar,” she laughs.

Touched by the humor and heart in these intimate confessions of homesickness, Holtzman took an oral history class with Diego Armus. “It woke me up to the power within interview dynamics,” she says. “I learned about listening to silence.”

After becoming editor-in-chief of The Daily Gazette her sophomore year, Holtzman realized she wanted to be a journalist, so she attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. There, she learned the basics of radio reporting: how to structure an audio story, how to hold a microphone correctly, and how to think of storytelling in terms of sound. After graduation, she completed a service learning year as an associate producer for Interfaith Voices, based at WAMU 88.5 in Washington, D.C. The nationally syndicated show launched in response to hate crimes against religious minorities after 9/11 and then broadened—it’s the country’s only public radio show exclusively focused on religion and an opportunity to spark thoughtful discussion.

“I like to think about how radio waves can go through walls,” Holtzman says. “It’s the best medium for reaching people who might otherwise not have access to these stories.”


“I have no training in business or economics,” says Mitchell Hartman ’85, senior reporter for American Public Media’s business news program Marketplace and a Swarthmore comparative religion graduate, “so I can come at stories with the naïve questions my listener will probably also have, like ‘What’s the bond market, and should we be worried about it?’”

His first job in journalism started senior year, when he worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“The end of the summer of ’85, all of the unions struck against [the paper’s owner] Knight Ridder,” remembers Hartman. He got his first clip in the strike newspaper, “but I decided all the journalists were miserable so I would never be one.”

After working at a human rights organization run by lawyers—they were even more miserable, he says—he returned to journalism. He earned a master’s from Columbia and freelanced in Europe and the Middle East before landing on his current show in 1994 in Los Angeles, where he had followed his partner, Lisa Silverman ’84, for her teaching job at the University of Southern California.

“Then just 5 years old, Marketplace was the scrappy upstart trying to muscle in on NPR’s schedule on the clock,” remembers Hartman. “I worked the graveyard shift for three years at baby-sitter wages. There weren’t enough people, so if you wanted to do something, you could. I was on the air, reporting all the time.”

Today, he’s based in Portland, Ore., where he covers employment, labor, and the workplace.

“Swarthmore gave me the sense that there’s a moral compulsion to work in the world and tell people’s stories and explain what their struggles are and where they’re coming from, and what the oppression is that hurts us and holds us down,” he says. “Radio gives me that opportunity, and that’s what compels me.”


A senior producer for NPR’s All Things Considered, Andrea Hsu ’95 finds that crafting sound is the part of radio she likes best.

“The human voice touches people in a way that words on paper can’t,” she says.

An art and Chinese major, she had no idea what she wanted to do for a career, so after Swarthmore she signed on with a public relations firm in Beijing.

“I met a lot of journalists, and I thought, That looks like fun,” she remembers. “So I quit and got a job with the BBC as a local researcher.”

Her small team came up with story ideas and covered major events such as President Bill Clinton’s 10-day visit to China in 1998. Although she loved the creativity and space to shape and broadcast a story, she also learned about the limits to press freedom in China. Unhappy with some of the BBC’s coverage of Tibet, the Chinese government revoked her visa.

After relocating to London to work on BBC Radio’s East Asia Today, Hsu went on to earn a master’s at Stanford and land her NPR gig, but she still draws inspiration from her Swarthmore years, especially two summers she spent in Chester.

“Eight of us rented a house and, with money from the College, we ran a summer camp for kids, doing art, theater, and outdoor activities with them,” says Hsu. “It was a chance to live in the community and try to understand the context of people’s lives. Now, when we go out to do a story for NPR, I build in time to get that same context—it makes a difference.”


Lulu Miller ’05 fell in love with radio her first year out of Swarthmore. The history major and daughter of a Quaker matchbox couple was living with three other Swatties in a basement apartment in Queens, trying to write fiction, and working in a woodshop where public radio played all day. After hearing RadioLab, a weekly public radio show and podcast that weaves stories and science into sound- and music-rich documentaries, she wrote the producers “an inquiry/fan letter/love letter.” They hired her and she eventually became a founding producer.

Although she’d had no previous training in radio journalism, doing improv at Swarthmore with the group Vertigo-go gave Miller a surprisingly good foundation.

“Going into an interview is like going into an improv scene,” she explains. “If you get out of your head, you’re OK.”

She also played Swarthmore rugby, where she learned about team-building and trust.

“It’s such a big part of interviewing,” she adds. “You have to stay alert and present, but play is also crucial: Right in the middle of heavy stuff, maybe you use goofiness and irreverence to sneak in these deeper ideas.”

After five years at RadioLab, Miller left to earn an MFA in fiction from the University of Virginia. She returned to radio to co-create and co-host the popular NPR podcast Invisibilia, about the ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and emotions that control human behavior. Its first season made history when it hit 50 million downloads and was placed on more than 400 public radio stations. (Miller took a break for much of Season 3 to write a book, due out this year, but is eager to return to radio.)

“I am interested in people who have a harder time getting their story told,” she says. “People are sitting on these magnificent tales and experiences, and we are in the position of privilege to be the ones to craft the narrative.”

Barbara Stubbs Cochran ’67

After launching her journalism career as editor of The Phoenix, Barbara Stubbs Cochran ’67 went on to become managing editor of the Washington Star; creator of Morning Edition and vice president of news for NPR; executive producer of NBC’s Meet the Press; and executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association.

Today, she’s teaching a new generation of reporters as the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Missouri.

“Radio has been thought to be dying for the last 60 years, and yet here are all these people who have found it to be a perfectly marvelous way to spend their time,” says Cochran. “The virtue of radio is that it’s so intimate; so personal. You can use your mind to paint pictures that the words are conveying. It’s really wonderful that radio continues and Swarthmoreans want to pursue it.”

My Favorite Piece


“I reported this story for Life of the Law in my home state of Virginia. It’s a history-inflected piece that deals with the eugenic sterilization program that Virginia ran for much of the 20th century. I particularly like it because it gets at the question of reparations. How do we as a society compensate people for past harms?” (This story won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award.)



“I did a story last year for NPR’s All Things Considered about Baltimore’s health commissioner, Leana Wen. I shadowed Dr. Wen over about 10 months for a series I did with show host Audie Cornish, and this piece was a sort of behind-the-scenes look at what I’d learned over the many hours I spent with her. I think this story represents what I love most about my job: getting to know smart, engaging people and getting to share their stories with our audience.”



“I produced a story called ‘Holy Water,’ which aired on WHYY’s The Pulse. It describes a Jewish movement to open the waters of the Jewish ritual bath (mikvah) for nontraditional purposes, like marking grief, or loss, or gender transition, or for celebration.”



“My personal favorite is this episode on Invisibilia called ‘How to Become Batman.’ It’s about a man who is blind and rides a bike using a technique called echolocation, where he makes clicks with his tongue to test his environment sonically (similar to how a bat navigates). It’s my favorite because in the process of reporting, I realized that my awe about his abilities was not only offensive, but also part of the problem of society’s low expectations for what blind people can do. I’ve never learned so much or had my beliefs so challenged in the course of reporting a piece.”



This story was difficult to report out because many parents were reluctant to talk about sending their U.S.-born babies to China to be raised by relatives until their children were old enough to attend school in the U.S. After the story ran, a number of listeners and readers said they were ‘satellite babies’ themselves but never had the opportunity outside of their families to talk about that experience and the challenges that came with it.”



“I’ve done plenty of serious stuff for Marketplace, BBC, and the Pacifica Network over the past 20-odd years, including multipart series on Walmart warehouse workers trying to organize a union; predatory payday lending; the economics of policing; the shortfalls of unemployment insurance.

“But I think the work I’m most proud of—and jazzed by—is the fun-stuff … including my first dance video (for a story on salsa), an interview with an electronic signboard-spinning mannequin, fake ads for stock tips from Nobel economists, laser-assisted tropical fish-farming in Alaska, and the Accountants Cable News Network’s Oscars coverage.

“And of all that, I consider the single-best piece of work in my career to be 'Beatnik Auction,' an imagined Sotheby’s auction of Jack Kerouac’s last shot glass.”