Susan Davis is a visiting professor this semester at Wake Forest. She is teaching a course on broadcast media with a focus on podcasting. Her impressive career in radio makes her an ideal professor for this class.
Davis edited and produced every show at NPR except for Morning Edition but recently shifted her focus to a more executive role in podcasting.
After this semester at Wake Forest, she will travel with the State Department to help foreign countries develop radio and broadcasting systems.
What did you do before pursuing a career in journalism?
I originally thought I was going to be an art critic; I was an English literature and art history double major. After college, I moved to New York at a very hard time for the art world. I went to work at a couple of art magazines and I was pretty bored. So, I started writing — strangely — poetry.
I had one boss in particular that would give me busy work if she thought I had nothing to do, and in fact I really did have nothing to do. But if she saw that I was typing, because she didn’t use a computer herself, she thought I was working. So, I first started writing long letters to people and then eventually started writing poetry.
After a while, I moved to Houston to get my MFA in poetry. From there, I followed my boyfriend at the time to Los Angeles where he had a job, but I just couldn’t find one. I didn’t expect to find a job in poetry, but I thought I could get a job writing for television and continue to write poetry on the side.
What was your first experience working in radio?
By chance, I answered an ad for an entry-level radio show called “Marketplace,” public radio’s largest business show. I listened to the show for about three days straight and eventually wrote them a cover letter about what I heard.
I got a call from the senior producer who said, “Look, you’re totally unqualified for this job, you don’t have any experience in business, journalism or broadcast. But this is the best cover letter I’ve ever read, so I’m going to pass it along.”
So the host at the time, David Brancaccio, called me and said, “I read your cover letter. Could you please come in? I’d love to meet you.”
I went in, and they had me do the job for two weeks without pay. Eventually, at the end of the two weeks, they hired me. It was wonderful; it was like finally finding a match for my skills — a match that paid.
I think the building blocks for radio and audio are similar to the building blocks for poetry. I think it’s about listening and speech; the distillation of sound and the importance of silence.
How has your career evolved over time?
I have done almost every job in radio including work on a daily business show, a live daily column show, a weekly feature show and a documentary series. I have found that I love live radio the most. It’s really human, and it’s full of human mistakes.
Editing has become such an art, but the more technical editing becomes, the more people want to do it. Sometimes I hear things on the radio or podcasts, and they’re edited within an inch of their life, leaving none of the sounds that make us more human. There are no sighs, no gasps, no stumbles and no ‘ums.’ Those are some of the grace notes of conversation, so I miss them.
In the end, I wound up really loving live radio, which I didn’t expect. I went from being a daily producer to thinking more strategically. As a senior and executive producer, I like to think conceptually, which is largely one of the reasons I agreed to teach this class. Radio is a concept that you can explore, rather than a job you have to get done.
Are there any shows you’ve worked on that are particularly special to you?
I got my combat training in “Talk of the Nation,” which was NPR’s go-to live show. I loved “Talk of the Nation” because I learned so much about the form, about human nature and, more specifically, about people. I learned that there’s nothing more thrilling for a radio producer than to hear somebody have an idea in real time. I don’t mean necessarily a revelation or an epiphany, but just to have somebody say something they’re realizing for the first time is incredibly thrilling.
I was at NPR on 9/11, but I was at “Talk of the Nation” for the second biggest story of that year: the entire east coast blacking out. I was editing the live show that day, which meant that everything that went to the host had to go through me.
I was hugely pregnant, and it was an amazing day because I spent most of the day having to go to the bathroom. Yet, at the same time, it was such a thrill; I didn’t even want to get up. It was great because we were live for six hours. Over the course of that time the whole Northeast came back on the grid, and you could hear it. It was terrific to experience that along with the country.
Do you have advice for journalism students interested in pursuing a similar career?
There are two things you need to be a great journalist, and I’m not sure that I even have them. I often think of myself as a storyteller more than a journalist.
The first, is that you really need to pay attention. I’ve hired a lot of people over my career and have been shocked when they have no familiarity with the task at hand. They want a job on the show, but have never heard the show. There’s a need for attention but also a certain amount of bravery.
If anybody was graduating and really wanted to break into journalism, I would say grab some equipment and head to Syria. I honestly think that the fastest way in is to go to where the news happens and pay attention. Let every news outlet know you’re there and they will call you. You’ll wind up on the air very quickly.
What are you most looking forward to during your time at Wake Forest?
I’m most looking forward to learning from my students — learning what they listen to and learning how they listen. I think that technology is moving really fast, faster than I’m interested in. There are a lot of things that I don’t pay attention to because they’re too exhausting, and I hope my students will teach me about them.
I also have to say that I loved college. It was a hugely formidable time for me. I have this ongoing battle with my daughter over Miley Cyrus, because she was a huge Hannah Montana fan before Miley lost her mind. I had to say to my daughter that very few people go through that in public. When I was in college I dyed my hair different colors, I even shaved my head.
If you’re lucky, you do these things on a campus with other people also doing them, not alone in the public eye.
I think that college students are at the most amazing age because they’re all smart enough to listen and have ideas, but not yet ruined by horrible heartbreak, stress and cynicism. So to hear opinions on things that I’ve listened to for years, and to hear them through students is really exciting for me.