The prospect of being interviewed recently on live radio was exciting, but I felt a little nervous as I drove to Woods Hole and parked behind the large house that is home to WCAI FM, the Cape and Islands NPR station. Talk about a view! Offices here face the daily sunrise over the Elizabeth Islands and overlook the Woods Hole waterfront, alive year round with sailboats, fishing boats, and Steamship Authority ferries entering and leaving the harbor.
After being ushered into a room dominated by a large sextagonal table covered with microphones, headsets, wires and booms, I sat down to wait for WCAI’s Mindy Todd. The popular and seasoned host and producer of The Point, a weekday program on critical issues of interest, had invited me here to discuss my new biography Nature’s Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess. A 20thcentury author who brought conservation values and nature education to generations of children, Burgess was born and grew up in Sandwich about twenty miles from WCAI offices. He was also the host in the 1920s and ‘30s of the Radio Nature League which may have been the first nature program on the air specifically directed to children.
I watched a program being broadcast in an adjacent room. A longtime writer, I truly love the process of gathering information to shape and package for unseen audiences. In about fifteen minutes I would be called on to provide information to a similarly unseen audience -- but with no opportunity to delete, Google, revise or reflect for a day or two. Would I remember important names, dates and events? What if I coughed or sneezed? Who could have understood my mixed feelings better than Thornton Burgess!
He relished the challenge of exploring a new medium as a different way to promote his children’s books and syndicated stories, but the first time Burgess walked into a broadcasting studio, he was at a distinct disadvantage. He had never seen or spoken into a microphone. He didn’t own a radio set and understood practically nothing of radio technology or production. The station manager briefly instructed him where to sit, introduced him, and left. Burgess was a seasoned lecturer accustomed to audiences of thousands, but he felt like a complete fool reading one of his stories to an empty room.
I, however, was put at ease immediately by Mindy Todd who walked into the studio with a welcoming smile and warm handshake. After she settled into a chair at the table, we chatted casually for a few moments. I was almost caught off-guard when she began to introduce me to WCAI listeners. She had obviously read Nature’s Ambassador carefully, and moved smoothly from topic to topic with questions that ranged from the writer’s Cape Cod childhood to his motivation for writing and the source of Peter Rabbit’s name (Burgess or Beatrix Potter).
Before I knew it, our half-hour was up. She thanked me for joining her and suggested we continue the conversation in a future interview. Off the air we tentatively planned a program with Smithsonian researcher Marcel LaFollette, author of Science on the Air (University of Chicago Press, 2008) which describes the popularization of science in the early days of radio and television.
Please tune in to The Point with Mindy Todd on February 18 at 9 a.m. to hear our conversation about the days of early radio and the role of Thornton Burgess and Smithsonian curator Austin Clark in bringing natural science to a newly-discovered audience of children and adults.
… and later in the month I will be the on-air guest of Mark Lynch, host of “Inquiry” on WICN in Worcester. Tune in on February 27 at 3:00 p.m.
In a future “Said and Done: A Writer’s Blog” post I’ll look more closely at Thornton Burgess’ Radio Nature League and its unique importance to conservation.