Keep calm and carry on

An evening with Liane Hansen

By - Apr 29th, 2011 04:00 am
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Liane Hansen addresses the crowd at the Marcus Center Tuesday night. All photos courtesy Tech Photo-Tom Hicken.

On Tuesday evening, Liane Hansen, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, visited the Marcus Center for the final appearance of her farewell tour. Since announcing her retirement after 20 years at the NPR program, the radio journalist has been touring the nation and visiting local public radio stations to “put a face to the voice” and to say thank you to some of the millions of dedicated listeners who have distinguished her impressive career.

“This is what I look like,” said Hansen, smiling. “I’ll give you a moment to recover.”

Holding court over the room with a buoyant smile and deep voice, Hansen was greeted with a standing ovation. She wasted no time reciprocating the gesture.

“I’m so glad to be here, because you’re you…though, I thought you’d be taller…” joked the fiery, bespectacled Hansen.

Hansen’s topics ranged from her career trajectory, to behind-the-scenes goings-on at NPR,  the antics of interviewees (including Lou Reed!), to her thoughts on midwestern hospitality, music, youth, and the power of women in radio. Every topic was anchored by the natural ease of Hansen’s famous and familiar animation, and her quick sense of timing — both in comedic and solemn sensibility.

At times her talk veered into the personal, but left us guessing. Hansen humorously drew on relationship metaphors when addressing the issue of her retirement.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” she joked.

Hansen’s reasons for retiring are multiform, ranging from very personal to practical.

“I want to make way for giving new people an opportunity, the way I was given an opportunity,” she said.

After the talk, an audience member asked Hansen about her husband, Neal Conan, who is a producer at NPR. Surprising many in the audience, Hansen responded, “Yes. Neal Conan: Soon to be ex-husband.”

Hansen first met Conan in the beginning of her career at NPR. The story goes that in Hansen’s early days writing copy, she put forth a proposal to Conan, and his response was to “rip up the paper, throw it in the garbage, and tell (me) that (I) could do better.”

While married, the couple raised two children, endeavored two distinct, successful radio journalism careers within NPR, and weathered the terrifying ordeal of Conan’s capture by Iraqi terrorists during the Gulf War. Hansen stated that the couple’s parting is “amicable.”

When an audience member asked her what she’d be doing in retirement, she joked, “my best impression of Gidget on the beach.”

Hansen also expressed interest in working to support causes in the small Delaware beach town where she’ll be living, and getting back into acting through community theatre. Theatre was her original course of study at the University of Hartford. Though her degree was not completed, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University in 2007.

Much like the format of Weekend Edition Sunday, Hansen’s Tuesday appearance seemed to emulate a newspaper format, a concept she credits to her predecessor Susan Stamberg. Segments of Weekend Edition Sunday move quickly, and range from current events newscasts in “Voices in the News,” to scintillating or silly interviews, art stories, oral histories and musical performances. Hansen’s talk similarly included light features, sprinklings of anecdotal soundbites and more serious, larger issues.

The program and NPR as a whole is also known for its appreciation of eclectic music; at one point Hansen conjectured excitedly, “we could make a band with all the producers at NPR.”  Hansen herself is responsible for implementing music interludes on her show. It was a choice that was initially met with skepticism, though has proven to be one of the most effective radio journalism developments of the last several decades, and is emulated by stations all over the world.

With regard to NPR’s  recent public battles, Hansen devoted a portion of the evening to speak on behalf of the institution she has represented for decades. The message she carried was clear: NPR will be all right. Though Hansen acknowledged internal and external problems in the organization, which has been rocked by monetary cut-backs and high-profile scandals, she did much to redirect the audience’s focus with articulate reminders of just what so many people love about the programming.

She reminded the audience that NPR has no advertising, no political agenda.

“We are only beholden to you,” said  Hansen.

“Truth is hard to come by… accuracy is hard to come by,” she stated, referring to media’s contemporary web-time rapid news feeds. The voracity at which news is reported today, is, in her opinion, “irresponsible” and “insensitive” at times. Indeed, the responsibility of reporting the most horrific news events has fallen to Hansen and other weekend NPR reporters, including the attack of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and many civilians in Arizona four months ago. As Hansen stated,”news does happen on a Sunday.”

NPR’s stance on the timing of their news reports was communicated by Hansen in clear terms. “We do not try to be first. We try to be right.”

Though the fanbase for NPR may be of an older generation, the institution that Hansen leaves is a multi-generational one, with more youth at the helm as engineers, journalists and musicians. It is a place where humor, humility, empathy, civility and rationality reign. The wisdom Hansen exudes in regards to the crises the organization is facing elegantly demonstrated these values.

“Keep calm and carry on,” she said.

For fans, the appeal of NPR is in the subtlety, humor, intelligence and style of its production. Liane Hansen will always be an emblem of these attributes; she will always be known as a journalistic force that helped lay the foundation for the next generation of radio journalists.

One thought on “Keep calm and carry on: An evening with Liane Hansen”

  1. Dear Liane,
    I remember your broadcast, that one almost a year ago when you said you would be retiring. You have been a my companion, my fellow-weekend-traveller, along with Will Shortz, of course, and Scott Simon, lo, these many years. Like you I have two adult children in their mid-twenties. Like you I am interested in an eclectic mix of subjects and people and just life itself. You have made my life richer, more interesting, sillier, and just much more fun than it could ever have been without you.
    I love the musicians you have brought into my home, the writers, the thinkers, the stories. And the places you have taken me. But it is the stories I love most.
    Thank you, Liane. You have made my weekends a delightful interlude filled with the poetry of life.
    I will miss your Sunday voice. I wish you all the very best.
    Claudia

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