Peter Breslow's memoir follows his 40 years around the world as an NPR producer
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
And now a peek behind the curtains of how NPR puts its stories together. WEEKEND EDITION's former senior producer Peter Breslow spent nearly 40 years at the network until retiring two years ago. He worked both in the studio and roaming the world to bring us sounds and stories, from Mount Everest to the South Pole to a snake pit in South Florida, where he profiled a man who extracted venom for use in medical research.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
PETER BRESLOW, BYLINE: I nudged the microphone to within a few inches of the vibrating diamondback. Finally, the snake's had enough and quicker than you can blink, he strikes the padded microphone.
RASCOE: Peter Breslow has written a memoir about his time here - he clearly made it out of that situation - "Outtakes: Stumbling Around The World For NPR," and he joins us now. Welcome back to WEEKEND EDITION, Peter. And on the other side of the mic this time.
BRESLOW: Yeah, it feels weird to be on this side, but great to be here.
RASCOE: Your book and your memoir is about some of your life before you were at NPR, growing up, but also your time at NPR as a producer. What does a radio producer do?
BRESLOW: Well, it's a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff. It's kind of like being a reporter, except your voice isn't on the air. It really is a lot of reporting, a lot of logistics, a lot of setting up, especially if you're going into some kind of hazardous situation - you know, figuring out where are we going to be when, how can we stay safe, bringing all the supplies if you're going to Sierra Leone to cover the Ebola epidemic, bringing your hygiene supplies, and if you're going to Baghdad, pack your Kevlar vest.
There's such a wide range of what a producer is, right? There's show producers, which I did for many years, figuring out what's going to go on the air, what's not going to go on the air, or if news breaks while the show is on the air, how are we going to cover it? And then there's the day to day of interviews and figuring out the focus of the interview, and then taking that 35-minute interview that you did and cutting it down to a succinct 4 1/2 minutes.
RASCOE: So you guys do - producers do that hard work? Because I just get out here, and I just talk and talk and talk.
BRESLOW: Yeah. You really - hosts have it so easy.
BRESLOW: I just - I'm so resentful.
RASCOE: We're just the pretty - me and Scott Simon - we're just pretty faces.
RASCOE: But you also would be on air, and you write about this trek. A lot didn't go right with this Mount Everest trip.
BRESLOW: Yeah. It was - I mean, it really was the adventure of a lifetime for me. It wasn't quite supposed to be three months, which is what it ended up being. I just describe it as a long, uncomfortable camping trip. We traveled across China. There were earthquakes and landslides, and once we got to the mountain, just a long, slow slog up the northeast ridge of Everest.
RASCOE: You have a description of, like, when you would sleep, you said that you would wake up and see your breath...
RASCOE: ...From the night before, like, on your body. And you're also, like, filing stories. Like, that's incredible to me.
BRESLOW: I guess my goal is always sort of to take the listener where they aren't going to get to go on their own. And I was very privileged and lucky to get to go and actually get paid to go on an Everest expedition.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
BRESLOW: Big ice cracks on either side and places that looked like they could have avalanches - hopefully not this way. I got my beeper in my pocket. But that's definitely the last way I want to go is getting squished in an avalanche.
So I made it up to 23,000 feet, but it was still a schlep and a half to get to the summit, which is over 29,000 feet. And actually, none of us on the expedition made it because there were high winds, and we were forced to flee the mountain.
RASCOE: Is that your favorite story of all time?
BRESLOW: That is very high up there. I have to also say that that very first trip I did to Afghanistan just after the U.S. invasion with Scott - that was super memorable.
RASCOE: And what was it about that experience that has stayed with you?
BRESLOW: Well, it kind of encompassed everything. So we got to Bamiyan, which is - I don't know - something like 9,000 feet up. So it was kind of cold. And as soon as we got there, we found these two guys who were digging up graves. They were forced to bury some Hazara people who had been executed by the Taliban. And after the fall of the Taliban, these fellows went back, and they were digging up the graves to give them a proper burial. I immediately knew that we had a fantastic open to the piece.
But what happened after that - so it's getting dark, and we don't have a place to stay. So we drive back into town, and we find this guesthouse, and we kind of knock on the door, and the place was full. But the guy who was running it saw these well-off Americans and started to boot out all these men who were sleeping in the place. And Scott and I were kind of like, uh-oh. But also in the back of our minds, we were going, well, you know, we don't have a place to sleep tonight, but I bet they can find another place.
Anyway, so, like, as these guys are all giving us dirty looks, a gleaming SUV pulls up, these two guys jump out, speaking very good English and saying, we're representatives of the local warlord, and you're staying with us.
RASCOE: These stories - like, they're really incredible. I don't know if I would want to be out there in all that to be truly - I'd be - you know, I'm a little more prone to panicking. But you have covered all of these conflict zones. What do you think you have that compelled you to go into those places?
BRESLOW: You know, I grew up in suburban new Jersey, and I guess I was - always have been kind of looking to break out of that and find excitement. I do want to say that I in no way, shape or form consider myself a war correspondent. You know, the people who really are in the trenches day in and day out for months and years at a time, covering conflicts. You know, I would tend to waltz into these situations and then waltz back out.
RASCOE: I wanted to end with one of the stories that has really stayed with you. Is there something that comes to mind that you want to share?
BRESLOW: So often in these more desperate situations, I try to find some kind of story of hope, and I found a really great one my last time in Afghanistan, and it was the Miraculous Love Kids music school. This guy, Lanny Cordola, who played with the Beach Boys and a couple of other arena rock bands - he read a story about a young girl in Afghanistan whose two sisters had been killed in a suicide bomb attack. They were selling trinkets on the street. And Mursal was her name - she was 13 when I met her - was also selling trinkets, but she had gone in a different direction, and she survived.
And Lanny read a story about her, and he ended up coming to Afghanistan and finding her. And one thing led to another, and he brought some instruments with him, and they started a music school. It ended up being mostly young girls, and they started playing rock music. And Lanny, because of his connections, was friendly with Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. And they ended up collaborating on the song "Love And Mercy."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND MERCY")
BRIAN WILSON AND MIRACULOUS LOVE KIDS: (Singing) Love and mercy - that's what you need tonight. So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight. I was standing in a muddy field watching the people there...
RASCOE: It's a beautiful song and a beautiful story.
BRESLOW: Even just sitting here listening to it, I get teary-eyed. It was kind of inspirational.
RASCOE: That's Peter Breslow, former NPR and WEEKEND EDITION senior producer and author of the book "Outtakes." Thank you so much for coming back to talk to us.
BRESLOW: Thanks so much, Ayesha. This was fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND MERCY")
BRIAN WILSON AND MIRACULOUS LOVE KIDS: (Singing) ...To you and your friends tonight. I was sitting in my room and the news came on TV. A lot of people out there hurt, and it really scares me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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