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Listening to On Point

This article is more than 8 years old.

Every audio show on the dial or download is a kind of Rorschach blot.  Every listener will hear the show and host differently.  Some will love what they hear. Some will hate it.  And everything in between.  We're grateful that On Point has drawn such a large and loyal audience around the country and the world.  Once in a while we see a dissection of its nature that catches our eye and mind.  Here's one we saw recently.  We might interpret certain things differently, but we were fascinated with Jon Crowell's view of the work we here are so wrapped up in every day.  Here's an entry from his blog, The View From My Window:

In praise of Tom Ashbrook and On Point

One of my favorite NPR shows has long been On Point with Tom Ashbrook. I began listening to it when I lived in Boston back in 2003 and I find that I still seek it out. Also, I feel that it does not get as much attention as flashier shows like This American Life or Radio Lab even though I often enjoy it as much or more than those shows.

In addition, I don’t think Tom Ashbrook is a well-known NPR personality, like Terry Gross is, for instance, and I believe he should be.

The show that Ashbrook pulls off is reliably high-quality and regularly spectacular. It took me a while to notice, however, because Ashbrook does not have a big personality, because his show is not often focused on flashy issues or celebrities, and because the tone of the show is calm and thoughtful.

The show is live every morning from 10 AM until noon, and two podcasts, each about 47-minutes long are available soon afterward. I have the last 92 episodes stored in iTunes. Here are the most recent 20 episodes, along with their descriptions, to give you an idea of what the show is about (due to current events there is a heavy emphasis on Egypt):

Richard Watts on Spirituality for the Modern AgeIn the age of fundamentalism and deep skepticism, we look at the search for a modern spiritual life.
'Watson' and the New Face of Artificial IntelligenceTop Jeopardy champions are putting their human brains up against a machine named Watson. We look at the future, and reality now, of artificial intelligence.
The Resurgence Of KnittingIn the age of high tech and ready-made, old-fashioned knitting is making a comeback via social media. We ask why.
Fixing Capitalism: Michael Porter and Robert ReichBusiness guru Michael Porter and former labor secretary Robert Reich on how to fix what ails contemporary capitalism.
Hearing 'This I Believe' on LoveThe long-running radio hit 'This I Believe' asks what we believe about love.
The Federal Budget FightThe fight over the federal budget. We look at the numbers and America's fiscal future.
Writer-Director John Wells on "The Company Men"We talk to writer-director John Wells about his film "The Company Men," and life without jobs.
Special Broadcast: "Egypt is Free!": Post-Mubarak FutureAfter 18 days of unprecedented public outpouring in the streets of Cairo, Egypt's strongman ruler - and U.S. ally - of 30 years is gone. We assemble a huge panel to discuss the events.
"Examined Lives": James Miller on PhilosophersWe talk about a dozen great philosophers, from Socrates on, and how they actually lived. James Miller's new book is "Examined Lives."
Egypt's Revolution: Where This GoesWe ask where this revolution goes. The New York Times' Roger Cohen joins us from Tahrir Square.
Douglas Brinkley on Alaska and "The Quiet World"Historian Douglas Brinkley talks about the long fight to save Alaska's majestic wilderness from destruction. His new book is "The Quiet World."
Global Food Price SpikesFood prices are through the roof around the world. We look at all the why's and all the consequences.
Our Changing Economy: New Ups and Persistent DownsDow over 12,000. President meets with the Chamber of Commerce. What now for the U.S. economy? Economist Daniel Altman joins us to discuss his new book "Outrageous Fortunes."
The Koch Brothers and Big Political MoneyAmerica's mega-rich conservative Koch brothers hold a private political money round-up. We look again at money politics.
iPad's The Daily, AOL-HuffPo: Reading the Media-News FutureKevin Kelly and Jeff Jarvis analyze the latest shifts in the digital media landscape.
Arab Roundtable on Spreading ProtestsWe listen to voices from across the Arab world on the spreading protests - and ask what happens next.
African-American Food's History and SoulWe look at the soul and the history of African-American cooking with soul food's grand dame, Jessica Harris.
Week in the News: Egypt and the Middle EastOur weekly news roundtable goes behind the headlines.
Energy Ideas and Realities: The 2035 GoalThe President says he wants 80 percent clean energy by 2035. How will we really get there? CalTech's Nathan Lewis joins us.
U.S. Foreign Policy and EgyptNicholas Kristof, Susan Glasser, Nicholas Burns, and Stephen Kinzer join us to discuss the big stakes for U.S. foreign policy as events in Egypt unfold.

Although that is a long, varied, and impressive list of discussions to have had, it only represents two weeks of output for Ashbrook – From February 3rd through 16th, 2011.

What I find so impressive about Ashbrook is his ability to dialogue at an extremely high and thoughtful level with a wide variety of top notch thinkers from around the world. For example, the shows listed in the table above have as guests two pulitzer prize winning journalists (Nicholas Kristoff, David Sanger), an under secretary of state and former ambassador to NATO (Nicholas Burns), the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine (Susan Glasser), the director of the Department of Energy’s Innovation Hub (Nathan Lewis), the uncle of the king of Jordan (Prince El-Hassan Bin Talal), several top professors from leading universities around the world (Susan Strawn, Michael Porter, Jeff Jarvis, Rami Khouri, Ashraf Hegazy, James Miller, Douglas Brinkley, Holly Wang, Gouda Abdel-Khalek), the founding editor of Wired magazine (Kevin Kelly), a movie director (John Wells), a couple congressmen (Henry Waxman, John Campbell), the former Secretary of Labor (Robert Reich), a leading IBM researcher (David Gondek), and Ashbrook’s own former pastor (who has written a couple books) (Richard Watts). And the guests I have not mentioned have also been top-notch contributors to the cultural discussion. In fact, I would consider being invited to be on Tom Ashbrook’s show to be a serious honor indeed.

What sets Ashbrook apart, in my opinion, is his almost superhuman ability to understand just what his guests are saying, which enables him to restate their points well and therefore to guide the discussion with precision. It is clear that he is both well-informed and really listening.

This is most evident when Ashbrook takes a call on the air, which happens several times during each show. (I’ve been impressed at the wide variety of callers that get on the air on Ashbrook’s show — they certainly do not all fit the stereotype of the typical NPR listeners.) Callers are not always articulate, but Ashbrook invariably has a calming presence and ushers them along at just the right pace with a word of encouragement or a perceptive remark.

Sometimes, of course, a caller will throw a curve ball into the discussion and Ashbrook does a great job of integrating these oblique angles into his show and keeping his guests on point when addressing them.

A good example of this occurs in the show titled Fixing Capitalism: Michael Porter and Robert Reich. Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor, has been trying to make the point that corporations can become enlightened and begin to make profits by producing things that benefit society. He believes that corporations will find that promoting healthy living, excellent nutrition, clean air and water, and so forth, will ultimately lead to higher profits. He also thinks that by going green and using local manufacturing corporations can find profits.

A caller makes the point that Porter’s vision would only come to fruition if the leaders of corporations all shared his rosy vision. Fearing that they will not, the caller mentions a constitutional amendment that has been introduced that would require corporations to go before something similar to a grand jury every ten years in order to have their corporate charters renewed on the condition that the jury finds their business to be promoting the general health of society. The caller is clearly well-informed and extremely intelligent, and Porter is pushed back on his heels. He tries to wriggle out by dismissing the caller as just another “redistributionist” but Ashbrook doesn’t let him off so easily and Porter is ultimately forced to reiterate his point that he thinks corporations are most likely to adopt a socially-beneficial vision not via law, but instead if taxes are lowered for investors who invest with a longer time horizon. (If you’re interested, the caller comes on at 39:30 in the podcast).

In my reading, this exchange showed the lack of imagination on the part of Porter to deal with an excellent counter-point to his point of view, and it was therefore telling. (It makes me wonder whether Porter’s entire wonderful vision of socially-beneficial corporations is not much more than a business-friendly argument for lowering the capital gains tax.)

The best thing, however, is that the whole exchange is merely typical of the sort of creative and telling discussion that take place on Ashbrook’s show every day.

Even when I wonder whether I’ve seen through a guest on Ashbrook’s show (as described above) I have to admit that the guests are unfailingly thoughtful and sincere people, as well as excellent communicators. This is remarkable, I think, since live-on-the-air radio can be an anxiety-producing experience. My admiration of Ashbrook is such that I attribute his guest’s fluency and thoughtfulness to Ashbrook’s own soothing, curious, and engaged persona.

The calm nature of Ashbrook’s show also seems to bring out the best in the callers. Even callers who have a strong opinion don’t tend to resort to an outraged tone or demonstrate anything but an attempt to make their point clearly. One gets the sense that the callers are trying to rise to Ashbrook’s level of conversation, which is one of well-informed mutual respect.

It is my belief that this mode of dialogue is exactly the opposite of what you might get from Bill O’Reilly or a Rush Limbaugh. For an example of Bill O’Reilly calling a guest on his own show a lunatic and generally insulting her, just watch this clip (beginning at minute 2:30): (He also makes a circular argument — saying that her position must be wrong because not many people believe it and that therefore she should stop trying to convince people).

Tom Ashbrook only interrupts guests when they have a bad phone connection, are truly hopelessly inarticulate and flustered, or have made their point sufficiently and are becoming long-winded. He often asks a good follow up question that leads the caller to expand on a thought in a more personal way and sometimes with less cliched terminology. Basically, he draws the best out of his guests instead of provoking them. It is a remarkable skill and one that I don’t think we find of enough in the media. It is those little moments of personal insight or interesting nuance that set his show apart from the usual fare and make him a pleasure to listen to.

One thing that I at first found almost grating about Tom Ashbrook’s show is the fact that Ashbrook is unfailingly courteous. I say “almost grating” because I can’t say that I actually found it grating. Perhaps puzzling is a better word. I think I at first found his exceptionally polite and empathetic style distracting because of how unusual it is. Now that I have become accustomed to it, however, I find that it calms me and allows me to listen more intently to the ideas being communicated.

The last thing I’ll say is that there is an assumption people have, I think, that a person who is exceptionally well-mannered and thoughtful may be timid or subservient. A courteous tone and style are certainly not associated with alpha-male behavior in our culture, to say the least. Ashbrook is not a pushover, however, and that is another important reason why his show is so good. He is often unsatisfied by a guest’s first attempt to brush aside a critical question or point of view and will push them to elaborate. He never gets into conflict, but there are times when a guest’s failure to adequately respond when pushed communicates enough about the issue for the listener to draw their own conclusions. It is certainly true that his show is low on conflict and confrontational vibes, even though issues are often seriously debated.

In short, Ashbrook appears to me to successfully pull off a remarkable high-wire act every day. He leads a live national call-in discussion with many of the top thinkers in the world every single day and he leaves everyone feeling wiser, calmer, and more informed. It is the best live call-in radio talk show I think I have ever heard.

And if you’re interested, I recommend listening to Ashbrook’s show while doing something relaxing like stretching. Also, I recommend being in a tidy yet comfortable dimly lit bedroom between midnight and 1 AM while in a content yet receptive and inquisitive state of mind.

This program aired on February 28, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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