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Coleman-Franken recount: My reunion with NPR’s Renee Montagne and some other long-lost friends

Renee Montagne
Photo by Sandy Huffaker
Renee Montagne

The last time Renee Montagne and I chatted was 17 years ago.

When we electronically reunited Monday, she didn’t remember our first encounter. She’s talked with presidents, stock market scammers, rock stars, astronauts, South African freedom fighters and Katrina victims since, I know, but come on, Renee, don’t you remember?

I remember.

I was in Havana. She was in Washington, D.C.

I was covering the 1991 Pan American Games, the hemispheric Olympics, on the dilapidated Communist island. It was August and she was, as I recall, subbing for Bob Edwards as the anchor of “Morning Edition” for National Public Radio.

As the Pan Am Games ended on Aug. 18, 1991, the Soviet Union was collapsing. NPR wanted some mood from Cuba. NPR’s sports reporter Tom Goldman got ahold of me and asked if I could provide some Pan Am Games insights and Havana scenes for Renee.

Suddenly, I was a pundit on Cuban reaction to an event in Moscow. This must be how pundits are born. By accident.

A long time, a long way
Since then, we’ve both come a long way. Renee is now the Los Angeles-based permanent co-anchor of the nation’s most listened to radio morning show and I … well, like I say, she’s come a long way.

Because of the galactic reach of MinnPost, an NPR producer saw a story I wrote earlier this month about the Franken-Coleman recount. They wanted me to set the mood — NPR is heavy into mood – in Minnesota around our electoral circus.

As it turned out, I was in Philadelphia visiting my mother — who, though 86, has never voted by absentee ballot. But geography knows no bounds for National Public Radio. And I was able to carry my sense of Minnesota’s collective mood all the way to the East Coast.

Being a guest on NPR’s “Morning Edition” is sort of like renting a tux for a friend’s wedding; they fit you first, you wait a while, and, then, if they like the way it looks, you are permitted to wear the darn thing for the rest of the country.

A producer calls and interviews you. She sees if you are capable of making sense in concise sentences and if your answers will come close to conforming to their expectations.

If you pass that test, she somewhat politely asks if you’d be willing to go to a local public radio studio to ensure crystal-clear sound quality for their millions of  listeners.

She allows — as if in the fine print — that it’s possible circumstances will arise that will knock you off the air and back into desperate anonymity. Radio happens, you know.

My mother’s apartment in the Philly burbs is a good 45 minutes from the WHYY studios — home to Terry Gross of “Fresh Air” fame — and I just couldn’t justify fighting absurd traffic to downtown Philadelphia for a 15-minute-long interview soon to be trimmed to four minutes.

Passing ‘the tux test’
No sweat, I was told. I’d passed the tux test enough that NPR would send a Philadelphia-based reporter with a digital recorder to my mother’s senior community. They’d bring the studio to me.

So, late Monday morning, as Renee and I spoke on the phone, the local reporter recorded our conversation. When he returned to the WHYY studios, he zapped the sound via the Internet to Washington, D.C.

Eventually, the piece, which aired this morning from Anchorage to Zanesville, sounded as if Renee and I were in the same studio.

It was like old times, Renee and Jay back together again.

Magic.

But not as magical as this …

The Internet, Skype, LinkedIn, Facebook, Gather.com and HeyBuddyUWannaChatWithAnotherLonelyYokel.net … they’ve all brought us together, but not like NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

Within minutes after my interview with Renee aired, I received emails from: the husband of one of my college roommates in Colorado; a minister who now lives in Maine who helped me through some trying times 35 years ago; a former housemate in my post-college years in Philadelphia whom I’ve spent many a Thanksgiving with; a journalist/author friend in North Carolina I’d been meaning to call for months; a sports journalism professor in Kansas I hadn’t been in touch with for a couple of years; a longtime friend who used to show me around Hollywood but heard me as he drove his kids to school; and my sister-in-law in Kodiak, Alaska.

“Morning Edition” is cool.

As Renee and I said our sad goodbyes Monday at the end of our conversation — which was nimbly edited to make me sound rational — she said she hoped it didn’t take another 17 years to chat again.

I agree totally. I mean, how else would I stay in touch with old friends?

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Ralph Moore on 12/16/2008 - 04:41 pm.

    Great attention for a great guy who’s got as good a voice and legibility as the best of the NPRers. And those of us who’ve known him know he’s got a fabulous brain and heart. Go for it, Jay!

  2. Submitted by Carrie Rigdon on 12/16/2008 - 06:32 pm.

    Being a complete NPR junkie, I really enjoyed this little glimpse behind the scenes of a “Morning Edition” interview.

    And what you say about togetherness is true; I really do feel connected to the nation through public radio.

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