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So What Do You Do, Karen Grigsby Bates?

NPR correspondent, guest host, mystery writer, chef

By Kate Coe - January 2, 2007
kbates_shadow Karen Grigsby Bates is the Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR’s news magazine Day to Day. Bates contributed commentaries to All Things Considered for about 10 years before she joined NPR as the first correspondent and alternate host for The Tavis Smiley Show. In addition to general reporting and substitute hosting, she increased the show’s coverage of international issues and its cultural coverage, especially in the field of literature and the arts.

In early 2002, Bates joined Day to Day, and is one of the show’s original staff members. She has reported on politics, media, and breaking news. Before coming to NPR, Bates was a news reporter for People magazine and a contributing columnist to the Op Ed pages of the Los Angeles Times for ten years. She also writes mystery novels.

Hometown: New Haven, CT
Favorite TV show: "Used to be Gilmore Girls, but they've gone crazy since Amy Sherman-Palladino stopped driving that bus. Bo-ring. Now it's a split between Ugly Betty and Grey's Anatomy."
Last Book Read: The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Kilbanoff. "Highly recommended."
Guilty pleasures: Chocolate. Good wine. Reading the tabloids while standing in line at the grocery store

How did you get into radio?
I sent NPR a commentary for consideration, they liked it, asked me into the studio to record it, and I ended up doing that for about 10 years. I didn't know that route was highly unusual.

What is your average media day like?
I get to the office somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00 am (yeah, I know!) and we're involved with preproduction on the day's show--maybe I'm being edited, then tracking (voicing) a piece, which would be put together for broadcast that day. If I'm not doing that, I'm looking for stories that might work for me or for someone else on the show.

Contrast and compare radio and print. [Grigsby-Bates used to write for People magazine.]
Print is more free, in some ways. It's mostly just you and your editor working on your story. How you tell it and how you relay what's happened, what you're writing about, is of paramount importance. In radio, sound is the most important component--people are often doing other things when they're listening to you (as opposed to sitting still to read a paper or magazine) so you have to create an intimate enough bond with them that they WANT to listen to what you're telling them. It isn't always the most scintillating story (I recently did one about how raccoons and Angelenos are coming into closer and closer contact--and not always happily) but the sound you use can make it or break it. (In the case of the raccoons, I had a gurgling fountain, part of a television newscast about coon attacks and some actual raccoon chatter. Those livened up the piece considerably.)

How do you carve out time to write?
I don't always manage to do that. A couple weeks could go by before I'm able to sit down and write for myself--as opposed to NPR. Those are two different kinds of writing. But when I DO manage to sit down, I might not get up for hours. I used to try to keep a little notebook with me to jot down ideas--but I'm so disorganized, I'd lose the notebook, so I don't do that anymore. I just figure if it's meant to stay in my head, it will.

You write mysteries, huh? Is Alex Powell [the main character of a mystery series Grigsby Bates pens] your alter-ego?
NO! We do share some commonr characteristics--we're both pretty opinionated and we have authority issues. but we're very different people. For instance, I found Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle side-splittingly funny. Alex would have stalked out after the first 10 minutes.

No chick-lit in your future?
Some people would say that what I write IS chick-lit, but I don't think all womens' books are, and I don't think the Alex Powell series is--although my publisher sometimes markets it that way. Which is something over which I have no control.

While radio journalists are invisible to their audience, somehow (and not just because I know who you are)--you're African-American--I don't know how but you communicate that, without an accent or vernacular, but you do. Design, chance or just who you are?
Hmmmm...that's ironic. About a year into my first radio job I was told I wasn't appropriate for that particular show because I "didn't sound black enough." Clearly somebody had an aural image of what black was supposed to sound like, but in my humble opinion, that image was pretty provincial.

Me, I have a more elastic, universal philosophy about what black voices are: I have one. Colin Powell has one. Leontyne Price, Oprah Winfrey, Julian Bond, Willie Brown, Desmond Tutu and Condoleeza Rice all have authentically black voices. You'll notice that not one of them speaks in the vernacular (in public, anyway; I don't know them in their private lives). If my audience perceives me as black (and not all of them do), it's perhaps because I'm indicating my interest in people and issues to which the mainstream public has not been adequately exposed. I'd like to think that my passion of making these people, places, issues visible might be what makes them know I'm black.

How hard is it to stay who you are, working in national media? You might not be Barbara Walters, but you're nationally known, have a reputation, success, etc.--how to stay grounded?
(Laughter) I'm not so successful that I get stopped on the street and asked to sign things, so I have no problem staying grounded whatsoever! The nice thing about radio is most people don't know who you are--they could listen to you every day and have no idea at all what you look like. Which is a good way to separate your public and private lives. Although I did have an incident recently: I was walking down the aisle of a plane, chatting with some colleagues, and this guy looks up from his seat and points at me: "NPR, right?" "Uh, yes..." "You're Karen Grigsby Bates, aren't you?" "I am--how'd you know?" He gave me this "duh" look and said "I hear you on the radio all the time, so, like, your voice?...." I didn't think it was that distinctive, but apparently he thought so.

Do you gravitate towards stories in and of the African-American community?
I gravitate towards stories that interest me. Some of them are about or in black communities around the country, but they're not the only thing in which I have interest.

Is having a certain beat important or can it be a trap?
I don't have a specific beat, so I can't speak to that. I CAN say I think it's bad--for the reporter and for the news outlet--to have the black reporter do all the black stories, or the female reporter report only on women.

If you weren't a journalist/writer, what would you do?
At one point I thought I wanted to go to medical school, but I realized I'd be about a zillion years after I finished grad school, residencies and all the other apprentices one has to do, so I stopped being interested in that. I could see me as a litigator (maybe medical or criminal), but I'd get fined a lot of contempt of court (authority issues, remember?), so the law is out. Really, I can't imagine not writing or reporting in some form or fashion. It's who and what I am.

Okay, come clean--why don't you have an NPR voice? Media training or church choir?
Most people think I DO have an NPR voice. I've sung in choirs off and on, and NPR has given me some help with projection, but really, for better or worse, this is what I sound like.

Work's over, kitchen's clean, kid is occupied--how do you kick back? Music, book, DVD--what's your relaxation preference? (And please don't tell me you go for a nice 5 mile run.)
I read. I spend a couple hours in the kitchen improvising (might be coq au vin, might be an ultimate brownie recipe). I like to open a good bottle of wine and chat with a friend. Unfortunately, with the hours my show demands, I don't stay out or up very late, so (Harold and Kumar notwithstanding) I am SO behind on movies it's pathetic.

Kate Coe is an editor at mediabistro.com's FishbowlLA blog, which covers media in Los Angeles.



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