From China to ‘Our Land,’ how Melissa Block set a standard for NPR’s reporting

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Courtesy of Melissa Block

Melissa Block reporting in Yingxiu, China, near the epicenter of the devastating May 2008 earthquake.

It’s the first Monday morning of Melissa Block’s retirement from NPR, and she’s doing a phone interview. She’s not the one asking the questions this time; even so, it quickly becomes clear who’s in charge.

With equal parts warmth and precision, Block transforms the interview into a conversation, then into what feels like a kind of friendship. Within a few minutes, Block is singing to me a bit of a song she remembers from a story she did with former All Things Considered host Noah Adams in 1988 on the Great Northern Railroad: “We’ll build a little nest/Somewhere in the West/And let the rest of the world go by.”

She laughs at the memory of Leonard Schutte, a 92-year-old passenger, himself a former railroad worker, who serenaded Adams and her with this song as they chugged across Montana. “Just a great character,” she enthuses, still amazed at her good fortune in the encounter all these years later.

Block began her career in journalism at NPR in 1985, fresh off a Fulbright, and never left. Hired as a booker, Block worked her way up — field producer, line producer, reporter, and then to the anchor’s seat in 2003, a position she held for 12 years before stepping down in 2015 to become a special correspondent. In that role, she filed stories from all over, with particular attention to people and places often overlooked by the rest of the news media. Over her time at the network, Block earned a shelf’s worth of the most coveted awards in journalism.

Moments after we get off the phone, Block sends me a photo of a cabbage butterfly alighting on a plant in her garden. It occurs to me that we talked more about her Swiss chard than we did her many laurels. It also struck me that several factors, including but not limited to her own disposition, have conspired to obscure the outsized impact she had on the network. When Robert Siegel, her longtime mentor and co-anchor tells me, “Melissa is as synonymous with All Things Considered as it gets,” it strikes me as both self-evident and as something that needs to be said.

Throughout her career, Block brought curiosity, laser focus and high standards to stories of world historical gravitas, like the September 11 attacks and the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. She also hunted down smaller stories, like her 2017 report from Meyers Chuck, Alaska, about the powerful hold the place had on its remaining residents, who number in the single digits.

Because she held almost every job at the network before ascending to the anchor’s chair, she was, many people told me, often in the position of knowing other people’s jobs better than they did, which meant she could be a demanding but transformational mentor. Over the decades, Block was, Siegel told me, “among the A-listers who set and maintained the standard for accuracy and storytelling” in audio journalism. “She’s a theme,” Siegel added, “running through the whole story.”

Standout reporting from China

Some of Block’s stories, like a 2008 piece on the futile race of rescuers to find survivors in the rubble of a collapsed apartment building in Dujiangyan, Sichuan province, China, are among the most frequently cited examples of NPR’s “driveway moments” and prowess in storytelling journalism. Almost everyone I spoke to for this story mentioned it.

This is in part because of the way Block navigated the competing demands of journalism and humanity, reporting facts and responding to them. Hitting the right balance for such a sprawling and chaotic event like the Sichuan earthquake requires a nearly perfect ear for structuring a story. The report from the ruins of the apartment building in Dujiangyan is a master class in storytelling journalism and part of the reporting that won NPR all the top awards in broadcast journalism that year. 

Reported over the course of an entire day, the piece begins with Block happening upon a desperate young couple “stumbling alongside an excavator” as it rumbles through morning traffic. “They’re clinging to the machine’s lowered boom as if they could pull it by sheer human force to speed it through traffic,” she says.

As Block sets the scene, the rumbling sounds of traffic and the pleading of the couple come up in the mix. Block translates their cries, “Please let us through. … Our parents and child are in the rubble.” 

Block joins the couple, Fu Guanyu and Wang Wei, in their tiny car as they lead the excavator to the site where their apartment building once stood. Rescuers work with machines and bare hands to clear the debris for hours. The story shifts between voice-over narration and real-time reporting to tell the story of the day as hopes fade. This structure gives us two versions of Block: one, a voice-over, preternaturally calm, likely recorded only a couple of hours after the field recording in her room at the Sheraton Hotel in Chengdu; the other, recorded in the field, is rawer, more immediate and vital. She relays in real time most of what happens, giving the story a less artificially dramatic arc. The tragedy sets in slowly and inexorably.

We learn along with Block that Fu Guanyu and Wang Wei’s child, Wang Zhilu, and Wang’s parents did not survive. As she describes the parents’ despair, translating over their cries without diminishing them, her own voice breaks; the force of her response is powerful but subtle, human-scaled. Block bookends the story by placing this family’s tragedy into the context of a massive casualty event — good journalistic practice, of course. But it’s also as if she suspects the sheer force of intimacy in her report threatens to occlude the scale of suffering across southwestern China.

Block closes the piece by connecting the family’s funeral rites to those of their neighbors, over the natural sounds of the neighborhood. “The family will burn paper money to usher the dead into the afterlife,” she says. We hear the firecrackers in the mix. “They’ll light incense and set off firecrackers to ward off evil spirits … this scene repeating itself countless times in Dujiangyan and throughout Sichuan province and beyond.”

‘Pay attention to how things sound’

“I don’t think I’d be the radio journalist I am now if I hadn’t worked with her,” Andrea Hsu told me on a phone call. Now NPR’s labor and workplace correspondent, Hsu worked for years as a producer with Block on ATC and filed stories with her from all over the world.

NPR's Melissa Block prepares for a show with Andrea Hsu in 2006. (Photo: Jacques Coughlin/NPR)
Block prepares for a show with Andrea Hsu in 2006. (Photo: Jacques Coughlin/NPR)

Reporting on the Sichuan earthquake made a significant impression. Hsu describes the moment, in the middle of an interview with a pastor at a church building, when the first tremors of the earthquake hit. Hsu was tethered to Block by wires connecting headphones and microphones as they scrambled awkwardly onto the street. In addition to the typical fear one might experience in such a moment, Hsu suffers from vasovagal syndrome, often triggered by stress, which can cause fainting.

“And in my headphones, I hear Melissa talking, perfectly miked — talking and reporting, perfectly calm,” Hsu said. “Melissa is doing radio. … Something big is happening, and Melissa is doing her job. She just instinctively jumped into action, and I was worried about not fainting.”

Robert Siegel shared that he’s “still in awe of the work that Andrea and Melissa did” in Chengdu. (Siegel’s reporting from Chengdu shared the many awards with Block). He singled out Block’s “wonderful use of sound, appropriate use of narrative and vigorous reportorial style.” The report on the vigil at the apartment building “was remarkable,” he said, “because it permitted us to empathize with the material conditions of people who couldn’t be more different than the NPR audience.”

Elissa Nadworny, higher education correspondent for NPR, did her first producing work for Block. “One important lesson Melissa taught me was how to be flexible in the field … to remain open to the story going whatever way it went,” she said.

When I asked Block how she managed to be both open and focused while reporting during disasters, she paused before turning it into a question about problem-solving. “You have to be able to translate it, in a sense, to frame it and analyze it and explain it and translate it for other people,” she said, though that also means “that you can’t fully absorb it [yourself].” 

It’s not the first time Block mentions translation in our conversations. A French history and literature major at Harvard, Block says she tells young broadcast journalists that studying other languages is invaluable. A former viola player, she also thinks the study of music is excellent preparation. “Pay attention to how things sound,” she said. “You become a much more attentive listener, and there’s nothing more important that we do than listening.”

‘Melissa came prepared’

Covering big tragedies takes a toll. The magnitude [of 9/11] “did not sink in for weeks,” Block said, “and the aftereffects [of the Sichuan earthquake] lingered for a long time.” At such a time, she said, you don’t think about the “world-changing” nature of an event. Instead, you focus on: “Here’s what my job is right now. Being useful.” She breaks the job down into its component parts. Translating. Asking questions. Listening. Editing. “I’ve always loved puzzles — crossword puzzles and logic puzzles and word puzzles — and I think of radio production in much the same way,” she said.

It’s a familiar pattern for Block to shift the conversation from the emotional to the logical. But she just as often surprises me by shifting back again. “The gift of what we do is that we do have a role. You want to be a helper,” she said, referring to covering 9/11. Founding All Things Considered anchor Susan Stamberg told me about a conversation she had with Block after the earthquake. “She came to see me and asked ‘What did you think about the crying?’” Stamberg assured it that it was, in fact, a necessary part of the job of translating the reality of what’s happening in the field.

“She has a real gift for using sound for storytelling within the standards of the very best journalism that NPR does. … That’s just in her bones.”

Robert Siegel

Siegel understands Block’s attention to listening and sound as of a piece with her long association with the network’s flagship program and its earliest hosts. “She entered the All Things Considered of Susan Stamberg and Noah Adams and was very influenced by their traditional approach to radio as a sound medium,” Siegel said. 

Stamberg, another key mentor of Block’s, also mentioned this apprenticeship. “Melissa had the great advantage of hearing Noah and me and Linda [Wertheimer] and Siegel,” she said.  Stamberg acknowledged somewhat ruefully that working one’s way up from the bottom “doesn’t happen anymore” at NPR: “Melissa came prepared.”

Speaking of the sound-rich radio style of the Adams and Stamberg era, Siegel noted that across her many roles and duties, Block “heard that sound from every angle you could possibly hear it from.” It was the environment in which Block matured and an approach to radio at which she excelled. “She has a real gift for using sound for storytelling within the standards of the very best journalism that NPR does,” Siegel said. “… That’s just in her bones.”

Block told me that the stories organize themselves in her head while she’s out for a walk or in the shower. “I sort of have all these tapes in my head of things people have said, and it will start to sort of move around in a way that makes sense to me,” she said.

Siegel mentioned a 1996 story of Block’s about legendary Yankee Stadium announcer Bob Sheppard, a portrait of a singular voice in baseball. Sheppard’s delivery of batters’ names is gloriously modulated and understated, an indelible soundmark of the late–20th century American imagination. The story is a sound-rich love note to baseball’s rhythms, temporality and relationship to audio media, from the loudspeaker to the radio receiver. Siegel notes admiringly the use of natural sounds of the park and the voices of the Sheppard and the players: “A tremendous amount of the story is telling itself.” He reminds me of a detail — Sheppard reads during at-bats! On the particular evening Block interviewed him, he had The Complete Oscar Wilde open on his lap. At seven minutes long, and with no national news peg to hang it on, it’s a piece that wouldn’t likely find its way onto ATC today, something Block and Siegel both noted.

Working with someone with Block’s level of dedication to getting things right can be challenging, said Nadworny. She’s “absolutely a perfectionist,” Nadworny said. “She sets a very high bar for the quality of the work that she does and that she tolerates.” Those high standards “worked wonders, by making me work harder, be better, and pay attention to details,” she said.

Jason DeRose, NPR’s religion correspondent who previously served as desk editor for Block, concurs: “She does not abide a bad idea. I had to rise to the occasion to be Melissa’s editor, and I loved that.”

Collaboration was another facet of working with Block, Nadworny said. Block brought Nadworny into every phase of the planning and execution of “Our Land,” a 2017 series of reports that took the pair across the country, from Alaska to the Mississippi Delta. Entrusted with this level of responsibility “in the infancy of my career as a producer” with someone of Block’s caliber was “a journalist’s dream,” Nadworny said. “I had, at that point, no audio-producing experience, and yet we were together finding stories. How cool!”

When I ask Nadworny about some of her reports from Ukraine — she’s covered the war several times in the past year — she says, “That’s Melissa. So much of my reporting, the way I write, is what I learned from working with her on ‘Our Land.’”

The series took shape in the days and weeks after the election of Donald Trump. It began airing in the first months of his presidency. It was a turn away from “big sweeping explanatory journalism” toward “very small portraits about people, where they’re from, the land they’re on,” said Block. I asked her whether she felt pressure to follow the journalistic trend, in the months after Trump’s election, to hunt down “the Trump voter” in Midwestern diners in an attempt to understand the seismic shift his election seemed to betoken. She demurred. “I don’t know if we answered any huge questions about who we are as a country, and that wasn’t the intent,” she said.

Instead, the stories and locations seemed to follow a more personal logic: “I wanted to go places where we don’t often go,” she said, the “we” referring to, I think, herself, the network and perhaps the media spotlight in general. Nadworny confirmed for me that many of the places chosen were not served by local NPR affiliates. When pressed a bit more, was the title a Woody Guthrie reference? Block reframes. “If there was a logic, it was: Where might we illuminate stories in the popular consciousness in an interesting way?” she said.

But the thought gets subsumed by the smaller-bore logic of personal curiosity. “All the Alaska stories,” she said. “I adored those communities, which are so small and unique. And the Mississippi Delta, where I’d never been before. We did a piece on a longstanding Chinese community in the Mississippi Delta, which was fascinating to me — just a rich, rich history that I had no idea about. Those are the kind of stories that I love telling.” The stories from Alaska unfold a bit more slowly, as if taking on the temporality of the smaller towns.

“It was appalling to me that in all my years at NPR I’d never been to the southern border,” she said. Over the course of our conversations and emails, Block permitted herself only two moments of moral judgment — this was one. (The other was that my idea for a podcast in which she interviewed radio journalists about their craft was a bad idea — “Navel-gazing, no offense” — and would likely net an audience of one: me.)

Leaving an ‘amazing, amazing job’

I found it difficult to pin Block down on questions about politics or on big debates about the future of NPR. It was always easy, however, to get her to talk about the people she encountered in her reporting. “I love getting out and meeting people,” she says, with feeling. When I asked her about the network changing over the years, she reminisced about the gray bin where listener mail used to land.  She misses ATC’s old ritual of reading listener mail on the air each week. “I wonder what happened to that gray mail bin,” she muses, as if considering an idea for a story.

In the course of our conversations, Block shared that she stayed in touch with many of the people she’s interviewed over the years. Her colleagues told me that it was both unusual among journalists but not at all surprising that Block did so.

“The hallmark of her reporting,” Nadworny told me, “is ‘I want to be with people in their lives. I want to be with them on the fishing boat. I want to be on their cattle ranch when the cows cross into their property.’” It’s not surprising, she added, that Block’s connections with people would persist after the reporting trip.

Block captures sound on a lake in far northern Alaska in 2007 with scientist Katey Walter, who is gathering methane samples to study climate change. (Photo: Art Silverman)

The sweepingly ambitious and generously funded “Our Land” series represented a particularly important moment in Block’s career, coming shortly after she stepped down from the anchor’s chair at ATC in 2015. Its execution proved a pointed reminder, “a reestablishment,” suggests Nadworny, that “Melissa Block is really good.”

I asked Block about what struck me at the time as a rather abrupt — even premature, perhaps —departure from the anchor position. She paused before saying, with some care, “Anchoring All Things Considered is an amazing, amazing job. And I think I might leave it at that.”

Hsu recalls the morning meeting where everyone learned Block would step down. “We were shocked,” Hsu said. Based on how Block delivered the news, Hsu said, “it was clear to us that she was being forced out. We were so upset that she was leaving. Afterwards, five or six producers were sitting in a circle crying, just so angry.”

“It was different after she left,” Hsu said, adding, “Younger producers never had the opportunity to learn from [Block] the way I did, and that’s a shame.” Almost everyone I spoke to for this article repeated a version of Nadworny’s observation that “the sound of NPR is very different now than it used to be,” although they perceived different causes and time frames for the change. Stamberg prefers the richness of magnetic tape to today’s digital audio files. Block mentioned the sound artistry of bygone audio engineers like Flawn Williams. (Sometime in the first decade of this century, NPR stopped sending out engineers with hosts on all stories). 

DeRose pointed out that broadcast-era radio folks like Block understood the need to “invite listeners in” in ways that podcast-era journalists, for whom listening can be more opt-in, don’t. “She helped create that sound. … She understood in a very constitutive way that when you do radio, you have to bring people along, create on-ramps for them” to understand the story, DeRose said.

Nadworny told me that at NPR there’s a joke “that the golden years of the network [were] always two years before you got there.” That suggests some of this sentiment is inevitable, especially at a storied institution with decades-long veterans in service and which has had to improvise and innovate across different technological and industrial contexts.

Block’s retirement comes during a moment of retrenchment — buyouts, canceled programs and, earlier this year, a 10% reduction in staff. I asked Block about the timing of her departure. “If my taking a buyout can help someone who’s at a different stage in the profession, that’s something,” she said. But, as she told Mary Louise Kelly in her farewell interview on ATC last month, it feels like the right time for other reasons. She mentioned the toll of COVID, the recent passing of her mother, but also the opportunity to try new things and devote more time to her garden.

When I ask what she plans to do now that her NPR days are behind her, Block says placidly, “I genuinely have no idea.” It’s a remarkable moment, this leave-taking after 38 years. She doesn’t offer much in the way of a final statement on her legacy, so I ask Stamberg to provide one.

“In her own graceful, lovely, gentle and thoughtful way, she climbed the ladder,” Stamberg said. “That’s the story of her career. She stayed in one place.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article included several errors:

  • Block’s jobs at NPR were listed in an incorrect order. She worked as a field producer, line producer, reporter and anchor.
  • The name of one of the parents in Dujiangyan was Wang Wei, not Wei Wang.
  • Hsu and Block were interviewing a pastor, not a professor, when the Sichuan earthquake started.

Also, due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misattributed a quotation. Robert Siegel, not Susan Stamberg, said “She has a real gift for using sound for storytelling within the standards of the very best journalism that NPR does. … That’s just in her bones.”

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