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Lokvani Talks To Tom Ashbrook, Host Of On Point,NPR

Nirmala Garimella

When I first asked Tom Ashbrook if I could interview him about his journalism career and connection to India, he was most gracious. We had met at the recent TiECON conference and I was thrilled to learn that he had been to India and had studied Telugu. While at Yale, he had studied American history and during this period visited India to study Gandhi’s independence movement at Andhra University.

To all those who tune in the morning to  NPR on Radio can hear Tom Ashbrook articulating the subject or topic of the day with amazing ease and intellectual curiosity. His career in journalism spans twenty years as a foreign correspondent, newspaper editor, and author. He spent ten years in Asia — based in India, Hong Kong, and Japan — starting at the South China Morning Post, then as a correspondent for The Boston Globe. He began his reporting career covering the refugee exodus from Vietnam and the post-Mao opening of China, and has covered turmoil and shifting cultural and economic trends in the United States and around the world, from Somalia and Rwanda to Russia and the Balkans. 

Tom received the Livingston Prize for National Reporting, and was a 1996 fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation before taking a four-year plunge into Internet entrepreneurship, chronicled in his book The Leap: A Memoir of Love and Madness in the Internet Gold Rush.

In an email interview with Lokvani, Tom Ashbrook shared with us his time in India, how he prepares for his daily show and some of his favorite authors, food and travel places.

On his Trip to India and to Visakhapatnam in 1975

In 1975, I was a restless undergraduate at Yale.  In a class at the Divinity School, I became enchanted with the Rigveda and its sense of the divine in everything.  In those days, only the University of Wisconsin sent American students to India, and most of theirs went to Andhra University, in Waltair.  My then girlfriend - now wife - Danielle and I signed up.  We studied Telugu for several months in Madison with our beloved Narayana Rao, and were off to Vishakhapatnam.  It was a strange and wonderful year.  US-India relations were terrible.  Indira Gandhi had declared the Emergency.  I was collecting an oral history of the local independence movement from the elderly men who had been its local leaders. (Inquilab zindabad!)  Several of them were in trouble for protesting Indira's suspension of freedoms for which they had struggled.  At least one was imprisoned, and I was detained by the police when I tracked down others.  But it was a fabulous time.  We travelled all over India, made great friends in Vizag, got to know Bollywood at the Jagadamba Cinema, fell in love with the mridangum and dined like kings at the Apsara.  We reveled in a rich culture so different from or own and yet so warm and welcoming to us.  It was heaven.  It left me unshakably fond of India.


 On NPR and On Point:

I have a wonderful staff of ten or so.  Every day we hash out what we want to be talking about in the upcoming shows, and they send me off with a thick stack of background research/homework to inhale.  The prep is unending, but it's also a privilege.  And many of the issues I've come to know well over time.  It helps to have been a journalist nearly all my life, traveling the world and reporting.


On Challenges in  Radio Journalism

Most challenging aspect - the live juggling in real time, on air.  Topics change, news comes in, guests show up late or not at all, phone lines drop, unexpected issues or angles arise, someone drops the f-bomb.  No problem!  We just forge ahead.  The challenge is also the excitement.


A "heat seeker" still?  Well, I've been happy most of my life, and followed new trails anyway.  I have learned that much about myself... but this does seem an awfully good trail right now.


On his Favorite things – Books, Food, Places, Hobbies….

Favorite things?  Hard to choose, but I would be very happy reading Seamus Heaney, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or V.S. Naipaul after a dinner of anything made with Lady's finger, cumin and coriander, and a good raita.  I have had evenings of absurdly sweet bliss on the Godavari, in Cortona, in Aspen, on Mull, Cheung Chau, Bali, in Moscow and Mexico.  People I admire:  Abe Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, my parents.  And pastimes?  I grew up raising sheep and still love getting back to the family farm in Illinois.  That, and singing in the shower.  Singing anywhere.


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